On the Journey to Healing: Embracing the Ten Essential Touchstones

Alan Wolfelt, PhD, writer, counselor, funeral director and Grief Specialist, provides ten touchstones for your grief that will help you listen to your heart and bring it into harmony with your head. He writes: Listening to your heart is also essential on the journey to healing. My years of learning from my own losses, as well as the losses of those who have trusted me to walk with them, have taught me that an open heart that is grieving is a "well of reception;" it is moved entirely by what it has perceived. Authentic mourning is an opportunity to embrace that open heart in ways that allow for and encourage our healing.

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness."

                —John Muir

I recently wrote a book called Understanding Your Grief. Indeed, one of the most important things I do in my ministry to grieving people is provide information that helps them (and you!) integrate loss into their lives. What’s more, I strive to help them understand and avoid some of the unnecessary pain sometimes caused by well-intentioned but misinformed friends, family members, and even some professional counselors. These people sometimes perpetuate grief misconceptions, proffer misguided advice and impose unrealistic and inappropriate expectations on the mourner. Though they do not do this knowingly, they in effect try to pull mourners off the path toward healing.

But there is a paradox in the concept of “understanding” grief. Yes, when the timing seems right and mourners are open to learning from those who have walked the path of loss before them, I try my best to provide information and education that helps them understand and affirm what they are experiencing. However, sometimes it is the very need to totally understand the experience of grief that can get you in trouble. For as someone once astutely observed, “Mystery is not something to be explained, it is something to be pondered.”

Sometimes we simply cannot understand the death of someone we have loved so deeply. We cannot understand it now, and we will not understand it ever. I certainly couldn’t understand why the doctors couldn’t cure my dad’s melanoma. I thought, “After all, it’s only skin cancer.” I didn’t understand, I protested!

I have found that sometimes it is in staying open to the mystery and recognizing that we don’t understand and can’t control everything that surrounds us that understanding eventually comes. In fact, perhaps it is “standing under” the mysterious experience of death that provides us with a unique perspective: We are not above or bigger than death. Maybe only after exhausting the search for understanding why someone we love died can we discover a newly defined “why” for our own life.

In my experience, “understanding” comes when we surrender, surrender our need to compare our grief (it’s not a competition); surrender our self-critical judgments (we need to be self-compassionate); and surrender our need to completely understand (we never will). The grief that touches our souls has its own voice and should not be comprised by our need for comparison, judgment, ore even complete understanding. Please note that surrender is not the same as resignation. Actually, surrendering to the unknowable mystery is a courageous choice, an act of faith, a trust in God and in our self! We can only hold this mystery in our hearts and surround ourselves with love.

Think of our grief as a wilderness—a vast, mountainous, inhospitable forest. You are in the wilderness now. You are in the midst of unfamiliar and often brutal surroundings. You are cold and tired. Yet you must journey through this wilderness. To find your way out, you must become acquainted with its terrain and learn to follow the sometimes hard-to-find trail that leads to healing.

In the wilderness of your grief, the touchstones are your trail markers. They are the signs that let you know you are on the right path. When you learn to identify and rely on the touchstones, you will not get lost in your journey, even though the trail will often be arduous and you may at times feel hopeless.

And even when you’ve become a master journeyer, and you know well the terrain of your grief, you will at times feel like you are backtracking and being ravaged by the forces around you. This, too, is the nature of grief. Complete mastery of a wilderness is not possible. Just as we cannot control the winds and the storms and the beasts in nature, we can never have total dominion over our grief.

But, if you do your work of mourning, if you become an intrepid traveler on your journey, if you strive to achieve these ten touchstones, I promise you that you will find your way out of the wilderness of your grief and you will learn to make the most of the rest of your precious life.

Having hope and healing your heart

Hope is an equally important foundation on the journey to healing. Hope is an expectation of a good that is yet to be. It is an expression of the present alive with a sense of the possible. It is a belief that healing can and will occur. In honoring the 10 touchstones (or in helping others honor the 10 touchstones), you are making and effort to find hope for continued life. Through deliberate mourning, you yourself can be the purveyor of your hope. You create hope in yourself by actively mourning the death and setting your intention to healing.

When you feel hopeless (and you probably will at times), you can also reach out to others for hope. Spend time in the company of people who affirm your needs to mourn yet at the same time give you hope for healing. People who are empathetic, nonjudgmental, good listeners and who model positive, optimistic ways of being in the world will be your best grief companions. They will help re-supply you with hope when your stores are running low. They will help you build divine momentum toward your eventual exodus from the wilderness of your grief.

Listening to your heart is also essential on the journey to healing. My years of learning from my own losses, as well as the losses of those who have trusted me to walk with them, have taught me that an open heart that is grieving is a “well of reception;” it is moved entirely by what it has perceived. Authentic mourning is an opportunity to embrace that open heart in ways that allow for and encourage our healing.

Perhaps the most important truth I have learned is that healing in grief is heart-based, not head-based. Modern therapies sometimes separate the head from the heart; it’s as if we should somehow separate the head from the heart: it’s as if we should somehow be able to rationally think through our grief. I heartily disagree! Carl Jung taught us years ago that every psychological struggle is ultimately a matter of spirituality. I encourage you to think, yes, but more important, to feel with your heart and your soul.

Did you know that the word courage comes from the Old French word for heart (Coeur)? Your courage grows for those things in life that impact you deeply. The death of someone you treasure opens, or engages, your heart. Now you must take your heart, which has been engaged, and muster the courage to encounter the 10 essential touchstones. Courage can also be defined as the ability to do what one believes is right, despite the fact that others may strongly and persuasively disagree. If you authentically mourn, some may try to shame you. So, go forth with courage.

I invite you to go to that spiritual place inside yourself and, transcending our mourning-avoidant society and even your own personal inhibitions about grief, enter deeply into the journey. In many ways the path of the heart is an individual exploration into the wilderness, along unmarked and unlit paths. Helping others in grief sheds some light on their paths and keeps them from stumbling.

The Ten Touchstones
In Understanding Your Grief, I describe 10 “touchstones” that are essential physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual signs for mourners to seek out on their journey through grief.

Touchstone One: Open to the presence of your loss.
Touchstone Two: Dispel misconceptions about grief.
Touchstone Three: Embrace the uniqueness of your grief.
Touchstone Four: Explore what you might experience
Touchstone Five: Recognize you are not crazy
Touchstone Six: Understand the six needs of mourning
Touchstone Seven: Nurture yourself.
Touchstone Eight: Reach out for help.
Touchstone Nine: Seek reconciliation, not resolution
Touchstone Ten: Appreciate your transformation.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Dr. Wolfelt’s book Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart. It is available for $14.95 at bookstores or directly from Companion Press at the Center for Loss, (970) 226-6050, or www.centerforloss.com.

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