Everyone at some point in life must confront loss and grief. In December of last year, my friend Bill Gottlieb, CHC, lost his beloved wife to breast cancer. His writings of his experience of loss and grief and his path to healing touched me deeply. Bill has generously agreed to share the tools he has discovered that have helped him through this most difficult of life passages. The following is his personal experience:
Loss is an inevitable part of living. You can lose those you love — a pet, a friend, a sibling, a child, a parent, a spouse. And you can lose your health — your energy, your physical comfort, your clarity, your confidence, your joy.
In the last two years I have lost three of those I loved the most. In November, 2012, my sister and dear friend Jan died from 4th stage breast cancer. In August, 2013, my cat of 19 years — Suzie, my sweet, free companion — passed away.
And on December 29, 2013 — after an 11-year battle with breast cancer, including the last 16 months of her life, when the 4th deadly stage of the disease destroyed the body of this tall, lovely, loving, smart, vibrant woman — on the Sunday before the kiss of New Year’s Eve, Denise, my beloved wife of 18 years, died at home in my arms, her last words, “I love you…”
Love left. Love was lost. My heart was broken and my life was shattered. Suddenly, I was living alone; suddenly, I had a new and relentless companion — a sorrow so penetrating and constant, so rooted in the fierce and final fact of death, that I felt it could not and would not end.
I was wandering in the strange, dark wilderness of deep grief, lost, unable to complete any task I’d started, with no interest in anyone or anything, my emotions careening — sad, angry, sad, anxious, sad. Sad.
Yet six months after my wife’s death, I meet the day with steady enthusiasm and energy. Of course I continue to grieve: I will always miss my darling Denise. But I have learned — amazingly, wonderfully — that a broken heart is fertile ground for love. I have learned that grief — fully experienced and expressed — gives rise to fresh compassion and kindness, and to an abiding desire to serve others: for we are all liable to loss here, all vulnerable, all destined to die. Yes, every mortal being wants and needs love — and grief has sensitized me to that need. Loss and love; grief and joy — these are the mutual and natural realities of the truly broken heart, alive to love.
But this discovery of new love and joy was not automatic; time did not heal my loss-riddled wounds. Healing happened because of intense “grief work,” true companionship and divine blessings. My hope: that you, too, will walk through one or more of these doorways to heal your own grief from the losses in your life — and thereby find a new sense of purpose, happiness and love.
The 10 Doorways to New Joy
1. Educate yourself about grief and mourning.
When my wife died I found myself in a place I had never been: the wilderness of grief. Yes, I had lost other people I’d loved. But there is a reason why “Death of spouse” is given the most points (100) on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory (with “Divorce” a distant second at 73 points, and dozens of other stressful events following). Losing my spouse — my best friend, with whom I’d shared so much of my life, and to whom I’d devoted so much practical care in the years of her cancer — was like a dismemberment. I had never experienced anything like it. I had no preparation for it, no orientation to it.
But I was lucky.
Soon after the death, my literary agent and friend sent me a book called Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World — written by a client of hers who’d lost her husband when she was in her thirties. This wise and descriptive book allowed me to understand that I was not insane (which is how I felt); I was grieving.
I devoured that book — it was my companion in the first month of my grief — and ordered many others about grief. For me, the best of those books were by the sympathetic and insightful Alan Wolfelt, PhD, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado (http://www.centerforloss.com), including his most recent, Loving from the Outside In, Mourning from the Inside Out. Dr. Wolfelt is the source of many of the concepts and insights I am sharing with you. From him, I learned to understand the terrain of the “wilderness” of grief, and I used his “touchstones” to find my way.
I learned that grief is the inner EXPERIENCE of loss — and mourning is the EXPRESSION of loss. And that this active, expressive mourning — for example, talking about the loss, writing about the loss, making a scrapbook, lighting a memorial candle every day — is the way to gradually heal the wound of grief. Without this education, I wouldn’t have known where I was or how to find my way.
I strongly urge you to make use of whatever resources are available to educate yourself about your own loss, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the loss of your health, or some other type of loss. Read a book; check out a website; listen to a CD. The feeling heart is reassured and strengthened when it UNDERSTANDS loss and grief — even if the grief does not change.
2. To heal your grief, feel your grief.
Two days after Denise died I went in the morning to Clear Lake, a large inland lake about 10 miles from my home in California. Everything there reminded me of Denise and made me weep. And I realized that this was the way it would be — this deep, possessing grief — for a long, long time. And my broken heart whispered, Accept this…
Acceptance, surrender — fully feeling exactly what you are feeling, instead of trying to suppress the feelings, or escape them by distracting yourself — is the primary way to heal loss and grief. What is not fully felt is not fully released — bodily, mentally, and emotionally.
I have met many grievers who never did this mindful work of grieving — of allowing themselves to fully feel their feelings; to talk about the loss; to cry unashamedly; to mourn for real. And years after the death they were still confused and without a sense of purpose… sometimes still isolated because they couldn’t stand social contact (a common feature of early grief)… and depressed.
Feel your feelings! (This is also a core principle of health and healing taught by my friend Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, in his e-book Three Steps to Happiness!) Accept your feelings. Don’t try to suppress or avoid them. “Feel it to heal it,” says Dr. Wolfelt. That is excellent advice.
3. Express your grief — talk, write, light a candle.
There is a simple secret to healing your heart after loss: EXPRESS YOURSELF. And there are many ways to do that…
Talk to a friend, family member or mental health professional about your loss — saying whatever you want to say, about anything you want to talk about.
Write about your loss — keep a journal about your grieving process; write “letters” to your departed loved one; celebrate your loved one with a memoir. Write a few sentences; write a page or two; write a book. Just write.
Express your feelings of loss and love in non-verbal ways. Make a scrapbook. Light a candle daily and say a prayer. Use other arts or crafts, like painting or embroidery.
Whatever you do, you will find that actively expressing your loss soothes your being — body and mind, heart and soul.
I have written at length about my deceased wife Denise, her disease and passing, and these six months of grief. I have also talked to affectionate, supportive friends (mostly a few men in my spiritual community who I have known for decades).
And I have no doubt that this writing and talking were essential to my healing. I strongly urge you to be expressive about your difficult situation. One way to do that is to…
4. Find two true friends.
A grief counselor I have been seeing over the last several months told me shortly after Denise died that all I really needed was TWO people — two intimates — to give me the gift of time, acceptance and true attention, so that I could talk about my loss. Via email, I let many of my friends know that I needed this help, and two guys responded (along with a few other people).
After a severe loss, put the word out among your family and friends that you need help — and find at least two sympathetic people who happily agree to be the “willing ear” into which you can pour your heart. You’re not asking for their advice. You’re asking to be HEARD, without judgment. Believe me, it can make all the difference.
5. See a professional counselor.
My wife Denise was in Hospice, and so I was offered a free year of grief counseling by Hospice Services — and that “counseling” has been invaluable. I put that word in quotes, because this form of counseling is essentially companionship: a person to listen to you, to join you in grief, to companion you in sorrow.
I cannot say enough about the sympathy, intelligence (and, when needed, the gentle, guiding suggestions) of my grief counselor. Once again, I urge all those who are grieving to find such a professional to help them in their process of grief and healing.
6. Move your body (It’s bright outside!).
Grief is physically debilitating and very draining. Typically, a person in deep grief has trouble sleeping, no enthusiasm for eating, and is tired, with a capital T.
To counter the fatigue and enervation of grief, physical activity is crucial — whether it’s a daily walk of 20 or 30 minutes (or more), or any other form of activity you enjoy, like gardening.
And if you can, walk outside: nature itself — its beauty and simplicity, its reminder of the constant presence of life amidst change and death — is itself a balancing, healing force.
7. Be kind to yourself.
Grief and regret go hand in hand. You look back on your former life and wonder what you could have done differently to prevent the terrible loss you have suffered. But grief isn’t the time for guilt, which my spiritual teacher calls “the most useless emotion” (because it doesn’t solve any problems and mires you in the past). Grief is a time for granting yourself the same compassion you probably give others — the heartfelt recognition that we’re all just human beings here, doing the best we can.
Another way to be kind to yourself during this time is to nourish yourself with activities that you find enjoyable. For instance…
8. Let yourself laugh.
After my wife died, my grief was all-consuming — there was no ease or enjoyment. After awhile, however, this despair was too much to bear nearly every waking moment — and I decided to watch comedy shows on Netflix!
The first time I laughed, I wondered if laughter was even permissible. But I soon found that laughter was a great antidote to despair. So nearly every evening I spent 30 minutes or more watching comedy. And whenever I drove the car I listened to comedy channels on satellite radio.
The temporary relief — and the realization that I could still laugh — was very welcome.
9. Get the support of people like you.
I attended a weekly grief support group for two months — and it was, well, supportive. Very supportive. I sat around a table with a dozen other people who had recently lost loved ones. We talked. We cried. We felt UNDERSTOOD. And over the weeks I noticed changes in myself and my brethren in grief, as we freely and safely expressed and released our feelings of loss. Attending a support group is an invaluable process I strongly recommend.
10. Find your faith.
I am fortunate to be a lifelong student of a great spiritual teacher, Adi Da Samraj. His wisdom and blessings were a source of comfort and strength not only during the 16 months of intense caregiving as my wife died from 4th stage cancer, but also during the six months after her death.
Whatever your faith — your fundamental sense of the informing purpose of life — hold tight to it during your grief.
And in that light I’d like to end with the “Universal World-Prayer” given by my teacher. My wife kept this prayer by her bedside all during her long illness, to give her courage. And the prayer still speaks to me, saying so much about how the ordeal of suffering is a secret blessing that can lead to the grace of greater love.
Beloved, Inmost Heart of every heart,
do not Let our human hearts be broken
by our merely mortal suffering here —
but Make our mortal human hearts break-Free
to an unconditional love of You,
that we may, Thus, love all living beings
with Love’s own True, and Truly broken, Heart.
Bill Gottlieb, CHC, is a health coach certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, the former editor-in-chief of Rodale Books and Prevention Magazine Books, and the author or co-author of 14 health books that have sold more than two million copies. (http://www.billgottliebhealth.com).