Chapter OneThe Wound
In working with grieving persons, I have become aware that
there is a great need for grief to be understood. This book is
not meant to give instructions or advice. Instead it is a series
of quotes, suggestions, affirmations, and explanations
intended to console, to reassure, and especially to offer hope
to anyone who is suffering from the agonizing loss of a loved
one. Although every person grieves in an individual way,
there are some common denominators. It is my hope to
bring comfort to grieving persons by letting them know they
are not alone in their experiences or feelings.
The death of a loved one is a mortal wound, difficult to
grasp and impossible to understand. It is unasked for,
unplanned for, and unwanted. It is one of the few events in
life that is beyond human control. Because of the depth of
the wound, even one's own self becomes unfamiliar. Time
assumes a different meaning, and nothing that was once
important matters any longer. One woman told me, "It may
be six months since the death of my child, but to me it has
been one long, ghastly day with no beginning and no end."
The "ghastly days" must somehow be survived, often with
little help and no past frame of reference. Grief seems to be
a process that cannot be understood or explained unless one
has personally experienced it.
Fay Angus in How to Do Everything Right and Live to Regret
It says she had not reckoned on the sting of hurt that peels
away the layers like leaves on an artichoke, being nibbled
one by one until all that is exposed is the heart.
Having our hearts exposed is an extremely vulnerable
position to be in. It can make us feel persecuted and alone.Why did this happen to me? we ask.
It happened partly because we were fortunate enough to
have loved someone. Without love there would be no grief. So
we need to ask ourselves instead, Would I be willing to exchange
my disabling grief for never having known my lost loved one?
Are the love and the happy memories we shared worth my current
pain? If I had known I would eventually suffer this loss,
would I have turned away from the love to avoid the pain?
When a loss occurs to people who believe in God, we often
ask for the reason he allowed such a horrendous thing to
happen. If we pray for the healing of a loved one and it does
not occur, we feel God has forsaken us. Where was God when
I needed him most? we cry.
God never promised us a utopia on earth or a life free from
pain. J. Grant Swank, Jr., says,
Good folk and innocent people are not without their share
of suffering-and often through no fault of their own.
They are not immune to hard times. Indeed, believers can
experience pain just as severely as nonbelievers. Being a
child of God does not exempt one from anguish or from
the heaviness of sorrow that bends the heart near the
point of breaking.
What God does promise is that he will never leave us during
our times of trouble (Ps. 34:19).
I once heard about an elderly couple who had been married
many years. The husband was driving along the highway
when his wife spotted a young couple sitting very close
together in the next car. She wistfully said to her husband,
"Remember when we used to be like that?"
Her husband smiled at her and gently said, "Honey, I
Although we may feel farther from God in times of great
need or sorrow, he is never the one who moves away. He
never leaves the driver's seat. He simply sits there, patiently
waiting for us to move closer.
Grief is a heavy burden that can seem backbreaking, but
a heavy load of any type will seem lighter when it is shared
with a friend. I believe God has very large, strong shoulders.
He will gladly help carry our load of grief if only we are willing
to not clutch it so tightly.
The Symptoms of Grief
In the process of holding tightly to our grief we may
become forgetful and unable to make decisions. If we were
previously quite organized we may suddenly become completely
disorganized. We can get lost driving home from the
neighborhood store where we have shopped for years. We
might forget the ends of sentences or be unable to remember
words or names. We do not care how we look, how we
feel, or what we do. We feel sad, isolated, and alone.
We find ourselves crying over everything. When we least
expect it, tears fill our eyes and make trails down our cheeks.
We become afraid to go places or see people for fear these
unpredictable tears will begin to flow again. We also cry as
we never have before; our deep, wretched sobbing comes
from the bottom of a black chasm that we never imagined
In general the whole world seems to be turned upside
down. A soft-spoken person might suddenly find himself
shouting at his children. Or an extrovert may become fearful
of attending a meeting. We are pulled in opposite directions.
We are agitated but too tired to move; we are lonely
but don't want to be with others; we feel unloved, unloving,
and unlovable, yet we need love desperately. We feel as if we
have been abandoned and as if our nerve endings are raw.
Physical symptoms may hit without warning-hot flashes,
cold sweats, insomnia, loss of appetite, tightness in the chest,
rapid breathing-and can be very distressing. A complete
medical checkup can eliminate the possibility of these symptoms
being caused by a legitimate ailment.
Many grieving persons ignore danger signs, assuming that
the discomfort is merely part of their grief, and often their
lack of energy prevents them from seeking medical care.
Some minor ailments can become debilitating if they go
untreated too long. With a proper diagnosis it may be possible
to begin to feel physically stronger and thus make it
easier to cope emotionally.
The survivor who has been involved in caring for a loved
one during a lengthy terminal illness may have neglected
self-care during that time. Dental and eye examinations may
be needed in addition to a thorough physical.
Then a horrendous fear that cannot be identified sets in:I feel as if I am going crazy. This fear never seems to go away,
and there is no way to reason with it while it nags and hovers;
it may ease up a bit, but it never completely disappears.
These symptoms are all the unexplained, untalked about,
misunderstood feelings of profound grief.
Feelings of Guilt
Guilt is another unwelcome guest to the grieving. It creeps
around the corners of our minds, especially in the middle of
the night when we cannot sleep. Why didn't I make John go
to the doctor sooner? I should have made Bill stop smoking.
I should have driven Susan to school that day.
Phrases that begin with Why didn't I and I should have are
never constructive. Although it is necessary to think everything
through and go over the details after the death of a
loved one before coming to any kind of acceptance, if the
thoughts become mainly ones of guilt it may be time to apply
"thought stopping" or "interruption."
This technique is done by using the command Stop!, then
rethinking the situation using affirmations, such as It's a good
thing I did not nag Bill about smoking. It would have made
The past cannot be changed; it can only be accepted. With
an acceptance of the past comes the possibility to plan the
future. Torturing ourselves for things that can no longer be
altered takes tremendous energy. A grieving person already
has a low energy level, so it is foolish to waste the short supply.
We must treat ourselves gently to allow the memories to
Forgiveness is not a very big word. It is not difficult to pronounce
or spell, but it can take control of our entire lives.
Jesus spoke of forgiveness just prior to his death when he
asked God to forgive the people who had crucified him.
I often speak with people who have had a loved one taken
from them as the result of a drunk driver. They are seething
with rage. Frequently the driver walks away from the accident
unscathed. I cannot ask someone to forgive an assailant
of this sort. Only with the grace of God and the support of
family, therapy groups, and friends would it be thinkable.
However, unforgiveness will stand in the way of the normal
healing of a severely wounded soul. Similar to a wound
that is closed with the putrid infection inside, a wounded
soul will continue to fester underneath until eventually it
will spew hatred, anger, resentment, bitterness, and vengefulness
into every inch of a being. It will allow no room for
goodness, joy, kindness, or love to flow through.
Unforgiveness can destroy the rest of our lives and the
lives of everyone we touch. Holding a grudge hurts the bearer
more than the recipient.
I have no pat answers for an unforgiving heart, but I do
see the damage that can be done by cold, hard hearts. Each
person must evaluate his or her specific situation and discover
an appropriate solution, weighing the damage that
will be done as hatred eats at the soul versus the doors that
will be opened after forgiveness takes place.
Not long ago I had contact with two widows and their
stepchildren; their contrasting actions reinforced this theory.
One widow angrily told me she would not give one single
item that had belonged to her husband to his sons. "They
aren't my sons; they don't deserve a thing. I don't even plan
to see them again," she said, her eyes flashing with hatred
as she nursed ancient hurts.
The other widow, Ann, arrived one evening at our meeting
with a big smile on her face. When asked about her unexpected
happiness, she explained that the night before she
had invited her two stepsons over for dinner. They had never
been close, and she was not even sure they would come. Ann
was pleased when they did. After dinner she provided each
boy with a large empty box.
"I want you to have whatever you want of your father's,"
she told them. They walked through the house together
while Ann opened desk drawers, closets, and even used a
flashlight as they toured the backyard. The boys were hesitant
at first, but she kept reassuring them she was serious.
Ann admitted that she did falter as one boy lifted his dad's
Western belt off the closet hook. The large silver buckle was
worn smooth from years of wear. She said her heart gave a
lurch and her face flushed with heat. But she forced herself
to smile and nod her approval as she swallowed hard.
She told us she was pleased with her decisions. She
thought about how happy this sharing would have made her
husband. If she had selfishly hoarded the belt, it would have
been sealed in a box and placed in storage.
The other widow will never experience the peace of mind
that Ann will. Her attitude will only harm herself as it festers
Forgiving ourselves is just as important as forgiving others.
Guilt is a form of unforgiveness for our mistakes or omissions.
To continue to agonize over matters we can no longer
change is self-defeating. We can learn from those mistakes
and not repeat them. Only then can we move forward, forgiving
ourselves and others. When we no longer harbor
hatred, seek revenge, or bear grudges, we no longer sap our
energy and prevent progress.
The Duration of Grief
Naturally, when we are feeling such torment we want to
know when we will begin to feel better. We become quite
accustomed to doing things according to schedule. We are
told to allow six weeks to recover from gallbladder surgery
and that it takes two hours to drive to the city.
In my work with the grieving the question I am most frequently
asked is, "When will I stop hurting so much?" I wish
there were a chart I could turn to for an answer. But even if
there were such a chart it would be meaningless, because
time now has an entirely new meaning.
A day is no longer a twenty-four-hour period. It is instead
minute after minute filled with pain. There are no pills, no
beverages, no magic formulas for the suffering. Trying to
ease the pain with alcohol or drugs will only delay the normal
Recovering from the death of a loved one has been termed
"grief work" by the experts. It is indeed work, work that takes
time. Like any other job, it cannot be rushed, nor can it be
gauged by anyone else's progress. Too many factors have to
be calculated, too many details, too many experiences. The
circumstances of the death can make a great difference in
the grief period, as can the support systems the grieving person
The loss of one's baby is completely different from the loss
of one's parent. The loss of a teenaged child differs greatly
from that of a spouse. But no matter what the loss has been,
it takes time and heart-wrenching work for the wound to heal.
My psychologist friend compares grief to a body wound.
He told me to suppose I received a large gash on my arm. At
first I would not even want to look at it. It would be too painful.
With grief also we will only glance at it briefly in the beginning
and then quickly look away. The first week or so we experience
shock and numbness, and the actual wound is not examined
at all. At this time we are merely existing, marking time.
But then we are tempted to look at the wound more
closely. We allow our thoughts to touch on the death just a
tiny bit until the pain overwhelms us and we have to look
away again. However, each time we are able to look closer
and for longer periods of time. After we become accustomed
to looking, we will want to touch the wound ever so gently
to see how it feels. As the pain diminishes we will touch it
more frequently until at last we accept the fact that we have
a wound or a loss. This acceptance begins the recovery
At this time it becomes possible to sometimes mention
the lost loved one without even crying. We may now be able
to begin sorting through clothing and personal items. These
tasks may cause great pain, but the pain is a part of the healing
process. If the grief is treated properly and worked
through rather than sublimated, we will be able to touch,
talk about, and accept the wound. At last all that will remain
is a scar. This process takes time.
If the wound is covered too quickly or bandaged with tranquilizers
or frantic activity, normal healing will not take
place. The wound can become infected, festered, and cause
physical and emotional problems. Nervous breakdowns,
attempted suicides, eating disorders, and ulcers are just a
few problems that can result from a loss that is treated
improperly. Then the wound may have to be reopened in
order for healing to take place.
Much has been written claiming that grief takes a year to
run its full cycle. This limitation of time can be a very destructive