BOOKS: some thoughts about grief

Grief is a perennial topic in the soul work that we call psychotherapy. I’m always on the lookout for tools to help in the tender task of processing grief, starting with my own. I have found that there are no short-cuts. You have to go through all the tears, sadness, anger, and numbness, though it helps not to do it alone.

There is a whole industry devoted to workshops and books about working through grief. However well-meaning, I find most versions of what I call “designer grief” simplistic and enraging. Alan D. Wolfeit’s Complicated Grief is a perfect example of what I mean; it seems to be written by someone who has never lost anyone but knows exactly how you should manage your grief.

John W. James and Russell Friedman’s The Grief Recovery Handbook is considerably better. The authors’ Grief Recovery Institute has devised a practical step-by-step process which may indeed be helpful to people who need a highly structured approach. I resisted what felt like heavy commercial branding, and nothing in the book addresses multiple losses (war, natural disaster, AIDS, covid-19). What I found most useful were some of the book’s foundational principles, such as: “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” Although it primarily focuses on death and divorce, the book intends to widen the scope of grieving to include any loss, which makes sense to me.

A few other passages that leapt out at me:

When someone you love dies after suffering a long illness, you may feel a sense of relief that your loved one’s suffering is over. That is a positive feeling, even though it is associated with death. At the same time, you may realize that you can no longer see or touch that person. This may be very painful for you. These conflicting feelings, relief and pain, are totally normal in response to death [or any loss].

Loss-of-trust events are experienced by almost everyone and can have a major, lifelong negative impact. You may have experienced a loss of trust in a parent, a loss of trust in God, or a loss of trust in any other relationship. Is loss of trust a grief issue? The answer is yes. And the problem of dealing with the grief it causes remains the same. Grief is normal and natural, but we have been ill prepared to deal with it. Grief is about a broken heart, not a broken brain. All efforts to heal the heart with the head fail because the head is the wrong tool for the job. It’s like trying to pain with a hammer – it only makes a mess.

Most of the comments that grievers hear following a loss, while intellectually accurate, are emotionally barren. As a direct result of these conflicting ideas, a griever often feels confused and frustrated, feelings that lead to emotional isolation.

The subject of forgiveness carries with it many beliefs passed on from generation to generation. Some people have developed such a massive resistance to the word forgive that they cannot use it…We offer the following phrase: I acknowledge the things that you did or did not do that hurt me, and I am not going to let them hurt me anymore. A variation is: I acknowledge the things that you did or did not do that hurt me, and I’m not going to let my memory of those incidents hurt me anymore.
            The insensitive, unconscious, and sometimes evil actions of other people have hurt us. Our continued resentment and inability to forgive hurts us, not them. Imagine that the perpetrator has died. Can your continued resentment harm him or her? Clearly not! Can it harm you? Unfortunately, yes. As with all recovery components, the objective of our actions is to set us free. We forgive in order to reacquire our own sense of well-being.
Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person.

The best book on this subject that I know of is Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow, whose poetic spiritual and practical exploration is reflected in its subtitle: “Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief.”

Weller insightfully identifies what he calls The Five Gates of Grief:

  • The First Gate: Everything We Love, We Will Lose
  • The Second Gate: The Places That Have Not Known Love
  • The Third Gate: The Sorrows of The World
  • The Fourth Gate: What We Expected and Did Not Receive
  • The Fifth Gate: Ancestral Grief

He says, “What is often diagnosed as depression is actually low-grade chronic grief locked into the psyche, complete with the ancillary ingredients of shame and despair.”

A key passage that gives a good sense of his nuanced overview:

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “What we cannot speak about, we pass over in silence.” We have forgotten the primary language of grief. As a consequence, the terrain of sorrow has become unfamiliar and estranged, leaving us confused, frightened, and lost when grief comes near. The haunting silence that Wittgenstein speaks of lingers as a fog over our lives, placing large areas of experience outside of our reach. When our grief cannot be spoken, it falls into the shadow and re-arises in us as symptoms. So many of us are depressed, anxious, and lonely. We struggle with addictions and find ourselves moving at a breathless pace, trying to keep up with the machinery of culture…An apprenticeship with sorrow offers us the chance to build our capacity to stay present when the intense feelings of grief arise. Through meaningful rituals, a community of friends, some time in benevolent solitude, and effective practices that help us stretch into our bigger selves, we are offered the opportunity to develop a living relationship with loss.

In ritual space, something inside of us shimmers, quickens, and aligns itself with a larger, more vital element. We are released from the limiting constraints of our collective agreements, such as not showing our emotions in public, not bothering anyone with our troubles, and remaining stoic and self-contained with our pain. This release allows us to enter into a fuller expression of who we are. This is both freeing and frightening. We become vivid in ritual space, exposed and transparent. This is exactly what we need and what we fear.



The playwright asked for the floor… But when McCraney talked, he didn’t talk about the play [Choir Boy] or the dialogue. Instead, he talked about grief. Casually, as though it were something that just came to his mind. He explained what it felt like to lose his mother at 22. He did not talk about how she died, and he hinted only a little at the complexity of their relationship; this address was not autobiographical. It was to do with emotions. McCraney described how grief lives in a person’s body, how it settles there. He explained its half-life, the unreliable nature of its decay. He talked about the phenomenon, when grieving a loved one, in which you begin to have memories of times after their death that you think they must have been present for. Remember when I won an Academy Award for my movie, and you were so proud? And then he talked about how things like that make you grieve their absence all over again, and how that grief catches you unawares, taking over your body when you least expect it. It sits in a small reservoir beneath your heart. It whispers to you at odd hours and yells at you in quiet ones.

–Carvell Wallace writing about Tarell Alvin McCraney in the New York Times