Monday, April 25, 2011

The Grief Recovery Handbook

yeah, right I hear you say.

Because that's what I said.

But I was willing to work through this book and give it a go ... and wanted to share my experience of doing so with you. I've completed some of the assignments and already feel more peace for doing so. And after my BFF and I have read each other our letters (at the end) I'll let you know if it helped.


This book approaches the subject from an emotional viewpoint, rather than intellectually. And I liked that they immediately explained that Kubler-Ross' concept of stages applied to dying, not grieving, which reassured me, along with the fact that both authors had experienced deep loss themselves. They explain that anger is an emotion that not all of us who grieve experience. I know that I've only felt anger, true anger, once ... so it made me feel a little more "normal".

But what really kept me reading the book were these words:

"Not forgetting" becomes incorrectly entangled with the idea of "not getting over". This crippling idea keeps the griever's heart eternally broken, does not allow for recovery ...

they suggest that we say, "when I am reminded of his struggles and death, my heart feels broken. Other times, remembering his wonderful qualities, I feel happy and pleased to share my memories about him." instead of "I have a permanently broken heart."

That closure is an inaccurate word. That a lawsuit cannot help you become emotionally complete.

That instead of using the word Guilt, we use different, better, more

That using the word survivor isolates you even more in our society, that every relationship is unique and therefore every loss is unique.


The lessons:

1. What we have been taught about loss/things people say to us -

Don't feel bad (don't cry)
Replace the loss (you can marry again)
Grieve alone (go to your room and cry - as a child) (others react uncomfortably to tears)
Give it time (time heals)
Be strong for others (being told to be strong for your mother if your father died)
Keep busy (it's only a distraction)

Even a well-meaning friend who has a parallel loss does not know how we feel. It's only an intellectual fact, not an emotional truth.

2. How people react to our grief -

they are uncomfortable or even afraid of our feelings (be strong / be brave)
they change/shift the subject from you to the deceased (I feel so sad .... but she's in a better place now)
they intellectualize (she led a full life / you'll find someone else because you're young / the living must go on)
they don't hear us (we don't need to be fixed by them, just listened to)
they don't want to talk about death (he passed away / Dad's gone)
professional distortions (grief is normal reaction to loss, it is not a pathological condition or a personality disorder. PTSD / Depression - incorrect use of these words is misleading)
they want us to take pills to make us feel better (grief is painful and sometimes in the short term benefits the grieving, however in the end approaching grief naturally is shown to have more long term benefit. Our society deals with upset this way when we are children: "Don't cry, have a cookie."
they want us to keep our faith (you shouldn't be angry with God)

We are taught that we must act "recovered" in order to be treated in an acceptable manner. Putting on the "I'm fine" smile. Intellectualizing increases our sense of isolation and creates a feeling of being judged and even criticized. So we focus on only fond memories, even enshrinement (keeping large numbers of objects that represent the person lost, and look at the relationship as only positive, not remembering anything negative at all ... or we focus only on the negatives ... and it is critical that we are honest with ourselves and others about the person and our memories.)

Unresolved grief tends to separate us from ourselves. It saps all the energy from us. It takes everything to get out of bed and go to work.


The Road to Recovery

What do you wish had been different / better / more?

e.g. you were unkind to the person the last time you spoke to them.

Write down what you wish had been different / better / more.

I wish that I'd had more time with you. That I'd helped you more renovating our home. That I'd realized I was depressed about losing our dog and talked to you about it. That I'd been more proactive about taking you to be checked out instead of telling you to see the doctor. That you felt you shouldn't worry me about your deteriorating health, that I either didn't see or sub-consciously denied. I wish I could have had your son. I wish we could have retired in Spain, or that I'd thought of my plans for living in Spain before, so that you could have retired ... and you might have lived longer and stress-free.

Realize that others are not responsible for our feelings. We cannot change others' actions but we can choose how to feel/react to those actions. We turn ourselves into victims. We are advised to let it go or to move on, but as humans we simply don't work that way. We cannot recover until we stop seeing ourselves as victims.

Choose whether to work alone or with a partner (who is also grieving a loss - any loss is fine). If working with a partner, lay some ground rules:

agree a safe meeting place, bring tissues, crying is natural, so is not crying, agree whether hugs are acceptable (but wait till the end of the exercise to hug as this can stop feelings coming out), treat this as two friends having a conversation). Be totally honest, maintain confidentiality, respect the uniqueness of their loss - do not compare losses.

I'm intending to complete this with my BFF who has lost her mum.


Review the myths and cliches you have heard:

e.g. don't feel bad and she led a full life

At least you're young, it could be worse.
He wouldn't want you to be sad.
Life goes on.
Time will heal.
At least you experienced real love, I haven't.
Everything happens for a reason.
Be strong.
Be brave.
You should be getting better now.
Why don't you take anti-depressants? So what if you are on them for the rest of your life?

Discuss the misinformation you have been taught or told. Discuss the impact it had on you. Discuss how you have been using some of these concepts to deal with your loss.

Short-term Energy-Relieving Behaviours:

these give relief in the short-term but are damaging in the long-term. Examples of STERBS are:

Fantasy (movies, books, TV)

Some of these are not harmful in themselves, only when you use them for the wrong reason.

Identify your use of STERBs

Internet use - Facebook, Blog etc
Refusal to change anything in the house from the day he died
Minimizing my loss in comparison to widows in the Third World
Focussing on others' loss instead of my own

Create a loss history linear graph of your losses, starting with your birth year and ending with this year. Write down all your losses along this chronological line (e.g. dog died, divorced, mother died, spouse died). Then draw lines downwards for each one. The longer the line (downwards), the greater the pain associated with the loss.

Share this with your partner. Don't interrupt your partner if it is their turn to talk. If you cry, try to keep talking, don't choke the feelings off. Remember to include any STERBs you used during these losses, the myths or cliches you were told and how that influenced your grieving.

Now choose one loss that you want to work on.


Create a relationship graph in the same style as the last graph. The difference this time is that you include happy memories (above the line) and negative stuff (below the line). Again the length of lines above or below denote how positive or negative these experiences were.

Start the graph on the year that you first met and be totally honest.

Share this with your partner and as before, don't interrupt them etc.

Using your graph categorize all the events into the following:


for being impatient and ill-tempered after working too hard
for not noticing that your health was deteriorating
for not being strong, so that you always had to be
for not vocalizing how I felt sometimes
for not giving up smoking
for making you feel that I didn't listen to you anymore. I did but I am sorry that you thought I didn't.
for being jealous sometimes
(Note: there are more apologies but they are private and will only be shared with my partner)


I forgive you for being nasty to me for the first two days of our cruise.
I forgive you for ruining a Christmas because you were angry that you couldn't buy gifts for everyone and you took it out on me and got drunk.
I forgive you for the birthday when you inexplicably turned on me and really frightened me because I couldn't understand what I had done wrong, and I still don't know.
I forgive you for always "picking on me" when you were uncomfortable in anyone's company because it must have made you feel better. You were never really horrible but it made me not want to visit some people with you after a while.
(Note: there are more notes but as before these are too private)

Significant Emotional Statements

I love you
I think I have loved you since I was 18
I shall always love you
You are my "one"
I shall never feel the same
You let me retain my innocence and made me safe
You gave me everything
I remember your words and lessons. I listened.
You made me feel beautiful and special for the first time in my life
You loved me more than anyone could
You knew me better than anyone could
You taught me so much and still teach me
I shall never stop missing you
I'm so proud to be your wife
You are a man.
You healed me.
You gave me confidence, support and a safe environment in which to grown.
You sacrificed an entire life for me and never once complained.
You worked so hard for us.
You are so smart and patient.
You would have died for me.
I would die for you.
I've never been as happy as I was with you.
You are my world.
You gave me the best days and memories of my life, and more fun than I ever had in my life.
I still want to be with you, but I'm learning to cope.
I promised you as you were dying that I would be alright, and I need to deliver on that promise.
You never let me down, not once, and that is why I find it so hard to believe that you can't come back.

Read this out to your partner, without interruption or hugs, whilst reading it. Try to carry on reading if you cry. Don't discuss this with your partner afterwards. It is what it is.

Now write your completion letter. Review your assignments already completed first. The purpose of this is to say goodbye to the pain you associate with this relationship, including unmet dreams. It signals the end of this communication BUT NOT THE END OF THE RELATIONSHIP. It is crucial to end the letter "goodbye).

One format to use follows:

Dear xxx

I've been thinking about our relationship and want to tell you some things.

xxxx, I apologize for xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (how many you want to include)
xxxx, I forgive you for xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (whatever you wish to say)
xxxx, I want you to know (emotional statements)

I love you, I miss you. Goodbye xxxx
(Note: I have decided that when I write this letter I will not publicly share it)

As the listener, be a heart with ears. Do not interrupt. Do not touch. If tears well up leave them there. If you wipe away the tears you give the reader the message that tears are bad. Do not judge or analyze. As soon as the reader says "goodbye", hug them. Hold them as they cry.

As the reader, close your eyes and get a mental image of the person whom you have written to. Open your eyes and read. If you cry, keep reading otherwise you will swallow your feelings. Before reading your final sentence (say goodbye), close your eyes and imagine the person again.

You have said goodbye to unfinished business, emotional incompleteness, pain, isolation and confusion and the physical relationship that you had.

You are not saying goodbye to fond memories. It doesn't mean you will no longer feel sad, it just means you don't have to go over the same things that were bothering you, especially feelings of guilt in my case.

It's ok to add a P.S. to your letter if more things come to mind.

After completion you may find you want your external environment to match your internal thoughts. e.g. cleaning up and sorting through physical reminders of your loved one. Don't rush this. Having a friend to help you is recommended. Tell them (or talk out loud if alone) about memories attached to the clothing. Place it in three piles: keep / dispose / unsure. Put the keep pile back in the closet. Dispose of the dispose pile appropriately (give to friends/relations/charity), box or bag up the remainder. After a month, bring out the unsure pile and try again. After 3 months, try again. Eventually you will make up your mind about everything in the unsure pile. Eventually you may choose to put the "keep" pile somewhere else in the house.


  1. Wow, what a wonderful guide and how brave you are to share your thoughts.

  2. I knew that my fellow-bookworm girlfriend would enjoy reading my review :-)

    ahhh, I only shared some of them xxx

  3. Pretty much! That looks like a very worthwhile read. Clearly written by minds in the know. Thank you for reviewing it and recommending it to me.