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Grieving: a beginner’s guide

30 November, 1999

Conventional thinking sees grieving as something to be “got over”, “recovered from”. In this practical handbook for grievers, Jerusha Hull McCormack urges us, on the contrary, to “properly attend to” the pain of grief. Grief can then be seen as a quest that leads to discoveries that transform your whole life.

136pp. Darton Longman and Todd Ltd 2005.  To purchase this book on line go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk


where we begin

  1. the resources of pain
  2. imagine
  3. lost in loss
  4. a world without maps
  5. transforming loss
  6. only half alive
  7. remembering and forgetting
  8. grieving in a ‘happy’ world
  9. directions to another place
  10. guidelines for spirit guardians




Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, writes:

Grieving: a beginner’s guide is a personal, concrete exploration of ways to deal with the pain of loss.  It is a book of lessons learned first-hand by the author in her own grieving, and so the book has an unusual immediacy and usefulness.  There is not a note of emotion or advice out of place.  I can imagine giving it to friends as a first resource.  It is a trustworthy and intelligent handbook, deceptively simple and straightforward.  While there are many books offering theories about grief, this one offers a phenomenology of sorrow, a charting of a wide range of experiences anyone might have in the aftermath of loss.  It is an excellent book addressed to the person grieving, not to the person thinking about grief.



Where we begin
Chances are, if you are reading this, your heart is broken. There are many things that can break a heart: the death of someone loved; the loss of a marriage; the end of a career; emigration or exile or even moving house. For those who have the capacity to love, whether it is a person or a pet or a place, their loss can be devastating.

This short book is designed to help those in pain – and specifically those who have lost someone through death – to imagine the path before them. It is a path of suffering. But it is also a path that may lead to unexpected discoveries – and to peace. There is no sure route; or rather, there are many routes. The purpose of this book is to provide the reader with a series of signposts by which they may find their own path to a new life.

I do not speak as a therapist or a counsellor, simply as someone who has once lost someone and whose whole life changed after that. I make no apology for this. We are all amateurs at grief; it comes to us all; we must all go through it. Some of us make extraordinary discoveries while doing so. To treat grief as a problem to be fixed, or (worse still) to medicalize it, is to rob us of the extraordinary privilege of encountering this experience on our terms: for each of us has our own way of grieving, and each of us has something special to learn from the process. In my own case, when my husband died, none of our friends had gone through a similar ordeal. They tried to help, and they did; but I was isolated from any community of like experience. What I found more difficult was that, after the first year, there was little public recognition or even patience for my grieving, although I realized that the pain I was in was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I knew instinctively it was also one of the most important, that how I handled that suffering would either make or break me; it would determine the quality of the rest of my life. And yet it seemed that all everyone else wanted me to do was to ‘recover’ as soon as possible.

This confusion was compounded by the fact that, once the funeral was over, existing conventions dictated no clear path for me to follow. A century ago, I would have been wearing black for a year, ensuring that my loss would have been publicly acknowledged and thus honoured. I would have been allowed to withdraw from formal commitments for a decent length of time. It would even have been acknowledged that I might never ‘recover’; for instance, in Victorian times widows did not often remarry. But in this day and age, I was expected to return to fulltime work within months. Within a year, people were asking whether I had ‘recovered’ yet – and whether I was dating.

Yet inside, I was lost. I had little idea of what to expect, and was shocked by the way others casually compounded my loss. Of course I lost income; but I also lost status; suddenly it seemed I had become a very marginal person. Some friends were exceptional; and others who had not previously been close stepped in to help in unexpected ways. But it was hard to disguise the fact that, over time, the phone calls and invitations dwindled away and that, in the end, I could count on only a faithful few to call or invite me out on any reliable basis. It was as if society wanted to forget – not so much me, as the kind of pain I represented.

And yet, although lost, and in pain, I knew somehow I would find a way to heal. In fact, I discovered not one way, but many. But finding those ways was like struggling through unknown territory, much like those areas of old maps that used to be marked ‘terra incognita’. Ridiculous, I thought, when everyone must travel through this place not once, but several times during a lifetime. So I tried to note the routes I took, and to assemble them into a series of models or maps to help those in grief to imagine the path ahead of them.

For by the very act of imaging that path, the pain itself is transformed. You begin to acknowledge its value and importance. You learn how to stay with the pain, and even to attend to it, so that, in the end, you can make it your own. And, in the process, grieving becomes something else, a resource that has become a reservoir, a support for others, a wound that initiates us into a new chance for life.

What I came to in the end was that grieving, expressed openly and honestly, can be one of the most liberating experiences of life. And yet I found the discourse used for grieving to be quite degraded, in common with the public perception of the experience itself; it seemed that even the most articulate people could be reduced to dog-eared truisms. One made allowances, reminding oneself that they did not know what to say. Or that the available words are often only those that implicitly devalue the fierce power of grief.

Yet, as a consequence, those in mourning would sometimes find themselves trapped in a conspiracy of clichés, all of which tend to represent their state as being something less than it is. ‘Bereavement’ means a robbery – a loss; how can the grieving counter by saying what they have gained? To be a ‘widow’ means, by origin, to be emptied; how can the widow explain that she has become something more, not something less, for her encounter with sorrow?

For, liberated from the old, shop-worn clichés, grieving may become another kind of occurrence altogether: a voyage out to the limits of one’s known world.  Death lies at the frontier of our experience, and to face it openly and honestly may lead us to surprising conclusions.

In charting the way I took, I am conscious that at times it was new only to me – that many others had been there before. I have read their doleful accounts and taken note of sound advice where I could find it. But none tackled the question of how to live through this experience so that its value would not be diminished. And certainly no one else seemed to think of grieving in terms of a quest – or even considered that, properly attended to, discoveries could be made during this process which could transform one’s life hereafter.

Accordingly, I have tried to provide another sort of manual for the bereaved. It is less a consolatory piece than a tour guide, which comes complete with the kind of practical advice you will need on your journey, as well as a series of directions which seek to lead you away from the dead-ends of conventional grieving towards new and unexpected horizons. In the end, one can only point to these, for they depend on the traveller having the courage to leave the most well-worn paths in the first place.

This is only a guide, and acknowledges, ultimately, that the road you find will be your own. Each of us grieves in our own way. But if we can do so with a mind open to the unexpected, who knows what resources we will uncover, or what new territory lies beyond the dreary reaches of our pain? We owe it to ourselves to try to find out and, in doing so, to explore the limits of this experience, to see if we can find there a new life one which is larger, more various, and more surprising than the one that, even now, disappears in our wake.



Life is pain.

If this is the first encounter you have had with death, you have entered one of the most intense periods of your life. It may also become the most important, in the sense that it will define the person you will become for the rest of your life.

In encountering death, you are now at the very centre of human experience. You are in the presence of the sacred. Do not let anyone minimize its importance or make you feel that grieving is anything other than an absorbing, life-changing experience.

Others may not necessarily understand this. To them, you are simply someone in ‘grief’. They will talk of grief solemnly, as if it were a single thing, which it is not. Grief is an overwhelming experience. It is like acute pain, in the way it can swallow up your entire consciousness. Like acute pain, it can involve a period of shock, or numbness. But when that wears off, one may feel anything, from relief, to anger, to fear.

Grief is not one emotion and no one emotion is appropriate for the grieving. People react to loss in different ways at different times and in different situations. But usually the first reaction to grief is that it is like pain. This can be a useful analogy in several ways.

As in physical pain, you feel wounded. The shock of the pain can numb you. You may be able to think of nothing else except the pain.

A certain numbness is an entirely natural reaction. It is nature’s way of protecting you from the pain you are in.

During this first phase, it may be helpful to imagine yourself as bruised and broken, like the victim of a bad car accident (and maybe that is precisely what you are).

What follows from this?

for those in pain
From the very first moment, you must take good care of yourself physically. You will never be able to endure the pain you are in, unless you take what measures you can to sustain your physical self.

If, in eating, you can’t keep much down, eat what you can. Take vitamin supplements.

If you can’t sleep, remember this is common in grieving. Doze, take naps. Trust your body to rest when it must.

Remember, this is only pain. It is natural; it is almost normal. Open yourself to the pain. It will not kill you. In fact, it is a sign you are alive.

But you must protect yourself.

Go on a newsfast. Do not watch television, do not read the papers. You are at the moment very raw, very vulnerable. You do not know what you will see when you turn on the news; sudden images of pain may feel like an assault. Remember, television is a very ‘hot’ medium and invites an immediate emotional reaction. But even printed images can give you pain. Why seek it out? You have enough of your pain to cope with right now; avoid, if possible, picking up on impersonal pain, such as the news.

In the same spirit, see only the people you like and trust. Avoid others if at all possible. If not, minimize contact.

Abandon yourselves to your friends. Ask those close to you to make the necessary arrangements for the funeral and other gatherings. Consult with them, but do not try to take the entire burden of managing practical things at this moment upon yourself. Remember others are grieving too, and helping you in practical matters will also help them to express their own feelings.

Try to free up as much time as possible to allow you to begin to come to terms with what has happened to you. Grieving slows you down in any case; you must insist that others give you space to heal.

Do things in your own time. Do not be rushed into decisions. Do things as you can. If possible, postpone the funeral for a few days until you have had time to decide what to do there.

Do not feel, after the funeral, that you have to clear out things precipitately. Clear things out when you are ready and as you wish to clear them.

Try to avoid anaesthetics: if you drink alcohol, be moderate; avoid sleeping tablets unless absolutely necessary.

Try to notice what helps you get through the day, however small or insignificant. Make a list of such things, and try to do them every day. (For a time, I found ‘taking showers’ at the top of my list.)

Trust that the pain will be bearable. Even when it does not seem so, the body has its own innate sanity. Ultimately you will sleep when you have to, or at least you will be able to doze. Ultimately, you will be able to eat something. Trust that your body, as well as your mind, has an inborn balance which will begin to assert itself if you allow it to do so.

nothing is right
With grieving comes the sense that nothing is right. The sense of order and predictability in our world is shattered. Often this sense that nothing is right takes the form of bodily disruption. You may not eat or sleep properly. You may have nightmares. You may feel you cannot even get physically comfortable.

You may find you cannot concentrate. You may become absurdly forgetful. This is all normal. You are entirely preoccupied now; your whole mind and soul is trying to come to terms with that which is unimaginable, unthinkable, and almost impossible to articulate: the ultimate fact of death.

Things may seem chaotic; you may find it hard to organize things or just do them mechanically. Ask others to help whenever possible.

Death can bring enormous practical disruptions. It is not surprising that you may feel disoriented by the sudden change, or feel that everything seems chaotic. Try to bear with the situation and handle it as it comes. In the longer term, things will fall again into place.

Families in grief can also become very dysfunctional. Rather than drawing you closer together, the grief may seem to be driving you apart. Two parents grieving for a child may find themselves locked in mutual silence. If a parent has died, there may be ugly quarrels about the funeral arrangements or about the legal division of a house or other inherited things. Old sibling rivalries may be revived, or family members may seem to be competing for possession of the lost one’s presence by claiming that he or she was closest to the dead person, or trying to possess the dead person by appropriating his/her things, or personal papers, or even the control of his/her memory.

Be aware of these pitfalls and try to detach yourself for the time being. In the first onslaught of grief, you need to protect yourself. Remember that at its most intense, grief will challenge every resource within a person, and some react to this challenge by acting out, others by denying their fear or hurt. So try to stand back. Remember that nothing is right for you; but nothing is right for them either, nor for any of the group of which they are a part.

It will take time, and a certain compassion to bring things around. But in the early days, despite your need for comfort, it is best to expect that things will not go smoothly, that others will not necessarily act well all the time, and that arrangements can go awry. It is not a disaster – simply a reflection of the immense disruption that death brings. Be grateful for what goes well, but be prepared for a certain level of emotional and practical chaos.

the importance of pain
You may feel little during the first days or weeks. This is normal. It is nature’s way of protecting you from overwhelming pain.

When you begin to register the pain, it is a sign you are beginning to heal. Fortunately, the pain of a great loss often lets itself into consciousness very gradually. This allows you to absorb it little by little. It is a blessing.

It is important to stay open to the pain. Try to detach yourself sufficiently to attend to it on its own terms; not as inherently good or bad, but simply as itself. This pain is yours. It has things to teach you. And, most importantly, it is a sign you are still alive.

You are wounded, and you are hurting. But remember: the instincts of your mind and body are all toward healing.

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true –
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe –

The eyes glaze once – and that is Death
Impossible to feign
The Beads opon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

Emily Dickinson

dead-end: pain as damage/mutilation
In modem society, we learn that pain is bad. We actively seek to avoid or deaden pain – or even discomfort or inconvenience. When pain is inevitable, we then have few resources to deal with it. We tend to want to treat it quickly, so that it will go away. You will be offered drugs – everything from sedatives to sleeping tablets. Consider their use carefully.

While it is reasonable to use the new technology of drugs to help us through physical pain, it is dangerous to use them over long periods to dull psychic pain. Also, there are times when the pain simply will not be dulled.

The psyche has its own ways of dealing with pain. The numbness of the first days or weeks is itself a way that it uses to protect itself.

When that numbness wears off, it is important to try to get away from the notion that pain = bad. You may feel damaged. You may feel mutilated. But you are still yourself. You do have the capacity to become whole again. Remember that the entire instinct of your being is to try to heal – and that pain itself is part of that process.

One technique for coping is to shift the way you think about pain. Even while you protect yourself in practical ways (see above), it is important to try to imagine how the pain may be experienced not as negative but as positive.

reorientation: grieving as hurt, hurt as healing
Imagine yourself as physically wounded. What do you do? If you are wounded, you do not cover it up and pretend it doesn’t exist. If you are wounded, you open up the wound to clean it, so it will heal.

tell everyone:
Honour the wound. If you try to ignore it, it will grow infected. If it were a literal wound, ignoring it could even kill you. But this is a wound to your spirit. Others cannot see it. So it is even more important not to hide it, but to let others know you are in pain.

Remember, unlike a physical wound, it will not register with those you meet, so it may be necessary to inform or remind them of your situation. Do this as early in a conversation as possible to prevent yourself being trapped by others’ assumptions. Remember that in a society where there are no longer any tokens by which the grieving may be easily identified – such as the old custom of wearing black – it is necessary for you to give the sign early to avoid compounding your own hurt.

keep in mind: what has happened to you is important
Do not deny the wound. Do not deny the pain. And do not allow others to disregard or minimize your pain. (By doing so, they may think they are helping you, but in fact the opposite is true.)

find a sacred space
A sacred space is one in which you can heal. It should be one which is quiet and offers comfort: a bench in a favourite park; a place where you once walked with the one you loved; a spot near the grave; a forest clearing. It does not matter where it is as long as it is quiet and responds to your condition. As for myself, I went back to the church of my childhood. It was not only that the ritual was consoling but that, within the community of the church, I found a place where suffering was taken seriously. There I could acknowledge my pain and begin to become whole again.

imagine yourself as healing
A tree wounded in its trunk by a hard object simply grows around it. You too are growing, and as you grow, you will surround the hard thing that has wounded you. It will not kill you. Although you have been hurt, you can still grow and flourish.

Likewise when you heal, you will have a scar. It will always remind you – and others – of the wound you have suffered. In time, it will simply become part of you, and at times, it will even hurt again, in a way that reminds you distantly of the intense pain immediately after the event.

This scar is a good thing. It is the memento of the suffering we have endured. It is a sign that we continue to endure, but have never forgotten the wound and the loss by which it was made.

when pain is good:
When it tells you you have to pay attention to it.
When it breaks you open, making you bigger.
When it connects you with the pain of others.
When it forces you to look at the world differently.
When it reminds you that you are alive.
When it compels you to be honest.
When it makes you understand that it is inevitable.
When you recognize it as one of the most intense, and potentially valuable, experiences in your life.

The images we have in our head for pain are almost always negative. For this reason, it is important to try to find new images, or models, for pain that imply something positive. The following are two that are most helpful in understanding the ways that pain can be thought of as good:

reorientation: pain as an initiation rite
In traditional societies, almost all initiation rites involve pain. The way the pain is endured is often important to the value of the rite; but of most importance, for our purposes, is that pain itself is recognized as a gateway experience, one that leads us into a new life. In our own case, this initiation is not (as rites the anthropologists describe) into the company of warriors, or of sexually mature men and women – but into the vast and invisible brotherhood of pain, by which we become at last fully human.

Such thinking is very ancient. The Greek god Dionysus was said to be born out of a wound in Zeus’s thigh. When he was an infant, he was torn apart by the jealous Titans. But they overlooked his heart, from which a new body was reconstituted.

Dionysus is the icon of the wounded god; born of a wound that became a womb, and reborn again after being fatally dismembered. Thus he becomes the prototype of how, in life, we can be made whole after we have been rent.

For Christians the prototype is that of the Christ broken upon the cross. Because this image is one of terrible pain, it speaks to those also in pain. But I prefer the Christ to whom St Bernard prays:

Conceal me, Wound; within thy cave
Locked fast, no thing shall harm me;
There let me nestle close and safe,
There soothe my soul and warm me (1).

For this is a motherly Christ, who makes of his mortal wound a space within which the soul may be safe to grow again, until it, like the Christ himself, is born into a new life.

Although ancient, these images of pain as initiation endure. Thus, in a modem story involving fatal illness, one observer meditates on the effect to the sufferer, and how, ‘through the little hole of his wound, the immense realm of the spirit enters’ (2).

Our loss is more than a little hole. But the space it opens may become like a door opening into another world.
We may discover that door only slowly, groping through the darkness of our grieving. It is there, and when it swings open, another world also opens to us.

Thus the rite of initiation can provide a kind of map for what lies ahead. Keeping that model in mind may help us to bear our pain and to be patient with it, allowing it to take its course.

It may also give us hope that this wound, too, may become a space which will open to us the immense realm of the spirit.

reorientation: the pain of childbirth
In terms of comparable experience, the early days after bereavement seemed to replay, for me, the shock, the chaos, the terrible uncertainty of a first childbirth.

As in a first childbirth, you do not know exactly what to expect. Like childbirth, death brings chaos, emotional as well as actual. You will not know how you will feel from one moment to the next. Everything feels like an emergency, yet, amidst the chaos, much must be planned. Admit the chaos; go with it. Try not to panic; organize what you can and leave the rest to others. As in childbirth, you now know you are dependent on others to help you through.

As in childbirth, also, you must expect real pain. Remember that this pain is not a sign you are going to die, even if you feel as if you might. Trust yourself to bear it. In fact, the exercises associated with natural childbirth (a modified version of yoga breathing and meditation exercises) can be very useful during the early days of grieving.
What these exercises try to teach you is that, while you will be in pain, the pain itself can be greatly exacerbated by fear. Therefore, to exorcise the fear, you must accept the pain, breathing your way through the worst of it. If you can trust yourself to bear it, the pain can in fact become bearable. The great enemy is fear – of the unknown, of the pain itself. Fear will make you tighten up; it can actually incapacitate you. It is natural to fear pain; but pain in childbirth is the price of a new life.

Not all of us go through childbirth. But if you can imagine it, the model of giving birth is an empowering one for many reasons. First of all, it is a model which acknowledges that pain is inevitable. Secondly, it is a model which presents the pain as bearable. Finally, childbirth as a model implies what is actually the case: that pain can be a productive force, from which you will be able to create a new life out of yourself.

At first it may not seem so. But slowly, over months and years, you will find another life growing within you, and seeking to be born.

The work of grieving moves towards acceptance of grieving, which entails an acceptance of pain.

Pay attention to the pain; it is not all negative. It has things to teach you.


Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroyed,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shriveled in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last – far off – at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
With no more language but a cry.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’

1. St Bernard, ‘To the Stabbed Side of Jesus’, trans. by John Gray, Spiritual Poems (1896), reprinted in The Poems of John Gray, ed. Ian Fletcher, 1880-1920 British Author Series No.1 (Greensboro, North Carolina: ELT Press, 1988), pp. 110-11.
2. ‘Through the little hole of his wound …’ James Hillman, referring to Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, and the spot of tuberculosis which has appeared on Castorp’s lung, as quoted by Robert Bly in Iron John: A Book about Men (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Ine., 1990), p. 209.

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