Some say the heart is just like a wheel –
When you bend it, you can’t mend it,
But my love for you is like a sinking ship,
And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean.
–lyrics from Heart like a Wheel, by Anna McGarrigle
These words have been part of the soundtrack of my life since I first heard them in 1974 – before most of my losses ever took place. The image of helplessly watching one’s heart drown on a doomed, distant ship captures the essence of grief for me: when our hearts are engulfed in unresolved grief, we lose connection with our true selves, and this affects our ability to trust, love and engage deeply with others. As for the bent wheel, I always picture it from a cyclist’s perspective: you can painstakingly hammer a bent wheel back into a circle, but it will never be quite the same. It’s tempting to toss the damaged wheel and buy a new one. Unfortunately, we can’t do this with our hearts, but we can learn how to mend them and get ourselves back on the road – with the right tools and a trustworthy manual.
It wasn’t until 2013, on a coffee date with a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years, that I heard about The Grief Recovery Handbook. Tammy mentioned she’d been using it with friends to work through grief issues, and my ears perked up. I’d never heard of this practical, unassuming little book, although it’s been in print for over twenty years. I found a copy at my local library and started reading. What I read – and applied — transformed my life.
I’d participated in a grief workshop based on some similar principles not long before Tammy pointed me to the book, but it hadn’t brokered much change. This time, there were some key concepts and strategies that broke through and got to the core of my grief. The authors, John W. James and Russell Friedman, have worked with grievers for over thirty years, and their simple process really works. (In the 2009 edition, the authors estimate that over 1 million people had learned and benefited from their work: I’ll bet the number is much higher. After all, what about all the library patrons, like me, who don’t get counted?) The book costs very little (retail price is under $20) and is widely available. Best of all, anyone can do the recovery work – with the help of a friend, and on your own timetable.
The first part of the book discusses the nature of grief, the impact of unresolved grieving, and some common misperceptions about grief and recovery. (These short chapters are so succinct and enlightening, I recommend copies be distributed at hospitals, funerals, coffee shops, bus depots, bars, and clinics everywhere.) Acknowledging that grief stems from many losses besides a physical death (such as loss of faith, career, or health; infertility; moving (!); financial struggles; Alzheimer’s and dementia; growing up in an alcoholic/ dysfunctional home, etc.), the authors include guidance for recognizing and dealing with these less-obvious losses. Basically, any change, loss or privation on your life journey that continues to affect your ability to trust and/or your vitality or ‘aliveness’ needs to be properly processed so your heart can heal.
Here are a few nuggets from the first chapter:
– Unresolved grief is cumulative, and cumulatively negative. It separates us from ourselves and consumes tremendous amounts of our energy.
– “The great majority of people around us do not have successful grieving experiences to share. Therefore, they unknowingly encourage us to ‘act recovered’”.
– False (pretended) recovery leads to a state of “quiet desperation – sometimes feeling good, sometimes bad, but never able to return to a state of full happiness and joy”.
-Trying to heal the heart with the brain is like trying to paint with a hammer – it only makes a mess.
And from the introduction:
“With the correct information and the correct choices, a person can recover from any significant loss.”
As for the relationship between faith and our feelings, the authors do not diminish the power of faith and prayer, but explain: “Unresolved grief is always about undelivered emotional communications that accrue within a relationship over the course of time. Faith and prayer are wonderful tools… but do not, of themselves, discover and complete what is unfinished” (page51).
This explains why all those years of stuffing and praying for my feelings to change never worked.
Completing the grief work as set forth in the rest of the book requires a commitment of time to do the homework (not difficult, but not to be rushed through), and finding at least one person who wants to do their own grief work alongside you. I asked around, and found five friends who expressed a real interest and purchased the book. Of these five, three started and two completed at least one round of sessions (one-on-one). This was enough help for me to process three of the losses/relationships I needed to work through; it also got them started on their own recovery, and deepened our friendship. Finding time to do the homework and meet up was a challenge for everyone, but I believe if the readiness is there, the time can be found. As the authors stress, having someone to listen as you share is vital – otherwise, you’re dealing alone with substance that needs both voice and ears. (You can do it alone if you absolutely need/want to, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either.) No one in the partnership has to be an ‘expert’ – the steps are simple to follow, and you aren’t called upon to counsel or advise one another, just to listen. There does need to be a mutual commitment to completion and confidentiality.
Working through the three losses took time and energy, but it was time well spent, and it took far less energy than struggling for years with unresolved feelings or numbness. There were many more than three relationship/losses on my life chart, but just working on those three has lightened my heart and banished much of the ‘haunting’. Fortunately, the process can be repeated for any loss that comes up, past or present, and takes less time after you complete the first one and understand the steps.
I realize now that I was struggling to resume writing my series because, knowing the next topic was grief recovery, my heart/subconscious knew that my grief work is not finished. Since doing the sessions last year, my life has been completely uprooted – again. We became empty-nesters overnight; I left my students and my established teaching career behind. One of my brothers is terminally ill, and I’m not ten minutes away anymore: it takes four hours of treacherous mountain driving to get there (and my car, alas, has no working heater). There are deep issues locked within these changes and losses that need careful consideration and a return to the work shed. And sometimes, the mind resists what the heart needs most – and vice versa.
But at least I already have the tools and the manual, and I can see where the wheel’s still bent. And that’s a gift.
May God bless your own journey of recovery and healing. I hope this helps.
Categories: My Story: Turn, Turn, Turn