Pathways Through Grief

Here are answers to some of the most frequently-asked questions about sudden loss. You’ll find some “pathways” more helpful than others depending on your particular situation.

Some research psychologists are using virtual reality technology to treat phobias and trauma. The sufferer wears a headset and goggles that immerses them in a simulated reality that helps them face their particular fear and thereby overcome it. For instance, a person who has a fear of heights and aided by virtual reality (VR) technology, would actually “see” and “feel” themselves facing a bridge over a significant height. They would then be “taken across the bridge”, slowly experience their fear, face it, and with the help of a therapist, eventually overcome it. So far, there is no VR program to help a survivor or witness overcome the trauma caused by sudden death, and navigate the pathway to healing.

This article will address those pathways by answering some of the most frequently asked questions put to us by those suffering sudden loss. You’ll find some “pathways” more helpful than others depending on your particular situation. We’ll also offer tools and exercises you can use to promote your healing and encourage the emotional recovery of those you love.


A: Our thoughts, feelings and ideas of what grief and the grieving process should look like are formed when we are children by observing our parents and other adults. How they handled loss is how we most likely believe we should. But can we “do” our grief differently if we want to? Can we devise our own pathways? Is there room or energy for creativity at a time like this?

Some of you may feel more comfort and stability handling loss the way your family and community has always done. You may feel more comforted by taking control and creating a unique passage for yourself and the deceased. You are your own best guide through this time. Have faith in your ability to handle this difficult time in your own way. Remember, when life feels out of control, and it’s bound to during this time, that the one thing you DO have control over is HOW you will grieve.


A: In the very beginning you will find it extremely difficult to realize any good coming from your tremendous loss. However, as difficult as it is to move through the stages of grief, it is possible to shift from feeling grief is “something that happens to you” to “grieving is something you do to heal”. You are the one person who can change the pain to possibility, the loss to creative hurt. After a while you may want to start a charity, scholarship or foundation to honor the deceased. You may write a book (as we have done), create a painting or sculpture, write a song…

The wrenching and ripping apart that the sudden death of a loved one creates can leave one with an open wound subject to infection — the “infection” can then manifest as self-abuse (liquor, promiscuity, pills, etc.) or it can manifest, by choice, as growth — a “wound” infected with growth — another form of re-creation.

By choosing growth and creativity as a result of this major life transition you may even find new friends or friends of your own for the first time. This is especially true if you seek out support groups consisting of people who have a mutual need. You can share your struggles at trying to create a meaningful new life, and at the same time facilitate some useful understanding of the recovery process. By choosing growth, we may begin to see our relationship with the Universe in a different way. We may begin to see God (or however you choose to name that energy in your life) in the small acts of love from those we least expect, in our communities and families, and maybe even from a stranger.


My husband died suddenly while playing baseball — a heart attack. He was young. We were young. When I found myself feeling dysfunctional during the early stages of grief, I barely had the energy to cook meals for my two young children. So, off we went to MacDonalds. As we were eating our hamburgers and French fries, I noticed a woman sitting at a table with her own two young children. I also noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. I was new in the community and most of my friends had abandoned me because they were “our friends” and I was feeling quite alone. After announcing to my children that I would be right back, I approached the woman, introduced myself, told her I was recovering from the death of my husband and asked her if she knew of any support groups or therapists I might turn to for help. I simply took the chance that she might know what I could do. In a few minutes of conversation she told me that she was also widow, invited us to sit at her table and then asked if I would come back to her house for a glass of wine where she gave me the name of her therapist. This total stranger became one of my best friends, offering me love and support over many months of pain and readjustment.

Andrea LaSonde Melrose describes this unexpected movement of human spirit in the book, Nine Visions: “We stumble blindly on our way, often running from a responsibility we are afraid to take on, from a burden we don’t think we can carry. We thrash and flail, certain that we are drowning, panicked, as if unreasoning activity were going to help us. Somehow, into that darkness, comes a moment of peace when a friend gives us a hug, a stranger reaches out a hand… and we realize that we have been standing on a rock all along; supported, stable, safe.”
However we see that gesture — as God working through the human beings around us or simply as the generosity of the human spirit coming through the day-to-day masks we all wear, the gift is infinitely precious.
You can chose to allow the spirit (creative force, God, higher power) to move in your life which can provide an opportunity to look at previously challenging and fearful situations in a new way, with the ultimate outcome a new sense of self awareness. By choosing growth you are saying to yourself and those in your life, that as painful as this transition experience is, “I am going to survive and be better for it…”

A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) is a relatively new kid on the block. This financial professional — often also a CFP or a CPA — has specialized skills and experience that enables him or her to analyze financial issues in divorce in their long-term context. “The divorce financial planner can help people going through divorce feel more secure about the choices they’ll eventually make,” says Carl M. Palatnik , Ph.D, CFP, CDFA, and a practitioner member and president of the Association of Divorce Financial Planners in private practice in Smithtown, NY. “They’ll be more aware of the lifestyle changes they need to adopt to make a particular settlement work, able to reach workable settlements more quickly, and less likely to have to revisit support issues in the future.”


A: If you have to hold down a job during this time, try to schedule grief sessions for yourself: work from 9 to 5, dinner at 6, grieving from 7-9, a warm cup of tea, and then to bed. If you have children, they are grieving also and some time must be devoted to them — you will need to hear their stories as well and create some intentional time for them. You may also be able to identify programs for them through your school system.


A: There are many dimensions of the physical and emotional self to consider as you wend your way on the pathway through grief. These dimensions include the psychological, spiritual, nutritional, and social and each plays an important role as you struggle to find balance.

A loved one has died, suddenly, and it is a shock to the entire system because your thoughts and perceptions affect every cell and hormone in your body. One of the most neglected areas of health is the emotional component and its effect on physical well-being.

If you are unaware of the toll this shock can have on your body, you are likely to not take care of yourself when you need to most. Some people begin smoking again, or drinking too much, not eating or sleeping well.

If you are to prevent the ill effects of the loss on your physical body, you must pay close attention to the messages you are giving yourself. Are you giving yourself “die” messages because you wish it had been you that died instead of your loved one? Are you giving yourself “I don’t deserve to live” messages because you believe there was something more you could have done to save them?

Your emotions are powerful. Dr. Christine Northrup in her newsletter “Health Wisdom for Women” writes, “The brain and immune system communicate in two ways: by means of hormones that the brain regulates; and through protein molecules, called neuropeptides (or neurotransmitters) and receptors, which send messages back and forth. These same molecules are not only in your brain, but also in your stomach, your muscles, your glands, your bone marrow, your skin, and all of your other organs and tissues. Since the network expands to every organ in the body, it means that every thought you think and emotion you feel is communicated to every cell in your body.”


A: If you witnessed the tragic death, and find yourself running the “movie” of the tragedy over and over in your mind, you may be storing “fight-or-flight” responses in your body resulting in major or minor anxiety. Dr. Northrup explains it this way, “The Fight-or-Flight Response is your body’s way of handling acute stress by using stored glucose and fat so your muscles have the energy they need to get you out of harm’s way. But you cannot function in this mode forever… As your anxiety builds, all of your immune cells start running around in circles, preparing your body to fight… but, because there is nothing to actually fight against, the cortisol stays in your system. This is when your emotions become “toxic”. If this Fight-or-Flight response continues for a long time, you will deplete your adrenal glands, your hormones will become imbalanced and you can set yourself up for a number of illnesses….


A: It is vital that you care for yourself, or ask others to care for you, in ways that will be life affirming during this time. And to give your weakened body, life affirming messages. Eat nutritious foods, get the rest you need, exercise some, and develop compassion for yourself. You might also try giving yourself life-affirming messages such as:

  • I forgive myself for not knowing what was coming.
  • It’s okay to be alive even though my loved one isn’t.
  • When he/she was alive, I gave all I was capable of at the time, and it is okay to give to myself now.
  • He/she/they died and I couldn’t prevent it, and it is okay for me to be alive.
  • My child died, but I am not a failure as a parent.
  • When my loved one was alive, I loved them the best I knew how.
  • It’s not my fault if my loved one didn’t take care of himself.
  • I had no control over the circumstances that caused my loved one’s death.
  • I am connected by my loss to millions of others and I am not alone.


A: Perhaps you were driving the car, or steering the boat. Perhaps you bought those cruise tickets, chose that restaurant, suggested that trip. What do you do then? How can you go on knowing you may have, in some way (big or small) been inadvertently to blame? How do you go on? The answer is, by putting the emphasis on the word, “inadvertently”. Inadvertently means unintended, unintentional.

Say these words to yourself or write them down 100 times: “I DID NOT INTENTIONALLY KILL OR CAUSE THE DEATH OF _____________.” (fill in the person’s name) If you’re having trouble forgiving yourself, try helping someone in need. There is no better cure for regaining your self-esteem. You are valuable, your life has meaning. Turn the energy you are using in self-condemnation outward to help someone, or some organization that needs your valuable gifts.


A: One of the most powerful tools for recovery is writing down your real thoughts and feelings in a journal — without editing or judgment. Or better yet, write your feelings in a letter to the deceased. Some of your initial feelings will be quite strong or angry. Don’t let this deter your efforts. You need to get those feelings out. After a while, your writing will turn softer as the emotional charge diminishes. You have a unique and meaningful story to tell: the story of the beginning, middle, and ending of a relationship. Telling your story, writing it in a journal, hearing others stories — this is one way we heal. No one has to read what you wrote for this exercise to work, although you may want to read portions of your journal to your support group members. One woman I spoke with said, “What worked best for me was to keep a daily gratitude journal so I could see that my life was full of more than just grief and loss. It helped me feel more balance and gave me a perspective that was empowering…”

In her book, The Fruitful Darkness, Buddhist anthropologist and deep ecologist Joan Halifax reflects on our collective as well as personal stories when she writes “stories are our protectors, like our immune system, defending against attacks of debilitating alienation… They are the connective tissue between culture and nature, self and other, life and death, that sew the worlds together, and in telling, the soul quickens and comes alive.”

In his classic book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes that though our own story “can be hard to tell, full of disappointments and frustrations, deviations and stagnations… it is the only story we have and there will be no hope for the future when the past remains unconfessed, unreceived and misunderstood.”

Take the time and find a way to tell your story. Listen to your story. Listen to the stories of others. You might also want to try connecting with Nature, or reading a self-help book. Reading an entire book will probably be very difficult in the beginning. However, there are some wonderful books on grieving that can be helpful. DO NOT plan to read an entire self-help book from cover to cover. Simply find what you need most right now in the index or table of contents and just read a page or two at a time.


A: You may find it useful to turn your anger into a loud prayer or shouting match with God. For instance: “DEAR GOD, THE PAIN IS HORRIBLE! I AM ANGRY AT MYSELF. I AM ANGRY AT THE PERSON WHO DIED! I AM ANGRY AT YOU! WHY CAN’T YOU MAKE IT STOP? MAKE THE PAIN GO AWAY! HOW MUCH DO YOU EXPECT ME TO BEAR?!” Pounding your fists on a bed or sofa while shouting this “prayer” is one way of moving painful stuck energy through your body. You might notice a sense of relief when you’re done. You may want to do this exercise with your therapist or trusted friend if you don’t feel safe doing it alone.

If the sound of your own screaming and yelling is too scary for you, even with support, you might begin by writing a short note to the deceased. Each of the following people was at a point in the process where all they could feel was anger:

  • Dear Allison: I am hurt and angered by your abandonment of me and the kids. – Rob
  • Dear Chris: All I want to do is rage at you and cry. – Brenda
  • Dear Tom: If I could get my hands on you right now, I’d kill you for leaving me. – Annie
  • Dear Artie: Friends don’t desert friends, man. You really f-cked up this time, you idiot!!! – Bill

You may be angry at the person who caused the death. It some cases it’s appropriate and encouraged to make direct contact with the person who caused the death, to let them know exactly how you feel. In other cases, especially when the death was inadvertently caused by someone else, it is more useful and appropriate to contain your anger to a therapist’s office or to writing a letter you do not mail.

After you have honored your anger, and when you are ready, you might want to try this “Thank You” exercise. Compared to all other acts, personal and spiritual growth is greatest through the expression of gratitude. No matter how difficult at first, expressing appreciation for the life that is gone can help make some meaning in the face of tragedy. Acknowledging, in writing, what was empowering and uplifting about your relationship to the deceased, will help you keep sacred what you had together — to retain what was valuable and to let go the false belief that they are incapable of inspiring you to life now that they are dead.

Why pick up a pen and write a note — why not just think about what you’d like to say? Because the act of writing — choosing the type of pen and paper, the color of the ink, moving the pen across paper, seeing the words — all make what you are saying more real, more concrete. You’ll notice your energy shift — from confusion about what to write, anger at having to sort through your life alone for the first time (or the thousandth time), tears as you recognize what you’ve lost, and ultimately a sense of relief at having given yourself the chance to express the unsaid.

Date and save your notes in a special place or put them in your journal. You may want to destroy the note — that’s okay too. Remember, this is about expressing feelings that need to be expressed. Rereading it again after several months or years is sometimes useful, so you may want to save it for future reference. It is also useful to write another note to the deceased after some time has passed. Each time you write it you will gain new insights. Here’s an example:

“Dear Jim, Thanks for the holding. You were good at holding when I needed to be held — when I was having trouble learning to trust — you helped me to know that I was capable of loving. You held me when I was sad. I had so much sadness then. Thank you for the many times you were able to say, “everything will be all right”. Thank you for coming into this lifetime. This time I received the lesson I was so long denying that I needed to learn. What did I learn? I learned that it is unwise to marry someone to give you what you didn’t get from your parents as a child. It is important to nurture and love yourself. Thank you for being a good father to our son: you were the kind of father I would have wanted for myself. Thank you for the 10 years of our marriage: for 10 years I felt loved. Thanks for being with me at the birth of our son and for supporting us so I could stay home with him when he was a baby — yes, MOST OF ALL, thank you for our son for without you, he would not have been born. Love, Joan”

Although she sobbed on and off for the better part of an hour after writing this, she admitted to experiencing a sense of relief and to feeling better about herself than she had in some time. She affirmed why she had chosen the man she did and felt great comfort in this. It may sound strange, but especially when one loses a mate, one of the thoughts that may arise is, “I should have chosen better: someone who wasn’t destined to die.” This exercise may be one of the tougher ones, and as you do it, please remember that you’re not alone.

  • Find a safe time and place to “go crazy” if you want to. Go yell in the woods, throw rocks at trees, swear at the TV, wear the deceased’s clothes to bed…


A: Don’t expect to get through this time alone. You need all the support you can muster. Your need for support may be wearing on your family and friends and you may be getting the mistaken idea that after a while you should tough it out on your own. We can only recover from our loss if we are in an atmosphere where honesty and loving acceptance are encouraged and where our burdens are shared. Seek out or develop a support group where you can share your pain, process any lingering guilt, and see hope for the future. One of the best ways to “see” your personal growth is to join a support group that will assure you of how far you’ve come. In the group, you’ll see others who are back where you once were in the journey, or ahead of you in their healing. Wherever they are, you’ll find many common threads as you share your experience with them.

Healing from the trauma of sudden loss in isolation is extremely difficult and may even be hazardous to your health. When you’re having a problem, isn’t it a comfort to talk to someone who has “been there, done that”? There’s something about being with others who understand the painful process and lifestyle alterations you’re experiencing. Lots of heads nodding in agreement while you talk of your suffering as well as your accomplishments in the face of it all, can be very healing indeed. According to research, one of the benefits that a group can offer is a boost to the immune system. In helping others, you will find yourself moving a little more quickly in the healing process. Groups, large and small, professionally operated or member run, can provide not only understanding and support, but an exchange of useful, pragmatic information.

When you commit to a bereavement support or therapy group, you “take the members with you” when you go into difficult situations. You are never really alone. And sometimes if you ask, members will go with you not just in spirit, but in the flesh. For example, last week, Maureen had to go to the City Hall to pick up her son’s death certificate and she expressed her anxiety and fear in the group. It took a lot, but after she admitted she was scared that she might break down in a public place, Shelly, another group member, volunteered to accompany her and drive her there if she wanted.

Ellen was at the beginning stage of readjustment to the unexpected loss of her husband of 38 years. She felt she had no friends in the community. Her sense of isolation was enormous and overwhelming to the point where she felt she needed medication for the anxiety she was experiencing. She was also dealing for the first time with financial and estate matters she knew very little about. This was creating even more anxiety for her. She attended a support group where she found immediate acceptance and validation. She was literally lifted to a higher, more positive place after attending just two meetings. Ellen is now attending the group regularly and is feeling much less “crazy” and more in control of the process. With the group’s support, she asked her attorney and accountant to slow down a bit and explain things more clearly. She put off making too many decisions and found out from a group member where she could get more information about real estate issues, and allowed the group to give her feedback on her financial concerns.


A: A support or therapy group can be the ideal place for you to inexpensively explore your feelings. Your previous circle of mutual friends may no longer be available to you and you will need to make your own way in the world and that can be a frightening thought. But, how do I know which group is right for me? Hospitals and religious organizations sometimes sponsor these groups. Therapists and social workers also form groups. Finding the right group for you will be easier if you pay attention to your intuition during and after the first meeting. At a time when we aren’t sure of our ability to make decisions, trust your gut feelings to guide you. And don’t give up, keep trying until you find the right fit. Some of the ways these groups are listed or advertised are:

  • bereavement group
  • bereavement support
  • newly widowed
  • young and widowed
  • parents of murdered children
  • suicide support

There are some questions you should ask the person in charge:

  • is there a fee?
  • how often do you meet?
  • is there an attendance requirement?
  • how many people are there in the group (if the group is larger than 10, you may not get your needs met as readily — there is only so much time for each person)
  • is the group for men/women only? A group consisting of women only will help women develop supportive female relationships; and a group of all men will help men safely express their feelings without too much embarrassment.

Allow the group the opportunity to “give” to you. Work on believing you’ve earned the right to receive. Don’t be afraid to talk about or to express your feelings. After all, that’s why you came. You won’t receive the support you came for is you hold back. Think about the friends in your life and you will see that with time the level and depth of their friendship was revealed — the same goes for a group experience.


A: Solitude is as important as a group experience at this time. In solitude comes the opportunity (if we are not afraid) to slow down, to reflect, to gain a deeper inner vision of ourselves, our responsibilities, and our needs. However, if we spend too much time alone, we risk believing the inner voices that beat up on us, so you may do better if you attend a weekly support group. A group offers the opportunity to check out what we “learned” in solitude, and to find out if what we’ve been telling ourselves is true.


A: Men have a tendency to “tough it out” rather than seek support. But when they do, they most often find a strong bond with the other men and a safe place to express feelings. Ken expressed great relief when he spoke with tears in his eyes saying, “And I thought I was the only guy in New York whose heart was being ripped out every time I looked at my daughter and saw my wife in her face.”


A: Suddenly your life has changed — some more than others — but it can be less overwhelming if you are willing to confront the meaning of each change.

  • Confront your feelings. Denial can prolong the adjustment period and can prevent healthy adjustment.
  • Maintain relationships. Isolation can have the same effect as denial.
  • Give yourself time. No one can adjust to change overnight.
  • Look for positive aspects of the change. It will take time, but you may find yourself beginning to open to new possibilities that may not have been there before.
  • Keep the change in perspective. Look at the big picture. What may seem drastic now may seem less important when considered in a “lifetime” perspective.


A: The first step toward positive change is to recognize that the life of the person you cared about is over. To do this you must re-condition your thoughts and your words. Many people hold on to the thought that he or she is coming back. They find themselves “waiting” or putting life “on hold”…with a fear of changing too much in their lives. This kind of waiting, or holding back, uses a lot of energy that could be used for other pursuits. You must consciously be aware of pulling your thoughts back from the past to the present moment so you can maximize your energy to create a positive, forward-looking present. This waiting or suspended animation may be a necessary part of your healing. Consider changing the experience of waiting from a negative experience to a positive one.


Therapists and specialists in grief counseling agree that bereavement (especially in cases of sudden loss) closely parallels traumatic stress reactions. Based on this fact, here are some therapies you may want to seek out:


1. Family Guidance and Therapy Model. A program for helping grieving families, it not only helps parents traumatized as a result of the death of a child, but is applicable to any tragedy or major, shared traumatic experience. This approach builds upon those offered in both the fields of parental guidance and family therapy.
2. The Rochester Model. This family-oriented treatment is very brief (10-session average) and is a purely family therapy approach for dealing with the death of a family member.


Aside from traditional psychotherapy or spiritual counseling, there are a number of alternative therapies you may wish to explore. Here are a few examples:

1. Thought Field Therapy (TFT). This is a brief treatment approach found extremely promising in treating traumatic stress associated with grief and bereavement. TFT includes “psychological reversal”, a procedure that helps clients reverse their disinclination of reaching a certain clinical goal. It also includes, “perturbations”, the sensation of traumatic stress experienced not only cognitively, but also kinesthetically, emotionally, neurologically and biologically.
2. Visual/Kinesthetic Disassociation (V/KD). Like EMDR and TFT, V/KD is very brief, powerful and apparently successful in reducing subjective distress, yet without requiring grieving clients to describe their traumatizing experience. At its best, V/KD achieves success but without the unwanted time requirements and emotional distress.
3. Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR). TIR appears to be very promising for enabling clients to make significant progress in only a few sessions. In contrast to the treatment approaches listed above, TIR depends upon the client retelling his or her story over and over until the client finds an “end point.” In this approach, the therapist helps the grieving person by bearing witness to the person’s accounting, but nothing else. This witnessing has been found to be extremely powerful in helping those who have lost a loved through murder.


  • Be kind to yourself. Perfection is not necessary; there is no arriving, only going. There is no need to judge where you are in your journey. It is enough that you are traveling.
  • Make a commitment to your future. Commitment enables you to bypass all your fears, mental escapes, and justifications, so that you can face whatever you are experiencing in the moment.
  • Get out of your own way. The main block to healing from loss is the thought that we shouldn’t be where we are, that we should already be further along in our growth than we perceive ourselves to be.
  • Affirm yourself. Who you were and who you will be are insignificant compared to who you are.
  • Your life has not been a waste. Every individual in your life reveals a part of you that you need to encounter and serves as a medium through which you can see yourself, grow in awareness, and come closer to God within. Live every experience and every event you encounter as a learning opportunity, rather than as a threat of failure.
  • Fear is not always a bad thing. If you allow yourself to experience fear fully, without trying to push it away, an inner shift takes place that initiates transformation.
  • There is no experience that exists in this life that does not have the power to lead you to greater knowledge and growth. Major loss can only become a vehicle for creating a renewed life when we stop thinking of it as punishment and start to see it as process — from punishment to process. A process which over time begins with the death of a relationship, proceeds through a period of grief and mourning in which the death is recognized and accepted, and ends with a rebirth.
  • May you see light where there was only darkness, hope where there seemed nothing but despair, may your fear be replaced with faith and insight, may you feel some victory in the defeat and a sense of the sacred web into which we are all woven. Most of all, may you stay tuned to your capacity to love life even as you are engulfed by death.

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