Donna’s spouse died suddenly. It wasn’t suppose to happen, yet, was all that she could think of as she coped to accept the reality of the event. For months, she was incapaciated by her grief…unwilling to let go of the deepest regrets and lingering pain.
Donna’s reactions were normal.

Many people who grieve deeply believe that grief is passive. They believe grief will just resolve itself over time. Others search aimlessly for a cure. They want to believe there is some magic potion their physician can give them that will cure the pain, forever. Some grievers expect that someone will set their minds at ease by saying the exact, perfect thing that will help them accept their loss. Pehaps their clergy or a spiritual advisor will say the magic words that will help them trust in God to heal thier wounded heart; and help them move on. But more prevalent still is the belief that some morning on waking up, the griever will be miraculously over whatever it is that ailed them this long.

But grief isn’t like that. It doesn’t just go away. And, no one ever told Gary and me that we had the power to heal our own pain. Like other grievers, we wanted that magic cure. The painless effort. The simple answer. The quick fix. What we found, instead, was that grief was “work”—and only we had the power to heal our own grief.

What is grief work?

Grief work can best be described as making deliberate choices to re-engage in the act of living through self-reflection, social interaction, retrospect, stretching your comfort zone, and rebuiliding the image of a new “you”. In simpler terms, it is chosing to move on and live again. Grief work gives you the power to heal your grief.

Grief work is a process of re-visiting the wounds; re-telling the story; and taking a series of steps that lead you to a healing transformation. And sometimes, you may be unintentionally doing your grief work—you don’t realize that what you are doing contributes to healing the pain! There are no text books that teach or coach you through the process. Grief work is often unprescribed; undocumented, not encouraged, and left to chance for most bereaved people. But, oh, how essential it really is!

No one can do your grief work for you. You can have great circles of friends for support, compassionate counselors, limitless invitations to re-engage, intense love of family and friends, good advice and continuous encouragement…but none of these can do your grief work for you. It’s a choice you make on your own. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it feels like your aren’t being true to your feelings—that you may be betraying your love for the person who died. Most times, it means letting go, not of your grief, but rather of the feelings that are holding you back. Sometimes it takes tears and frustration, but in the end the choice is worth the ambivalence; and the outcome generates freedom. So where does the power come from? It comes from within…often subtly, at first. Slowly you begin to feel a day with “progress”. You might actually think to yourself, “I can do this.” That becomes the first step.

How can you tell if you are doing grief work—whether intentionally or unintentionally?
There are signs that you are doing grief work. Many times you will not see them as signs that you are working to heal your pain. But continued progress and exhausting all the efforts will lead to all the power you need to heal your grief.

You talked yourself out, at least temporarily. You told everyone you know the story of this loss in your life. You’ve reached deep into your soul and felt the emotions of life before, during and after your loved one’s death. The painful parts become less obsessive and you focus on the cherished memories of good times, instead. Your story becomes important to you and you tell it every chance you get.

You cried so many tears that you can’t imagine that there could ever be another tear left. Yet they are there; and they come at times least expected. You recognize that tears honor the special relationship you had with your loved one who died. They are the raindrops of life’s adversity.

You write away your feelings until there are few words left in your spoken language to express grief and pain as deep as yours. So you use the same words over and over again in different ways knowing that putting them on paper relieves and comforts the heartache.

You search for answers to all the mysterious questions of “Why me?” Why him/her? Why now?” and realize no one can answer these questions for you. It’s not easy to give up the search, but eventually you realize that it is time to ask God, “What next?” Where do I go from here? And trust in His plan.

You make peace with you family and friends that you’ve held hostage to your grief expecting them to have unlimited capacity to love and listen. You are grateful for their patience and support. But you realize the time has come to stand on your own in this changed world and allow them to also go on with their lives.

You quit beating yourself up with flimsy excuses. Yes, maybe you shudda,…and you probably cudda, but “what if” things had been different. You recognize that all these excuses don’t change a thing. No matter what decision you made; it can’t bring your loved one back. You accept that you did the best you could at the time.

You make peace with God even though you may not understand. You may still feel cheated, but you recognize that God holds you in His embrace just like He holds others who experience painful loss. His son died too. Life and death are human experiences. You place your trust in His continued care.

You quit holding a grudge against another individual who may or may not have been responsible for your loved one’s death. You recognize that the emotions that run deeply require forgiveness. This is the only thing that can truly set you free from your anger. Remember, anger happens because we can’t control the situation. Forgiveness allows you to go on. It doesn’t release the blame.

You challenged the legal system and win or lose, you’ve done all that you can do to achieve justice in a battle that doesn’t bring your loved one back. But you believe the work you’ve done gives some degree of satisfaction for someone taken from you. Now it’s time to move on.

You walked a thousand miles in someone else’s shoes and felt their pain. Many times you wouldn’t exchange their grief experience for yours—because no matter what, grief hurts; but you can deal better with your own loss. And, then you recognize that a mile walked in your own shoes is a better fit.

You experience every grief burst and turn each burst into new found joy. A grief bursts is a sudden memory that is triggered by a sight, sound, or feeling that initially brings sadness. In time, the sadness can be replaced with fond memories of happier times and pleasant stories. You use this power to share the life of the person who once was a part of you in more positive ways.

You give credit to what you have learned. You realize that the books you’ve read and the speakers you’ve listened to have intimate knowledge about what you are going through, but they can’t do it for you. They can only give you hope that life will be better again.But healing your grief is truly up to you.

You acknowledge that others in support groups are struggling with similar feelings and disbelief. You joined a group to make a connection and you feel stronger because of that connection. But the journey is taken by each of us, individually. You honor their support and move on.

You ventured out to console a friend who has had a recent grief experience. You’re not a seasoned griever, but you are compassionate. Compassion allows you to accept the pain they feel—and something reminds you that just being with them will help them through this difficult time.

You take up a worthy “cause” or rally around a principle that expresses your intimate feelings. You feel good when you help others. This is superior grief work! You’ve come full circle now.

  • You honor your “new identity”. You have changed. You honor the role you held as spouse, parent, sibling, or friend and recognize that though this role may have changed; it has made you who you are today. Stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and proud to be you. You honor the “new” you.
  • You invest in life again. You open your heart and mind to new possibilities, new adventures, and new ideas. And, you feel inspired. You recognize that “purpose” begins with attitude and desire to honor what you have been through, and a mantra for handling the road ahead.

Grief work is tedious. Grief work is mourning. Grief work is something we give little thought to, but each of us tries actively to work through the toughest days and make choices that lead to reconciliation.
For most of us, our grief work reaches its pinnacle with a new interest and curiosity about meaning and purpose of life. Our inner spirit has awakened. We search and seek out answers to the impossible. By doing so, we realize we are all part of something much greater than ME. We exist in a universe of many dimensions and our life is minuscule in a grander scheme of things. We become religious, spiritual, or both. We are compassionate about living life with dignity, purpose, and meaning. We’ve subscribed to grief work without intentionally signing up for any class or filling out any application to be a life-member of something good for our health and well-being.

We confirm our thoughts: “You are healing. You’ve got the power!”

Nan Zastrow

“I always wanted to write,” said Nan Zastrow. “But I never dreamed it would be about death, grief, and mourning. Today I write to heal my pain and teach others that even after a life-changing event, there can be a reason and a purpose to go on living.” On April 16, 1993, Chad Zastrow, the son of Nan and Gary, died as the result of suicide. Ten weeks later, Chad’s fiancée took her life. This double tragedy inspired the Zastrows to create a ministry of hope. They formed a non-profit organization called ©Roots and Wings more commonly called Wings. From 1993—2003, they published the Wings™ magazine, a publication about real situations and real people going through grief that was mailed throughout the United States and Canada. In 2003, their non-profit changed its focus to primarily grief education and support. They publish a free, quarterly newsletter by email to subscribers. Nan and Gary, together, have been keynote speakers at National Bereaved Parents and workshop presenters at various other events. They have been grief group facilitators since 1993, and host workshops and seminars. Each year they host an original theme-based community “When the Holidays Hurt” program for area funeral homes. Nan is the author of four books and over sixty Editor’s Journal Articles in Wings, Grief Digest, and other publications. Their non-profit organization is the recipient of the 2000 Flame of Freedom Award for community volunteerism. Nan was also nominated for the Women of Vision Award in 2001; the Athena Award in 2005, and The HOPE of Wisconsin, hospice volunteer of the year in 2008. Nan and Gary are hospice volunteers and survivors of six sudden deaths of significant people in their lives.

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