The “Grief Recovery Handbook” by John James and Russell Friedman is an invaluable tool for healing emotional pain and loss. It saved me after the death of my parents and my divorce, which all happened at once.
It shows us how to write “Grief Letters” to our “dearly beloved,” and read it to a listener. This simple eye contact with another human, who need only be silent and accept our grief, pain, and yes tears, creates astonishing healing. “This is why…God put tear ducts in our eyes,” says Dr. John Townsend. “Someone should be looking at us when we are crying…Then we know that we are not alone, our tears are seen and heard.”
If you’ve lost a dearly beloved, you could just buy 2 copies, find a “grief partner” who’s also had a loss, and follow the book. The grief letters may be straightforward for you, and then you’ll be “complete” and heal. You may not need this blog.
But I had childhood trauma, and neither my parents, nor my ex, were “clearly beloved.” There was a lot of muddy pain and hurt; I was stuck with “the death of a less-than-loved one.” I had to walk a convoluted path to discover how to grieve.
From “Don’t Try This at Home,” Chapter 5 (unedited, so it’s not yet on my New Book tab)
…It was March 2009 and my choir car pool buddy Steve was in a sea of emotional pain since his wife’s death; I’d advised him back in 2008 to get the “Grief Recovery Handbook” by John James and Russell Friedman. I thought it was about death; his issue, not mine. I thought my issue was to replace my ex with a new romance, so I got their other book, “Moving On.” [FN1]
But Steve, ever the engineer, was determined to deal with pain scientifically. He took one look at the book and bought a second copy for me. “This is a program to retrain the emotions,” he announced. “You need it too.” [FN2]
Thus began our three-year saga with the Grief Recovery Handbook or GRH as Steve fondly dubbed it. We wanted off the pain train, and bad.
“A broken heart is like a flat tire. Waiting for time to heal your heart without taking action, is like waiting for air to jump back into a flat tire,” the GRH begins. “That’s what the grief process does. It’s an action we can take… Action first, feelings follow,” it repeats. “Don’t wait to act until you feel better; you’ll never feel better unless you act.”
Most of what you know about emotional pain is wrong, the book next announces — we’ve all been taught Six Myths in particular which are a fraud. These myths make grieving impossible, forcing us to keep carrying the pain around, often for life:
1. Don’t feel bad. (Don’t feel. Feelings are bad. Stuff it.)
2. Replace the loss. (Get a new spouse, just like a new cat.)
3. Grieve alone (Go to your room. Sadness is impolite. You’re bad.)
4. Just give it time. (Just sit; air will spring into the tire.)
5. Be strong for others. (Your feelings aren’t important, nor are you.)
6. Keep busy. (Distractions help us to stuff it.)
In a brilliant article “Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later,” James and Friedman compare the heart to an auto engine. It’s an imperfect world, despite the fantasies of perfectionists, so loss and hurt often start at an early age. “You might recognize the title from an advertising slogan for an automotive product several years ago,” they write. The idea was that if you spend a little money on maintenance now, you might save a tremendous amount replacing an entire engine later. [FN3]
“In the auto commercial it was failure to change the oil filter which led to a build up of crud, which clogged and eventually destroyed the motor. Thus, buy an inexpensive filter now or buy a whole new engine later.”
As we go through life, they say, stuffing when we’re hurt instead of grieving, this “crud” builds up around our hearts and thickens year on year. “Grief is negative, and cumulatively negative,” they say, in a key insight.
Then a serious tragedy hits, like a death or divorce, and we don’t realize it, but it triggers all those past hurts we never grieved. Our hearts are breaking inside – but our heart is so hard outside, due to the thick crud, that we can’t see out, so we go into a tailspin.
Now we’re in big trouble and with decades of crud around our hearts.
What to do? Grieve today’s loss thoroughly; that may also help grieve the past, they advise. “Right after a loss, we have a direct pathway to our experiences in the relationship,” they say. “Death and divorce both tend to trigger memories about the emotional aspects of relationships that may never have been communicated about or completed…
“But as time elapses those memories are more difficult to access,” so we’ve got to start now. Otherwise “the build up of emotional ‘crud’ around the heart almost automatically tends to cause us to limit or restrict the kind of interactions that require an open, loving heart.” We become unable to really relate to “safe” people, so we only find more bad relationships.
Grief Letters, Grief Partners
The GRH details actions which are concrete, detailed, extensive, and time-consuming — i.e., credible, and scary as hell. We’d need to make a Loss History Graph detailing the major losses of our entire lives; determine which two or three personal relationships entailed the most losses; and then write a separate “Grief Recovery Completion Letter” to each of those persons. ( p145)
We start with the individual about whom we feel the most pain, and make a Relationship Graph of the major losses related specifically to them.
Next we abstract the incidents on the individual’s Relationship Graph into Recovery Components for that person. Then we turn the Components into a Grief Recovery Completion Letter (Grief Letter hereafter) to that person — and read it aloud.
Then we repeat all those steps separately for each other individual in relation to whom we’d felt significant loss or pain! Doing all this was going to take a big bite out of our lives, and we whined about it up front: Good Grief, Charlie Brown.
Complicated? Overwhelming? Sure. But wait – there’s more!
We also need a Grief Partner to join us in doing all this homework. They must meet with us weekly so we can read our homework to each other; and then later read our Grief Letters to each other. This goes on for as many weeks, or months, until we felt we’ve been “seen and heard” enough to relieve the pain.
To be fair, James and Friedman don’t want anyone to stuff it, so they urge readers who truly can’t find a partner to work the steps alone if need be. Yet they make clear that partnership provides the best relief. Me, it was the only way I got relief.
“This is why I tell people that God put tear ducts in our eyes,” I read two years later in a book by Dr. John Townsend. “Grief is a relational experience, and your pain has to be seen eye to eye with another person. Someone should be looking at us when we are crying, and we should be looking at him or her. Then we know that we are not alone, and that our tears are seen and heard.” [FN4]
Steve and I both saw instantly that a partner would be key; so we hated to start all that homework without getting leads on partners. What if we got too far ahead, with no one working with us? Now the real fun began.
We soon learned that finding a Grief Partner was only slightly less tough than finding a marriage partner, or a unicorn. “Unicorn hunt” became our grim buzzword. We couldn’t work with each other; mourning some details with the opposite sex was too embarrassing. We needed a gal for me and a guy for him.
I went to the local hospice and community groups looking for others in mourning who also needed relief, while Steve asked around at the office and in choir. But it soon became clear that people didn’t like to admit to feelings like this, or if they did, were disposed (as society demands) to minimize losses and “put on a Happy Face.” “I’m too pressed for time after all this upheaval” was the final excuse to cover up the hurt. It became apparent most people were not willing to “get into Grief” much at all — let alone systematically and scientifically.
After two months’ search, at the end of June 2009 I spoke to my local hospice director Greg about my difficulties finding a partner. I attended weekly hospice meetings for the bereaved, but was too embarrassed to discuss my divorce as I had no children, or to discuss Mom’s death due to my horrid conflict with her. The official hospice pamphlet described this as “complex grief” and said it’s especially difficult; the GRH called it the “loss of a less-than-loved-one” and agreed it was tough.
“With all these people crying about how they miss their beloved parent, I’m afraid to upset them by discussing my nasty feelings,” I said. “I don’t fit in anywhere, not even here.” “You are not a freak,” he replied. “Just because you have complex grief does not mean you’re an imposition on other grievers.”
Finally I asked Greg, as a professional, to sit and hear me read my Loss History Graph.
Interesting coincidences began to occur. In December 2008, I’d again sung Handel’s Messiah at a local community college annual Christmas Sing-Along. I knew it so well all the sopranos followed me, except when I sat down between each chorus and dissolved in a pool of sobs. A kindly soprano took pity on me, invited me to her women’s group, and gave me her email. I blocked it out.
The Loss History Graph
I finally emailed Sherry Dexter in March and on March 18, 2009, I attended my first meeting of her women’s codependent’s group. There I sat every Wednesday and when it came my turn to speak I said, “I’m in a lot of pain, and I really need to work on this Grief Handbook. Could one of you be my Grief Partner?” After two months of this Sherry couldn’t stand it any more and in late June, two days after I spoke to my hospice counselor, she volunteered to be my Grief Partner.
Suddenly I had two people to hear my Loss History Graph.
On July 3, I took a room at the beach for the summer and had at my first assignment, my Loss History Graph. This opener is not about any one person in our lives, but rather a list of all the major losses we’ve ever felt. I didn’t know it, but I fled to the ocean for a reason; this was going to be ‘way too much to take without some sort of comfort.
The exercise blew me away; what I saw was that I’d had an entire life of loss. My emotional pain and losses went back as far as conscious thought — and just kept coming. The graph was assigned to fit on one page, but I needed two and that would hold only my worst losses in my tiniest scrawls.
My first memory was swallowing a penny circa age 4; I’ve related that and other frightening experiences with Mom at age 4,5 and 6 in Chapter 3. At 5 my best friend Helen from next door fell off our swing, broke her arm, and was never allowed in our yard again; I was crushed. At 9, I cracked a lamp and was told I’d destroyed a priceless heirloom. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, cowering under the schools desks I felt somehow way more terrified than other kids and completely alone in the agony.
Then came the JFK assassination which terrified me to the point that for no reason anyone could grasp, I began crying uncontrollably and went on sobbing in my room for weeks. Finally Dad came in and said, “That’s enough now, cut it out.” Mom and he were displeased when I cried as a kid and that was the signal to be quiet.
Other than that Dad didn’t appear on the graph. I wrote in the margin “Never home; never told the truth that Mom was crazy, not me; never stood up for me.”
My high school boyfriend Alan left me at 17 saying I was too crazy (now we know he was right). At 18 my first college boyfriend Jim got so depressed when his brother committed a murder, that Jim broke up with me. Being dumped by Jim was my first major prolonged romantic crash; I was completely crushed. I cried and hid in my dorm for a year. No one, led by me, could figure out why my crash was so big; the rejection felt like the earth had fallen out from under my feet. I didn’t actually recover from it for many years; I just kept moving.
At 19 I met my college beau Larry; then I fled to Japan at 21, ended up in medical school in Manila, returned home at 25 and was excommunicated from my family when I quit medicine. The loss of no longer being able to see my sister alone was a mind-boggling amount of agony.
Then I married Larry and had 27 years of loss, starting with an awful abortion in 1982 when he refused to have children. There was no room on the first graph for all the marriage losses; he’d get his own personal Larry Loss Graph and Larry Grief Letter later. Next we lost our international business due to Sept. 11, 2001.
When I finally left our home back east in 2006 and headed to California, I had to add the loss of my house and home, all my friends, my 25-year singing career, my beloved pianist (truly one of a kind), and all my finances in bankruptcy. Next came the losses I took in two nasty rebound affairs.
My jaw dropped as loss after loss spilled out and the large sheets of paper became entirely covered in ever more tiny black scrawls of more and more bad memories until there was almost no white space. Gosh, I thought I’d had such a happy life with all that glorious music and world travel!
“My heart’s like a car which was totaled approximately at birth, and never got any gas or oil, but I just kept driving,” I wrote. “I’ve driven in the Grand Prix to the moon and back a few times — and now I open the hood, and my engine crumbles onto the asphalt in a pile of rust.” In the Loss Graph margin I scrawled: “Unwanted pregnancy would accept all of this to gain any self-validation as in ‘Yes You’re OK to have been Born.’ You’re useful for something in the world. Need to prove you had a right to exist, contrary to the message you got.”
On July 8, I had my first Grief Partner meeting with Sherry and when I got to the JFK assassination, she knocked me on my heels by saying, “But it’s OK to cry!”
No one had ever told me such a thing in my life; I was shocked speechless. I’d always thought that crying was the ultimate sin and depravity. Well that certainly was a lifetime watershed — so shed water I did. I bawled for about 20 minutes while she held my hand, and kept bawling for the next year or two.
I will always love Sherry Dexter until the day I die for what she did for me that day. It was literally the most profound emotional release of my life. It got to where I’d cry at the sight of her which became a running gag between us. As long afterward as two years later when Sherry showed up for one of my concerts, all I had to do was catch a glimpse of her in the third row and I started to bawl. And she would beam at me.
On July 15, my calendar says, I finished my Loss History Graph and read it twice, to my hospice counselor at noon, then to Sherry at 4:30.
Flatten Me I
Next came the question: which relationship hurt the most — which Grief Letter to write first? I’d been with my ex twice as long as with my parents. My divorce was the most recent hit and the crisis which plunged me into this whole mess.
On the other hand, Mom was the first person I ever met (duh) and the most painful relationship imaginable. On July 20 I met Greg at the hospice again and he agreed I’d better start with Mom. “You can’t get around the grief; pain is why you are here. The only way out is to walk through it and grieve,” he said. “You still need to do this because you’ve spent so much time doing other things to avoid doing it.
“So now: Grieve. It’s going to flatten you for a few days. Then you’ll be done.”
As the GRH directs, I took the Mom items from my lifetime Loss History Graph and turned them into a “Mom Relationship Graph.” On July 22 I read the Mom Relationship Graph first to Greg the pro, and later that day to Sherry.
From the incidents on the Mom Relationship Graph, I wrote down my Mom Recovery Components. Recovery Component incidents must next be identified as Amends (incidents for which I need to make amends), Forgiveness (incidents I need to forgive), or other Significant Emotional Statements neither Amends nor Forgiveness (I love you, I hate you, etc.).
Next these had to be turned into my “Mom Grief Letter.” This opened a trap door to a flood of terrible pain, more than I ever wanted to know I had, and all of it was heavily accumulated “crud” around my heart.
For days in a row I stared at the sun or moon on the ocean out my bedroom window balcony and demanded to know “It’s so gorgeous here; how can I feel so horrible? I’m living my dream in California; why do I feel as though I want to die? Why does this hurt so much? How am I ever going to get through this?”
“Well, it’s just this one letter,” I told myself. “This will be rough. ‘It’s going to flatten you,’ he says. You’re going to feel really bad, forcing yourself to remember how badly Mom treated you. But it’s finite, and when you’re done with this task and you’ve got an accurate letter written, rigorously according to directions, and you read the letter to a person, you’ll be DONE with the pain.”
I drew a stick figure self-portrait with the large hand-scrawled words “Flatten Me!” and this tag line: “Don’t jump – Just play the flute, and keep walking. Then you’ll be DONE.” This referred to the finale of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in which the protagonists play the flute while walking through a wall of fire, unscathed, to their goal. It seemed preferable to jumping off my second floor balcony from the pain.
I didn’t mean to do it; my intentions were good. It was all an accident.
Grief Recovery Letter to My Mom
A Grief Recovery Letter, states the GRH, should be in three parts: Amends, Forgiveness, and any other Significant Emotional Statements. They also say it should only be a few pages, but my losses were so enormous that I disobeyed the word length instructions, so don’t go by me on that issue.
First we make “Amends” to this individual, for anything we regret having done or not done respecting them, which remains unresolved. We do it to be sure we do not “demonize” anyone, and because without making full amends, we can’t relieve our guilt or longing to do what we failed to do.
Second we write down our “Forgiveness” for each instance in which we feel that they have hurt us. The GRH instructs us to just write the items down with the intention to read the words “I forgive you for…(XYZ).” They state clearly that we likely won’t feel forgiveness by writing and reading at first, but they insist we try, and just see what our feelings do. We must take an action; they insist: “Actions first, feelings follow.”
Third, in “Significant Emotional Statements,” we say anything else which must be said for us to communicate key un-communicated emotions, such as “I love you,” “I hate you,” “I’m very depressed about XYZ,” and so on.
Here are a few excerpts from my Grief Letter to my mom, read July 27, 2009 to my hospice counselor Greg at noon, and then at 7 pm to Sherry — and then next day, read a third time to Steve. I put in numerous statements from books on attachment I was reading at which I became very emotional, thinking I would have to read these items until I no longer felt so badly or simply got sick of all this. That turned out to be a very important concept.
I’ve been struggling with how to speak to you since your passing. here are the things I need to say to you, because we all have immortal souls.
Mom, I apologize if I got too smart too young, got obnoxious, talked back and hurt your feelings.
Mom, I apologize for cheating on my homework in kindergarten and erasing the B grade to make a higher grade;
Mom, I apologize for resenting your behavior toward me.
Mom, I apologize for running away a lot — hiding in books, hiding my room dancing to bad music, running away to the ocean in the summer, running away early to college, running away early to Japan, running away with Larry.
Mom, I apologize for all the years I was rarely able to remain calm when speaking to you and often lost my patience or my temper.
Mom, I forgive you for sending the message that I was unwanted, so I often wondered as a child, “why did you have a child if you didn’t want one?”
Mom, I forgive you for being mean when I cried. I was incubated and a baby knows that if it cries, and no one responds, it will die. I forgive you that the message continued to be, that no one would ever respond.
Mom, I forgive you that you didn’t just hold me and love me when I just wanted more hugs and more love– whether I was crying or not, whether I got the A or not, whether I graduated med school or not.
Mom, I forgive you for being hysterical at the drop of a hat, so I felt I was responsible for “making you” upset. I forgive you that it seemed as if a saber-tooth tiger was always there, so that I always had to be in “fight, flight, fright” mode of adrenal panic.
Mom, I forgive you for constantly saying that it was my responsibility to do X, y or z to “make you happy,” so that I always had to be like Avis and Try Harder to try to control the uncontrollable: your angst.
Mom, the theory of “self-cohesion” says that “a child has a compelling need to look into the face of its mother and see reflected back, eyes that say “You are wonderful” and a smile that says “You make me happy.” Mom, I forgive you for instead looking at me like I was annoying, I made you sad, or with pained smiles. I forgive you for never giving me a real, open, unconditional smile.
Mom, I forgive you for telling me at about age 4 that you don’t love my friend Michelle because she’s not your daughter, but you like her; however, you love me because I’m your daughter — but you don’t like me.
[And so on with all the many items on my Mom Loss Graph]
Mom, I forgive you for locking Dad away every night in controlled access and making him so uncomfortable that he never wanted to come home.
Mom, I forgive you for being so hostile while Dad was in the hospital dying that I almost couldn’t visit him.
Mom, I forgive you for the weeks of hostility and hysteria while you were in hospice and I was taking care of you until the end.
Significant Emotional Statements
Mom, I wish we had much better communication and connection.
Mom, I always had the unrealized hopes and dreams that someday we could get our fences mended, that we could just forget the past…and then you would finally say that you would fully accept my life and say, “OK, I accept you, you are my daughter and I love you.”
Mom, I wish I had told you in the hospice, how grateful I was for all the magical beautiful things you also did for me.
Mom, thank you for the Bluebird Mobile.
Mom, thank you for having my baby sister Linda and when I said “Gimme,” the day you brought her home from the hospital, thank you for letting me hold her although I was only 4 and a half. Thank you for letting her play with me and my friends and letting me share her in my life and be my best friend and to love each other so much.
Mom, thank you for those wonderful walks in the park with the sunbeams shining through the tall trees and glancing off the brook and the brook stones
Mom, thank you for taking Linda and me with the sled in the snow to buy Xmas trees and bringing them home and trimming the trees so beautifully because no matter what the neighbors said, children should have Xmas
Mom, thank you for teaching me how to plant flowers and the names of all the flowers, shrubs and trees
Mom, thank you for saying that the lilacs always bloomed for my birthday
Mom, thank you for reading me all that poetry.
Mom, thank you for all the musical recordings which Linda I sang beginning to end and we still sing with her family
Mom, thank you for reading so many books to me and for always broadening my vocabulary
OK Mom, I love you very much, and I’m glad we could remember all this to be thankful for. The beauty and the pain are so mixed up; but it can be excessive. The beauty has made wonders in my life, but the pain and the beauty all started so young, that the sometimes irrational blurring of boundary between joy and pain, the lack of stable grounding and the excess has nearly destroyed me many times. Now I really do have to let go of the all pain and all the excess, and find rest.
Mom, I must go now. Rest softly, Mom; Good rest. Ruhe sanfte; Gute Ruh. Peace be with you at last, and bluebirds, too.
At the end of my first reading of this to Greg at the hospice, I then read a line from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”– “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Then I broke down crying for the Nth time, at the conflict between the pain and the beauty.
I stumbled downstairs, collapsed on a metal lawn chair in the hospice courtyard, wept some more, fell asleep for two hours in broad daylight, then called Steve and said, “I just buried my Mom today.”
FN1 James, John W.; Friedman, Russell, “Moving On: Dump your relationship baggage and make room for the love of your life,” M. Evans (Rowman & Littlefield), Lanham, MD, 2006
FN2 James, John W.; Friedman, Russell, “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” Harper Collins, New York, 2009 (orginal 1998)
FN3 James, John W.; Friedman, Russell, “Pay Me Now or Pay Me Later,” www.grief-recovery.com/Articles/Pay_Me_Now.htm, The Grief Recovery Institute, 2002
FN4 Townsend, John, PhD; Cloud, Henry PhD, “How People Grow,” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2001
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