The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman

I was lucky enough to work with a grief recovery specialist recently, an opportunity offered by my workplace. The Grief Recovery Handbook was the basis of our meetings, with my “home work” being to work through its chapters and exercises.

These were some of my points I took from the handbook:

  • Loss and grief come in many forms. We grieve the death of loved ones, the loss of connection with living people, the ending of relationships, moving on from our old homes, chances we wish we’d had, and much more.
  • As humans we like to fit things into stages and to create time frames, but all types of grief are unique and different. Grief doesn’t follow any set number of stages.
  • A loss of trust is a common form of grief, often leading to a broken heart. Many people respond to a sense of diminished trust by creating a hyper-vigilant self protection from future pain. This excess of caution limits our ability to be open and loving, dooming the next relationship to failure. By failing to process loss, we keep the cycle going and limit our ability to open up.
  • Holding onto unresolved grief takes a tremendous amount of energy and leads to a loss of aliveness. The pain of unresolved grief has a cumulative effect, it’s a lifelong thing.
  • Preoccupation with a sense of loss is common. As I worked through the book and my sessions, I came across the following quote that helped cement the cumulative effect of unresolved grief in my mind:

That guy you’re obsessing about? He’s the embodiment of the wounded inner child that needs your attention. In other words, they are the messenger for the unhealed parts of yourself. The obsessive behaviour ensures that you remain disconnected from the emotional pain, which makes it a form of avoidance.

  • What is incompleteness? It’s possible to be incomplete with a stranger in just one day. It is undelivered communication. It is unfinished emotions.
  • You may not forget a loss and it may still hurt, but there’s always a road towards feeling complete again.
  • Society doesn’t equip us to deal with grief effectively. We’re taught how to acquire things, but not to lose. Schools teach you to get high grades, but not how to fail and learn from failure.
  • “Time heals all wounds” can be damaging. It is what you do with time that heals the loss.
  • Recovery is being able to face being hurt again. Recovery provides freedom, it allows to you to love with totality, it requires courage.
  • Discovering is a large part of recovering. We need to look back at all the ways we’ve learned to process loss and grief over the course of our lives.
  • It’s important to hear and acknowledge grieving people. It’s not necessary to try to fix a person.
  • Living in the moment provides freedom:

Imagine that you are standing by a large window next to a giant fish tank at a place like Sea World. You are standing there with a friend, watching the fish glide by. As each fish passes, you have a reaction. First, an incredibly beautiful blue fish swims by. Its fins are like silk gently pushing side to side. You turn to your friend and say, “Wow, have you ever seen anything so gorgeous in your life?” Almost before you finish your question, a massive shark swims into view, jagged teeth glinting in the water. Instinctively, you clutch your heart and step back as if the shark could actually get at you. You say to your friend, “How terrifying! My heart is beating like a drum.” And just then a school of teeny silver fish, each hardly as big as your little finger, swarms past. There seem to be at least a thousand of them. They twist and turn as a group, in unison, as if only one brain were controlling them. You are fascinated, and you say, “How do all of them know how to go the same way? How come they don’t bump into each other?” You have just processed every feeling in the moment you had it. In the first picture, you were awed by the beauty of the blue fish. In the second, you were frightened by the shark and the images of destruction it conjured in your mind. And lastly, you were baffled and amazed by the synchronized flow of the school in motion. In each case, you experienced the feeling, verbalized it, and then moved to the next one. In the fish tank analogy, the movement of the fish keeps you going from one feeling to the next. Sometimes in real life we get stuck on a feeling. Or we keep bringing ourselves back to a feeling we had some time ago. When you become aware that you are looking backward at old feelings, remind yourself to keep watching the fish and respond to the next feeling that arises.

The true value of the handbook lies in the exercises, which involve digging deep into your childhood to figure out how you learned to process loss, identifying key moments of loss in your life, analysing your reactions, and developing a process for completing a loss. I especially got value from the process of writing completion letters and reading them out loud to the specialist I worked with.

I’d certainly recommend this book, with the suggestion that you work through its exercises with someone else, whether that be a trained professional or an accountability partner who you trust. I found a lot of the work involved incredibly personal and tough going, but also incredibly valuable.

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