Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Gift of Presence

Book: Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, by Joanne Cacciatore, PhD

Many grief books are not about grieving. They’re about dying, or having to take care of children as a single parent with grief set to the side. Or they’re self-help books geared for when you’re coming out of grief and want ideas for how. But two books were published recently that actually help you deal with grief in the first year, which is when you need guidance and assurance the most. The first book was by Megan Devine – It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay. The second book is this one, by Joanne Cacciatore, a bereavement counselor.

What helps the most in early grief is having someone listen to us and accept what we’re saying as true. We need people to gently encourage us to go deeper into what we’re saying and explore what we’re leaving unsaid. Joanne does this.

“Grief is not monochromatic. Grief, when fully lived is, just like nature itself, kaleidoscopic and intensely hued.”

We don’t like to deal with grief because it’s hard and messy. And yet, where things are hard is often where we make our greatest breakthroughs. Grief doesn’t become manageable until we start working with it.

In each of 50 short chapters, someone’s grief is shared. While this is not a single grief narrative where you can feel the ebb and flow of someone’s journey, Joanne does include parts of her own story after her daughter’s death. She accompanies people on their grief journeys and provides insights that all grievers can use. As Joanne listens to the grief of others, her understanding of her own deepens. By sharing our struggles, we learn from each other. There are enough different kinds of losses addressed that, even if we haven’t suffered any of them, we probably know several friends who have.

The greatest gift we can give someone who is grieving is our presence.

Wanting to be present to people who are suffering is a different orientation than we are used to because our society runs from death. Rather than looking at grief as a problem to be solved, we are choosing to listen to what grief is saying, how it is guiding us to see life differently and clearer.

While reading, I sensed the presence of grace as Joanne guided people, and felt invited to listen in with my grief experiences. Many of the people she sees in her practice have ignored grief for years, and this has led to problems like anger issues, alcohol and drug abuse, and social disconnection.

“There is no heart more whole than a broken one.”  (Kotzker Rebbe)

Several chapters on self care are included — things like eating nutritionally, exercising, having set hours for sleep, and doing something that gives us a mental break from grief. Yet when we take care of ourselves, we feel selfish. It’s as if we think that we don’t have the right to be happy again. We do. Even knowing that our loved ones would want us to be happy, it’s still hard to give ourselves permission to do something nice for ourselves.

I also appreciated learning about the grief traditions and rites of other cultures like Native Americans of the Southwest and Sikhs. They illustrate how communal gatherings are therapeutic because they remind people that everyone’s death is a community event. Joanne also shares microrituals that we can do on our own to maintain our bonds with those who have died.

“Spirituality is a way into suffering, not the way out.”

Helpful grieving practices are shared throughout the book, like maintaining an Emotion Focused Journal which, unlike most journals that record what we did, records how we felt throughout the day. Other practices include Letter to Self, the Remembering Box, Apology Letter, and Once-a-Day Vow. The “grief recipe” by Theresa is stunning.

What also endeared Joanne to me was her habit of walking alone and barefoot in nature to sort through grief, opening herself to the surprise and wonders of the outdoors, because that is what I did. After my wife died, I often hiked alone in Yosemite to deal with grief (with shoes), and nature guided me back to life. Two months before she died, my wife was in Sedona where Joanne lives. As Evelyn walked through the red rock landscape, she found a spiritual home that had long eluded her.


Compassion for our own suffering enables us to feel compassion for others.