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Expressions of Grief

Death or loss is often a surreal experience; what had such great importance to our lives has now ended; it can no longer be seen or felt or held or heard. It is difficult to simply tuck the experiences you shared with someone you loved into your memory bank like photos in a picture album, close the book and go on with life.

We long to continue the connection with the one who has died. We want to hang onto anything that expresses the love and feelings we had, something concrete we can pick up and hold that links us once more to the person we loved.

Expressions of grief are more than just mourning our loss in tears. It is taking something that is intangible, difficult to define and describe, and giving it substance in some tangible way so we can work with it.

We hang onto favorite pieces of clothes, or objects that were a part of our loved one’s life to reinforce that connection – that memory. Pictures in an album, a scrapbook or memory box, or favorite objects all help us feel closer to the one who died. But sometimes we need more than just the bits and pieces of a life now over – we need to be involved in putting those bits and pieces together – a route to healing.

My husband was a professional musician and left a legacy of music. After his death, I spent over a year, organizing, cataloguing and making a detailed inventory of all his band libraries and boxes of music. At the time, I thought it was something I needed to do in order to sell the music.

But I realized as I went along that it was a way to catalog the many memories we shared with that music. It was a connection to the person who was so important in my life and the process enabled me to heal. In the same way, I lovingly went through my artist son’s drawings when cancer took his life, and the walls of my home are a permanent exhibit of his great talent and love.

Expression takes what was so important to us and creates a living memorial. It doesn’t keep us stuck in the past – it is a way to process and make permanent our love in our ending.

Journaling and writing is one way. My journaling led to the writing of my first book. A love letter or letter of goodbye can put to word what is in the heart. Completing a project in memory of that person is another way. Women have often quilted bits and pieces of their love and loss into remembrance quilts.

As I extended my professional training in this field, I attended a weekend class taught by an art therapist who used different art forms to help individuals put together the pieces of a “shattered” life. As I looked at pictures of art created by grieving individuals, I was in awe of the beauty, pain, power and expression of love poured into these personal testimonies of loss. Anyone can create their own free form collage.

There are many time-worn rituals people have used to help the healing process and complete the journey of loss: planting a special tree or shrub; going through ritualistic mazes or walks. Allow yourself freedom to do what is right for you. Find a way that is meaningful to you that expresses your loss and your grief.

It may not just be a one-time thing. It may become an annual ritual. Soldiers often go back to battlefields and in remembering, heal another layer of pain and sorrow. My daughter continues to heal the memory of her beloved dad as she lovingly shares with her daughter about the grandfather she will know only through her Mom’s loving eyes.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC


Grieving our Losses

Throughout life we experience losses: of jobs, security, dreams, childhoods, marriages, health, and loved ones. The seasons of life all hold within their walls the need to grieve the losses that are attached. For most moments of transition, we give ourselves a few moments to think sadly and perhaps fondly about what we are giving up before quickly moving on.

The depth of loss will be experienced differently by different people and will be associated with what that loss meant to us. Losses hold within them an emotional and psychological involvement. Some losses will be mere glitches in time while others hold within them deep pain and sorrow.

What does it mean to grieve?

Grieving our losses is coming to terms with what has happened – making sense of it all. It is working through the tangles of roller coaster emotions: anger, sorrow, sadness, relief, guilt, fear, anxiety, hope, hopelessness, depression and even joy. We may experience some or all of these emotions and more.

Grieving our losses means working through the normal and natural questions of “Why, what if, why me, if only, and if I had”. While working through the emotions and questions is part of the grieving process, at times there are no answers to our questions and we are left with no easy answers. And we are left to accept and let go of what was so we can heal. 

Grieving is finding some way to articulate what we are experiencing. It is not always easy to express what we are feeling in grief. Emotions can be scary, especially if we are experiencing a lot of anger. Anxiety and fears are sometimes hard to define as we move into the unknown. How do I share with someone else what I am feeling when I cannot understand it myself? But in expression, whether through art, writing, talking or silent walks with God, we find release.

Within the process of mourning our loss, we are faced with our vulnerability: How will I make it? Who am I now? How do I ask for help? Do I give myself permission to grieve or do I have to put on the mask of having it all together? Losses can create deep wounds that we don’t see but which leave huge holes in our psyche. With losses that held a lot of meaning, it takes time to heal. As we allow ourselves to grieve we validate and honor our journey.

And finally, grieving allows us to integrate the loss into our lives – it becomes a part of our life story. We remember, but are no longer focused on it. We may still feel sadness, but we also feel happiness, peace, energy and a zest for life. At that point we are able to create a new beginning – a new reality that has meaning and purpose within it. It may be different, but it is okay. Life has taken on a new normal.

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Endings Leave a Bit of Ourselves Behind

In many cultures, there are rituals that take us from one stage of life to another. Coming of age ceremonies or rites of passage symbolize leaving childhood to enter adulthood. Sometimes the rituals involved are physically demanding – others are simply a public recognition and celebration after instruction. Religions also have symbolic ceremonies to represent a major transition such as Jewish Bar Mitzvahs and Confirmation in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches.

Leaving Something Behind

We leave something of ourselves behind in our endings as we reach forward to a new beginning. And even in the excitement of a new beginning, the ending can be bitter-sweet. We leave for college with anticipation and excitement over being free from parents and in charge of our lives and discover pangs of homesickness, missing the comfort of home, advice and reassurance of Mom and Dad.

We wait with anticipation for that first child, only to discover in the non-stop busyness of bottles, diapers and potty training, that we never again will experience that total freedom to come and go – we are now a parent.

Or we finally reach that long awaited retirement, only to experience restlessness after awhile which stresses a need to redefine our identity and create meaning and purpose in our lives in a different way.

Most of us go through life transitions fairly quickly. But sometimes in beginning a new role or direction in life, we fail to complete our endings. And at some point we find ourselves discontented and unhappy, but do not know why. We no longer feel pleasure or satisfaction in the things we do or thought were so important.

Going Into the Wilderness

At such times, it can help to make a solitary journey into the wilderness to redefine what is important to us, what we have left behind, what we have brought with us and are still struggling with.

In the wilderness there are no distractions from life as and we have the opportunity to wrestle and come to grips with our struggles and make sense of where we are in the world.

A good friend of mine has gone backpacking in the desert many times with just a visual map to guide her. At first, it was to make some discoveries about herself. Now she just enjoys the solitude of her trips.

Going to the desert or going on any wilderness excursion, takes us away from our norms and comfort zones. It is in the wilderness where we are challenged to confront our vulnerabilities, fears and doubts. It challenges the status quo.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Opportunities Found in Adversities

It is in our adversities where we find God waiting for us: to comfort, encourage and give us hope.

When the Old Testament Prophet Elijah fled for his life from Queen Jezebel’s wrath, first into the desert and then retreating to the mountains, he was so exhausted he wanted to die. He struggled with his inner fears, doubts and insecurities, wondering whether it was all worth the struggle. God met him there in the midst of his exhaustion and questioning spirit. It was where Elijah discovered a healing God in the still quiet voice that spoke to his spirit.

It was in his affliction of a skin disease that Naamon, the mighty, esteemed and proud general of the King of Aram discovered humility and God. In order to be healed, he had to wash himself seven times in the muddy, dirty water of the River Jordan. In that inner struggle, Naamon had to put life into clearer perspective.  All his wealth, possessions and battle trophies could not buy him the restoration of his health. And he was forced to consider which was more important – his pride or getting better. He found more than healed skin from the Prophet Elisha’s directions – he discovered the God of Israel.

It was in the indescribable pain and the ongoing adversity in his life where Job discovered lessons from suffering. Job had led an honest, good and faithful life following the principles of God. But when he was hit with the downward spiral of one adversity after another, he became angry and confused. 

Job lost his home, his wife and his family. His friends were more accusatory than supporting. But it was in this unceasing adversity where Job discovered God. As Eugene Peterson writes in his Introduction to Job in The Message, “At first Job rages in pain and roars out his protests, but then he becomes silent in awestruck faith before God, who speaks from out of a storm – a “whirlwind” of Deity. Real faith cannot be reduced to spiritual bromides and merchandised in success stories. It is refined in the fires and storms of pain.”

It was in his affliction that the Apostle Paul learned he needed to rely on the strength of God. It was in prison cells where Joseph of the Old Testament and Apostles Peter and Paul of the New Testament trusted God and became examples to their guards of what it means to live in acceptance and in God’s love and peace.

In the unfolding horrors of Nazi Germany, Bonheoffer, the brilliant theologian, struggled with remaining safe abroad or returning to be with the his people. He chose to return and just before the war ended, was arrested and shot by the Nazi’s. But in those weeks within the prison walls, Bonheoffer, like Joseph and Peter and Paul, exuded peace and love and left an indelible imprint on the lives of his jailers.

The Bible is full of the stories of people like you and me who experienced tragedies and struggled with their adversities. In today’s world, we have the stories of many people who found within their losses and difficult times, purpose and meaning.

It is in adversity where we find loyal friends who stand by us. It is in adversity where God sends that person with a comforting touch or that word in scripture that literally jumps out from the page to give us hope and encouragement.

It is in adversity where we find strength to persevere, become more flexible, and discover humility and patience. It is in adversity where we discover love and understanding and grace. It is in adversity where we learn how to become better parents, more understanding spouses, and better people. It is where we learn more about ourselves, our abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

May you find in the midst of your pain or adversity not only God’s love and comfort, but purpose and meaning for your life.

Hebrews 13:5: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC


Are you putting up roadblocks to personal growth?

Learning from Adversity

Reframing, acceptance and letting go are all mind sets and approaches we can use when faced with adversity. Life’s difficulties, however, are not just something to get over but they give us an opportunity to grow.

Difficulties are often seen as obstacles or problems we want to quickly overcome. Yet within adversity is the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about ourselves. It is in painful situations, where we gain a new perspective and purpose for life. If we hurry too quickly from one situation to another we can easily miss these important life lessons. Perhaps difficulties and obstacles are there for a reason.

Maybe your marriage has just ended or is on the rocks, or you have just been informed of a life-threatening or debilitating diagnosis for yourself or a member of your family, or your child has been born with major disabilities, or you have lost a valued friend through misunderstandings, etc.; whatever the circumstance, what we usually want is to quickly find a way out of painful and uncomfortable situations.

But it is exactly in that pain where we discover our need to become better listeners, discover inner strengths and allow our weaknesses to help us grow as we challenge old beliefs and ways of thinking. It is in difficult situations where we become resilient and have the opportunity to learn from grace and forgiveness.

Transitions not only get us from one stage of life to another but can raise old issues we have avoided. Transitions allow us to rethink old problems, pick up the bits and pieces of past failure and losses, and work through them.

There is a resistance to grow because we are often forced to face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. With change comes the urge to put up “self” roadblocks – a resistance to dig deeper. However, we can go on repeating failed patterns of behavior, or we can use that “neutral zone” to get started on some major personal growth work.

Write a letter to yourself.

Dear. . . (Put in your name.) In the letter, list the obstacles that you believe are keeping you tied to your past or keeping you from doing what you want in the present. What unfinished business from your past is keeping you locked in the same unproductive cycles? What personal resistance is keeping you from becoming more honest with yourself?

Now draw a floor plan of your house as a child. Write down events that contribute to your current feelings. What brings up pain? What gave you joy and pleasure? What triggers anger? What grievances or regrets have you been dragging with you? What misunderstandings and hurts keep you stuck today?

This is an exercise to learn more about your self – not to place blame on circumstances or others.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Making A Successful Transition

Years ago, I was privileged to attend a weekend college class led by guest lecturer, William Bridges, who wrote the book, “Transitions, Managing Change.” In his book, he addressed the everyday transitions we make but seldom think about: getting married, becoming a parent, retirement. Each requires leaving behind who you were in order to embrace a new identity.

We rarely think about what we are leaving behind when making a new beginning. Even when we move into a role we had planned for and wanted, such as having our first child, we seldom realize we are ending a part of our life that will be no more. Without completing our endings, we may complicate our new beginnings.

The Task of Endings 

Bridges defined three stages in transitions: endings, a neutral zone, and finally a new beginning. The task of endings is to clarify and express our feelings and loss. In our endings, our mental and emotional energy is focused on the past. Here we deal with practical life changes and develop a support system. Acceptance of loss is where we grieve our endings so we can say goodbye to it.

The “Neutral Zone” – the Bridge to New Beginnings

In the next stage, the neutral zone, we do the work that prepares us for a new beginning. It is a time to reflect and evaluate as we explore a new identity. Who was I before? Who am I today? Who do I want to become? This can be a very “unsettling” place; a period of anxiety and instability. As we give up the past we are faced with “what now?”

In endings, we leave our old identity behind as we enter the “neutral zone”. It is where we are required to spend time alone with ourselves and our God. It is where we challenge our assumptions and expectations and examine our beliefs, our strengths and weaknesses. In the neutral zone we do the personal work that enables us to begin with new insight and perspective.

While this period of inactivity, not moving directly towards something, may seem unproductive, it is where we gain a better understanding of who we are. It is a bridge between the old and the new – a time to be alone, but not necessarily lonely. It is a time of waiting and wandering and reflection before planning for the future. We re-think our identity, what we value, and put shape back into our lives.

Rushing Into the Future

As humans we want to move immediately from an ending to a new beginning. We don’t want to feel the pain of loss or the uncertainty of the future. We are uncomfortable not knowing where we are going. We want to be doing things – anything. So we quickly bundle up our “baggage” in our backpacks and head out the door to find what we had before. If we have not spent time letting go of the past and skip that period of redefining ourselves, our beginnings will be less successful.

Life is full of transitions that require time to process. Someone said it takes about 18 months to 4 years to complete a major life transition. In today’s world of instant responses, we want our life processes to happen rapidly as well. It seldom does.

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Life Is A Dance

Life is a dance – a process that requires  flexibility while learning how to change position and location while maintaining our balance. Life is movement – we are going somewhere. It is never static – never the same – but constantly changing and evolving. As we learn the music of life, we can adjust our movements and take charge of change and and our responses to it or simply be swept along with no direction or purpose.  

Every day we have the opportunity to start fresh, letting go of what isn’t working, focusing instead on new possibilities. Every day we have the opportunity to reach out to God and to others. Every day we can begin anew with grace, forgiveness and love.

Years ago I was part of a team developing a class for people in chronic illness and pain. The following was one of the handouts developed at that time. I share it with you now as it speaks to life in general.


“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”  Victor Frankl

To experience freedom and create meaning in our lives, we must “let go” of the past while taking “control” of the present and future.

Letting go means

 • Removing my masks – becoming honest with myself and others

• I can laugh – I can cry – I can feel my pain – and it’s okay

• Transcending my fears: facing death, disability, hardships, disappointments

• Grieving my losses

• Asking for and receiving help

• Acceptance of those things I cannot change

Taking control means

• Discovering the real, genuine, authentic me

• Spending time with myself

• Focusing on what I can do – not what I can’t do

• Choosing hope over despair – the positive versus the negative

• Soaring like an eagle

• Believing I have choices and that I am making those choices every day

• Enjoying each step forward – there is no step too small or too large

• Looking for and finding opportunities within every situation

Problems, disappointment, life situations CANNOT keep you from

• Exploring new options

• Setting new priorities and goals

• Living life to the fullest

• Developing a better quality of life

Problems, tragedies, and losses CAN help you

• Discover great, hidden strengths and determination

• Create new and exciting meaning for our life

• Transform “who you were” to “who you are becoming”

• Develop awareness and appreciation for you and your world

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Acceptance Leads to Problem Solving

Acceptance is a concept – a state of mind – a way of looking at life and problems. It is a way of thinking that can be applied to any circumstance. It is a pivotal point that takes us from what we can’t do to possibilities, options and choices.

Problems have a magnetic way of holding us in place – like fly paper – we get stuck in the mess of it all and can’t see a way out. Acceptance takes us out of a victim role and puts us in charge of our lives. It keeps us from playing the blame game where everything from circumstances to people, parents, siblings, religion, God, whatever, are blamed for our inability to do anything. It puts us in charge of our responses regardless of what life throws at us. (See my blog, “Freedom, our ability to choose…”)

With acceptance we can begin asking these questions: “What isn’t working and why? What am I resisting that requires a change in my thinking and habits? What do I really want to have happen? What is in my control? What is out of my control? Am I making individual personalities the problem versus how I relate and communicate? Can I expand my options by creative brainstorming? In developing a plan of action, where do I start?” Acceptance helps us to better define and articulate the problem.

In my blogs earlier this month, I referred to Arnold Beisser’s book, “Flying without Wings: Personal Reflections on Loss, Disability and Healing” where Arnold talks about having his whole life ahead of him when he got polio that left him paralyzed, unable to move, in an iron lung. (See my blog “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t) Gradually, as he accepted his situation, he became “an active observer, rather than a passive one”. He wrote, “Even though I could not move, I could actively engage with whatever was around me through the play of senses. . . I could be more than a helpless victim, and I could have a part in determining my life and what shape it took.” He began with baby steps.

Why have I spent so much time trying to explain the concept of reframing and acceptance? Because whether it is relationship conflicts, recognizing our destructive habits and behavior patterns, being told we have a chronic or life threatening illness or a tragedy that takes away our hopes and dreams, expectations and assumptions about life as it should or ought to be, it is only when we can accept what is happening that we are able to formulate ways to create a new reality – a new beginning.

We live in a world of instant knowledge along with methodical steps to apply that information. We want to know what we can do and the exact steps to accomplish that. Rarely does that take into account what we bring to the equation: our resistance to change, past efforts and experiences and the relentless feelings that can overwhelm us. Acceptance and reframing our life and circumstances take more than mechanical steps of application.

God has always been a major part of my life. He has given me comfort, assurance, grace and love. He gives it freely to anyone who asks. His strength has given me courage to accomplish what seemed impossible. The science of mind and body has given me the understanding and strategies to use that strength, courage, faith and trust.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

If you are interested in reading more on this subject, and other aspects of making changes in your life, here are some books I have found helpful .

“Rapid Relief from Emotional Distress”, by Gary Emery, PhD and James Campbell, PhD

“Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”, by Martin E.P.Seligman, Ph.D.

“Changing Course, Healing from Loss, Abandonment and Fear” by Claudia Black, Ph.D.

For additional information regarding how thoughts and beliefs affect our behaviors, look for books by Aaron T. Beck, M.D. to understand the process.