Jesus wept, and so can we

By the time Alan Wolfelt was 15, his best friend and two of his grandparents had died. He remembers hearing familiar advice about coping with loss: You’ll get over it. Time heals all wounds. Keep your chin up.

But the conventional wisdom didn’t help.

“What people were saying just didn’t make much sense,” he said in a phone interview this week.

By age 16, Wolfelt had written a mission statement for his life: to launch a center to help people deal with loss, a place where they could learn to mourn. Out of his wounds, he said, he found his calling.

Wolfelt, now 54, fulfilled his adolescent vision, earning a doctoral degree as a clinical psychologist and then opening the Center for Loss and Life Transition in 1983. He’s written at least two dozen books about bereavement and grieving. Besides the counseling and teaching he offers at his center in Colorado, he spends up to 75 days a year presenting workshops and seminars across North America.

He comes to Johnson City next week (16-17 June 2009) for two sessions at the Millennium Center, hosted by Tetrick Funeral Services. Tuesday night’s seminar, “Understanding Your Grief: Touchstones for Hope and Healing,” is designed for anyone facing bereavement or caring for those who do. A workshop for caregivers, “The Art of ‘Companioning’ the Mourner,” will be held Wednesday.

Some fundamental facts about grief are easily missed – or dismissed – in our “mourning-avoidance culture,” according to Wolfelt.

For one, the loss of a loved one, particularly a close family member or friend, is a transitional event: there’s no going back. A significant loss takes us to a “new normal.”

“So well-meaning clichés about ‘getting over it’ aren’t that helpful,” he said. “It’s not about resolution or ‘getting back to normal.’ It’s about reconciliation … integrating the new reality with our lives.”

Grieving and mourning are essential parts of that process.

“If we give and receive love, it’s natural to grieve,” Wolfelt said. “It sounds corny, but it’s true: you have to feel it to heal it. When you have a loss, you can’t avoid grief. You have to go through it.”

Mourning, which he defines simply as “grieving made public,” is also an instinctive response, a need to tell and listen to the stories and share in other ways about the people we’ve lost. He goes so far as to say it is impossible for anyone to mourn alone.

Central to Wolfelt’s work is the idea that we need companions to help us grieve. He’s even coined a verb, “companioning,” to describe the task.

“My role as a fellow human being is to help someone feel safe enough to be open in their mourning,” he said. “I can create conditions to help the mourner” by listening, by simply sitting with a grieving person – in short, by acting as a friend rather than a therapist “trying to drag them back to their old normal.”

While his work is not specifically religious, Wolfelt calls grief an inherently spiritual journey, one that forces even the most secular person to ask profound questions about the meaning of life, or about why one person gets cancer and another doesn’t, or about the nature of God.

Wolfelt said he has integrated his clinical expertise and an interest in Eastern philosophy with his Methodist faith to shape his ideas about death and mourning.

People who are spiritual or religious need to “guard against the idea that we don’t need to mourn, or that to do so shows a lack of faith,” he said. “You can have profound faith but still miss the person. But I see a number of people who are shaming themselves” because they think they shouldn’t be sad.

As he pointed out, Jesus himself wept over the death of a friend.

Grief forces hard questions, and Wolfelt encourages them.

“We all have a world view, and then loss flips your world upside down,” he said. “Now you’re faced with questions, some directed at God.”

A good companion, according to Wolfelt, allows mourners to ask the hard questions and search for meaning in the loss.

“If you say ‘Don’t ask why,’ you’re inhibiting one of the instinctive needs to find meaning,” he said. “The very nature of grief leads to searching. But those who do not search, do not find.”

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 13 June 2009.