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First Aid for Broken Hearts

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.” — Tori Amos

We meet here, on this page, because your heart is broken.

You’re hurting. You’re suffering life’s most painful experience: loss.

Whatever your loss may be, please know that I am genuinely sorry.

I’ve been a grief counselor and educator for a long time now. Doing what I can to offer compassion and hope to people who are grieving is my passion and life’s work.

As you well know, your grief is real.

I hope this article helps you honor your unique grief and begin to understand how to mend your heart.

Does mending seem impossible to you right now? If so, that’s OK. You are where you are.

Yet I assure you that not only is mending possible, it can transform you.


Life is both wonderful and devastating.

It graces us with joy, and it breaks our hearts.

Why are our hearts so breakable? Because human hearts are made to grow attached.

If we’re lucky, that is.

If we’re lucky, we love. If we’re fortunate, we become attached.

Our loves and attachments are what give our fleeting, challenging lives meaning and joy.

But—and this may be the biggest Catch-22 in all of human existence!—there’s an unavoidable flipside to the joy of connection: Whenever our loves and attachments are threatened, torn, or broken, our hearts begin to break.

When we love someone and they die, our hearts break.

When we love someone and we become separated from them, our hearts break.

When we love someone and they get seriously sick, our hearts break.

When we are powerfully attached to a place or a home, a career or a situation, that we must transition away from, our hearts break.

In the course of our decades of life, that’s an awful lot of brokenheartedness for each of us to bear.

Degrees of brokenness

How badly our hearts break each time we lose something is generally a measure of two things: the strength of the attachment bond, and the severity of the threat to the bond.

Of course, brokenheartedness can’t actually be quantified. As with all emotional and spiritual experiences, there is no objective unit of measure. We can’t weigh it on a scale or wrap it with a measuring tape.

Yet even though we can’t assign our brokenheartedness a precise number, we instinctively know how broken we feel inside. Those of us who’ve been on this earth for a while know that sometimes our hearts sustain more damage than at other times.

Some losses hurt just a twinge.

Some losses are painful but manageable.

And some losses knock us to the ground and rip our hearts from our chests.

If your loss was especially damaging and perhaps recent, you may even be wondering if you’ll survive. As my friend and colleague Earl Grollman once said, “The worst grief is the one you are going through right now.”

Yet no matter how badly broken your heart is at this moment, your heart can mend. That is my promise.

Life is change

Love and attachment are indeed wonderful, but the circumstances of life are impermanent.

No matter how devotedly we love and try to safeguard our attachments, the globe spins. The years pass. And things change.

People get sick.

People age.

People die.

Pets too.

People betray us.

We betray ourselves.

Passions ebb and flow.

Fortunes rise and fall.

And no matter what happens, the world just keeps turning.

Life is like a river. We are floating down a river that twists and turns. We can never see very far ahead. Sometimes the going is smooth; sometimes the rapids are rocky and dangerous. And sometimes a waterfall plunges us over the edge.

Life is constant change, which means the circumstances in which we love and are attached are also constantly changing. No matter how hard we try to manage risk and control our destinies, things inevitably happen that turn our lives upside-down.

Anytime we gain something new, we give something else up.

Sometimes we choose the things or people to give up. Other times they’re torn away from us against our will. Either way, we’re bound to suffer loss.

The longer we live, the more the losses pile up. It’s unavoidable.

Unless we don’t love or grow attached at all, of course. But what kind of life would that be?

The wound of loss

When someone or something we love leaves or is taken away from us, our hearts break.

Since your loss, maybe you’ve felt as if your heart has been torn down the middle. That’s what loss often feels like. A wrenching, ragged tear. A gaping wound.

It hurts. It throbs. It aches. It bleeds.

In a very real sense, you’ve been wounded by loss.

You have sustained an injury. But—and this is also important!—you are not ill. Grief is not a disease or sickness. It is also not a disorder. There is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with you. Instead, something from the outside has impacted you.

You are wounded, not ill. You are injured, not sick. You are broken, not diseased.


Human hearts break for many reasons. All are real, valid, and painful.

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Break-ups
  • Illness (yourself or someone you care about)
  • Emotional estrangement from a loved one
  • Physical separation from a loved one
  • Loss of a pet
  • “Burst bubbles” (realizations that cherished people or things were not what you believed, hoped, or dreamed them to be)
  • Betrayals
  • Abuse
  • Lost or broken dreams
  • Traumatic accidents or events
  • Leaving a home
  • Financial losses
  • Job change or loss

This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. Whatever has broken your heart, it also belongs on this page.

My own heart has been broken many times in my life, by the deaths of beloved people, by significant relationships ending, by health crises, and by my family’s house burning down.

So tell me, what has broken your heart?

A note on ambivalence

Here at the outset, let’s also agree that our hearts can be both broken and happy at the same time.

Some losses are simultaneously gains. For example, a divorce may be both a heartbreaking loss and a hopeful fresh start.

And sometimes a significant loss occurs alongside a profound joy, such as when a family experiences the death of an elder and the birth of a baby in the same month.

The word “ambivalence” means to feel two opposing ways at the same time.

If you are ambivalent right now, if your heart is both grief-stricken and glad, you also need and deserve first aid.

First aid for broken hearts

OK, so you’ve been seriously wounded. Now what?

Now you need first aid. Now you need immediate, practical, hands-on care.

Let’s say you fall from a ladder and break your arm. You hear the sickening crunch. You feel the excruciating pain. You see that your arm now bends the wrong way.

What do you do?

Do you ignore the injury and continue on with your day and your life as best you can? Do you pretend nothing happened?

Of course not!

You head to urgent care because it’s urgent. Or you rush to the emergency room because it’s an emergency.

Yet many people with broken hearts try to ignore their injuries and continue on with their lives as best they can. They don’t get immediate care. They don’t seek first aid.

It’s a mistake that often costs them the fullness of life. If this article had warning alarms, they would be sounding here.

But here you are, seeking first aid. You are not making the mistake of neglecting your wound. You are wise.

I’m so glad you’re here.

The Grief of Dementia Care Partners

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

“One of the hardest things you will ever have to do is grieve the loss of a person who is still alive.”

— Jeannette Walls

If you’re caring for a loved one with dementia, you are no doubt experiencing grief. Like the hundreds of millions of other dementia care partners across the world, you are in need of compassionate support and understanding.

I reached out to my colleague and friend Dr. Edward Shaw for his thoughts on your unique grief. He is director of the Memory Counseling Program at Wake Forest Baptist Health. A decade ago, he gave up his oncology practice to become a counselor and support-group leader for dementia care partners after the death of his wife, Rebecca, to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

I asked Dr. Shaw several questions about the grief of dementia care partners. I’m happy to share his thoughts with you here.

Q: When you meet a dementia care partner for the first time in your counseling program, what do they tell you about how they’re feeling?

A: They often tell me they’re lonely. Being a dementia care partner might be one of the loneliest and most isolating experiences of your life. Feeling desolate—that no one else can (or wants to) understand what you are going through—is common. There is also the sense of a shrinking world as the disease progresses through its stages. The person with dementia becomes less aware of and interested in the world around them, including people, places, and things. For this and other reasons, care partners often become literally bound by the walls of their home. In addition, relationships among family members and friends change. People with whom you and your loved one were once close may become more distant or even fade away. These are just some of the many losses you and your loved one with dementia are facing on the journey, and with these losses you will naturally grieve.

Q: As the brain grows more disabled, the relationship between the person with dementia and the care partner naturally begins to deteriorate. Can you tell me more about the grief related to that?

A: As a care partner, you will experience an ongoing and progressive loss of the relationship with your loved one with dementia. The nature of the loss depends on the nature of your relationship. The loss felt by a spouse or partner is different than the loss an adult child or sibling will experience, for example. Often, relationship losses are accompanied by a yearning for things to be as they once were.

Relationship losses include the loss of the twosome, which is the identity you had as two people together in a relationship, of being partners or parent-and-child, helpers, friends, and perhaps lovers, sharing a life. When dementia disrupts your twosome, it changes the individual roles and responsibilities you had in your relationship as well as those things you did together. Loss of intimacy is another factor, in other words loss of emotional closeness, and, for couples, sexual intimacy. And finally, the relationship begins to suffer from loss of a shared future.

Q: The care partner also suffers personal losses. What are those like?

A: As a care partner, you will experience many personal losses in order to provide care for your loved one with dementia, such as loss of your personal time and freedom— the autonomy to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. You may lose your own health, because the ability to meet your own medical and mental-health needs, including basic necessities such as eating and sleeping, can be so compromised. In addition, you may lose your occupation, because you may no longer have the time to pursue or maintain your vocation as well as the satisfaction and income you get from working, or if you’re retired or don’t have a job, to participate in volunteer activities. Social activities and recreation are often lost as well.

Q: Dementia care partners also have to deal with a lot of worry. How does that fit into the grief experience?

A: Dementia care partners suffer the loss of peace of mind. They constantly worry, and sometimes the worry can be overwhelming. It begins with diagnosis and continues throughout the stages of dementia. To worry is to be anxious about things that have already happened that you can’t change, that are happening in the present, and that may or will happen in the future as the journey unfolds.

What if errand-running goes badly tomorrow? Was that noise my loved one with dementia getting up and opening the door? What will the test results show? How will the bills get paid this month? What will the holidays be like this year? For dementia care partners, these and a million other worries erode peace of mind and multiply stress.

Perhaps the greatest future worry that both spouses and adult-child care partners have relates to placing their loved one in a residential-care facility. Often, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters alike have promised, “I’ll never put you in a nursing home”—a promise that cannot always be honored  When a loved one’s care situation requires them to transition to assisted living, memory care, or a nursing home, the response of spousal and adult-child care partners is often different. I have observed that spouses typically feel a much greater sense of guilt and regret, which increases their stress, whereas adult children are more likely to feel some relief and actually have less stress. The guilt you may experience as a decision-making care partner can also be accompanied by your own mood changes, including depression and anxiety.

Q: I’ve also heard you talk about anticipatory grief and ambiguous loss. Can you tell me more about how those affect dementia care partners?

A: Anticipatory grief refers to the awareness that your loved one has a progressive, incurable disease, so at some level you are anticipating their progressive cognitive and physical decline as well as their eventual death and the grief associated with it. In other words, you are both grieving the losses you are already experiencing, and you are anticipating more grief to come.

Ambiguous loss, on the other hand, is the experience of having your loved one physically present yet absent in mind and perhaps spirit. For example, if and when your loved one has lost your identity and no longer knows you as husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister, relative or friend, the loss feels ambiguous. They’re right in front of you, yet they have no idea who you are and how your lives are connected.

Q: What is your advice to dementia care partners about coping with all of this grief and stress?

A: You need to practice good self-care, and to have the time and energy for that, you’ll need caregiving help. Dementia caregiving is a team sport. And if you’re team captain, you may very well need to recruit members to your team. Family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, members of community groups such as churches—many are actually happy to help for an hour or two each week or occasional respite care if you only ask.

In addition, it’s essential to understand that your grief, which is your inward thoughts and feelings about all the losses, must be expressed outside of yourself. This is called mourning, and mourning is how you process and integrate your grief. When you talk to a trusted family member or friend about the stress of being a care partner—that’s mourning. Writing in a workbook or a journal—that’s mourning, too. If you scream at God or punch the wall in anger, that’s also mourning.

While grief usually comes naturally, you will have to make an intentional effort to mourn.

If you don’t express your grief, you will end up suffering even more. People who keep their grief inside often find themselves struggling with stress-related challenges, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other life-sapping issues. A good rule of thumb: If something is weighing on or bothering you, that means you need to share it outside of yourself.

Q: I’ve noticed that family relationships are often affected when one member had dementia. What about grief and stress among family members?

A: When a family is under stress, the likelihood of conflict increases. Having counseled many families over the last nine years, I can say with confidence that families who openly communicate with one another on the dementia journey can minimize conflict, reduce individual and family stress, and provide better care for the family member who has dementia.

In a typical family, there is one person who serves as primary care partner, usually the spouse, or if the parent with dementia is single, divorced, or a widow or widower, one of the adult children. When there are multiple adult children, usually there is one who is most involved, whereas the others, for various reasons, are less involved. Sometimes there is bitterness or resentment about the inequality of caregiving roles and responsibilities. If this is the case, the family conflict must be dealt with openly and honestly because of the negative impact it can have on the family system as a whole as well as the person with dementia.

The ideal way to manage family conflict related to a loved one’s dementia diagnosis and care is a family meeting. It’s helpful to have a meeting leader or mediator, perhaps a medical and/or mental-health professional to provide information and guidance. A family member, such as the unaffected spouse or eldest child, can also lead or mediate.

As with any relationship conflict, family challenges that occur in the setting of dementia are usually stressful, but they also can be, and often are in my experience, occasions for positive growth among individuals within the family and the family in its entirety.

Thank you to Dr. Shaw for this enlightening interview! I highly recommend his new book, The Dementia Care-Partner’s Workbook: A Guide for Understanding, Education, and Hope. It’s a workbook and self-study guide for care partners to loved ones with Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia. Its ten concise lessons not only step you through the types, brain biology, and progressive symptoms of dementia, they also offer practical tips for managing behaviors, coping with emotional issues, prioritizing self-care, and planning ahead. For more information and to order a copy (or, if you’re running a support group, a set of copies), visit

Too Much Loss: Grief Overload and Its Causes

If you are feeling overwhelmed by too much loss, this article is for you.

Loss and unwanted change are unavoidable parts of everyone’s life, but sometimes people experience a disproportionate number or degree of bad things. Sometimes the losses stack too high, creating a sorrow that seems too great to bear.

In the face of too much loss, it’s normal to feel devastated, exhausted, or hopeless. It’s normal to feel paralyzed and overburdened. Rest assured that the overwhelming nature of your grief is a normal reaction. What is abnormal is the unusually challenging life situation you are in right now.

Yet there is so much hope. By familiarizing yourself with the basic principles of grief, you are already taking a big step toward healing. You see, grief responds to awareness. When you educate yourself about grief and mourning, you are making the experience more understandable and bearable. It becomes something you can work on rather than something that simply happens to you.

I have been a grief counselor and educator for more than forty years now. In my work, and in my own life, I have encountered a great deal of loss. It might help you to know that grief overload is a fairly common, though indeed painful and grueling, circumstance. At one point or another in their lives, many people find themselves dragged under by too much loss.

In fact, I have noticed that more and more of us are becoming grief overloaded because, thanks to medical advances, people are living longer. Where death used to be an everyday occurrence, now it’s common for us to live into our 40s or 50s before someone close to us dies—and then, all too often, loved ones start getting sick and dying one after another.

But the overburdened grievers I’ve learned from have also taught me this: Over time and through active mourning, they came through. And so will you.

What Is Grief Overload?

Grief overload is what you feel when you experience too many significant losses all at once or in a relatively short period of time.

The grief of loss overload is different from typical grief because it is emanating from more than one loss and because it is jumbled. Our minds and hearts have enough trouble coping with one loss at a time, but when they have to deal with multiple losses simultaneously, the grief often seems especially chaotic and defeating. Before you can mourn one loss, here comes another loss. Even if you have coped with grief effectively in the past, you may be finding that this time it’s different. This time it may feel like you’re struggling to survive.

Causes of Grief Overload

Tragic incidents

Unfortunately, sometimes several people die in a single incident. Natural disasters, car accidents, and acts of violence can cause the deaths of multiple people you care about all at once. Such traumatic circumstances naturally give rise to grief overload. If you have suffered this type of loss, I urge you to read the section on traumatic loss below. You are in particular need of extra support and care.

Traumatic loss and grief overload

All significant losses feel traumatic, but here I want to talk specifically about losses caused by sudden and often violent events. Murder, suicide, and death by a traumatic accident or natural disaster all fall into this category. So do events that cause severe injuries instead of death and/or significant damage to homes and property, such as fires.

Multiple people may die in a traumatic incident, or one person might die and others may be seriously injured. Or no one might die, but several people—including you, perhaps—might be hurt, or maybe your home, belongings, and financial stability might be destroyed.

If you are reading this book because, at least in part, you have suffered a traumatic loss of any kind, you are at risk for your grief overload being influenced by what is called “traumatic grief.” Traumatic grief is grief that has an added component of intense fear and other challenging symptoms caused by the violent nature of the incident itself.

If flashbacks, memory gaps, persistent negative or intrusive thoughts, low self-esteem, hyper-vigilance or anxiety, personality change, and/or an inability to handle the tasks of daily living are part of your grief overload experience, I urge you to see your primary-care physician and a trauma-trained grief counselor. You will need—and you deserve—extra support and care. You might also find solace and support in my book The PTSD Solution, as PTSD and traumatic grief are largely one and the same experience.

Back-to-back losses

Other times, a number of people you love may die of unrelated causes but in quick succession. If a close friend dies of cancer, then a parent dies of natural causes in old age, and then a sibling is killed in an accident, for example, you are certain to feel overwhelmed by too much loss all at once.

These deaths might happen within days or weeks of each other or within months or a few years. But it’s also important to note that there are no hard-and-fast deadlines that define grief overload caused by successive loss. If you feel overloaded by grief, no matter how spread out in time the losses have been, you are experiencing grief overload.

Losses other than death

And it’s not only death loss that causes grief overload. Other types of significant loss are also common contributors. Whenever you lose something you are or have been attached to, you naturally grieve the change or separation. This means that job loss often causes grief. Divorce causes grief. Health problems cause grief. Estrangement from loved ones causes grief. A move away from a beloved home or location causes grief.  When you experience a number of such significant losses in a period of time, in addition to or even in lieu of death losses, you may well find yourself suffering grief overload.

Secondary losses

What’s more, secondary losses are also intrinsic components of grief overload. That’s because each significant loss in our lives gives rise to a number of related losses, like ripples in a pond after a stone is dropped in.

For example, if a spouse or partner dies, we don’t only suffer the loss of that important relationship and unique individual. We also experience related losses, such as the loss of our self-identity as half of a twosome, the loss of our hoped-for future, the potential loss of financial security, and many more. Even everyday life changes resulting from a major loss—such as no longer having a companion to prepare and eat dinner with each night—fall into this category of secondary loss. Secondary losses can make it feel like loss is permeating every aspect of our lives. Everywhere we turn, there’s nothing but loss.

Cumulative losses

On a related note, cumulative lifetime losses can also lead to or be a factor in grief overload. Throughout our lives, we all experience loss, of course. From the time we are young, pets die, friendships break, and other hardships present themselves year after year after year. But what you may not realize is that if you don’t fully grieve and mourn each loss as it arises, you end up carrying unreconciled grief.  Eventually that carried grief can add up and become an unsustainably weighty burden. If you suspect that long-ago losses might be part of your grief overload right now, you’re probably right.

Grief overload in the elderly

Finally, older people often find themselves experiencing grief overload for a combination of reasons mentioned above. Increasingly, their friends and peers begin to die in faster succession, their health often deteriorates, and they may have also accumulated a great deal of carried grief over the course of their lives. I myself am in my mid-sixties as I write this, and I want you to know that while I understand that loss overload in our final decades is a very real challenge, we can continue to live and love meaningfully as long as we also continue to actively mourn.

Caregiver grief overload

Professional caregivers of all kinds are at risk for grief overload. If your job, career, or dedicated volunteer role involves helping others who are experiencing trauma or loss of any kind, grief overload is both something to be aware of and something to proactively anticipate and address in your self-care plan. I urge you to read my book Companioning You: A Soulful Guide to Caring for Yourself While You Care for the Dying and the Bereaved. Whether you work in a hospice, funeral home, hospital, or school, whether you are a counselor, medical professional, or another type of caregiver altogether, this book will help you identify, prevent, and deal with burnout and grief overload as well as create an action plan for caring for—or companioning—yourself.

Ten Freedoms for Creating a Meaningful Funeral

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Meaningful funerals do not just happen. They are well-thought-out rituals that, at least for a day or two, demand your focus and your time. But the planning may feel less burdensome if you keep in mind that the energy you expend now to create a personalized, inclusive ceremony will help you, your family and other mourners embark on healthy, healing grief journeys.

The following list is intended to empower you to create a funeral that will be meaningful to you and your family and friends.

  1. You have the right to make use of ritual. The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. It is a way for you and others who loved the person who died to say, “We mourn this death and we need each other during this painful time.” If others tell you that rituals such as these are silly or unnecessary, don’t listen.
  2. You have the freedom to plan a funeral that will meet the unique needs of your family. While you may find comfort and meaning in traditional funeral ceremonies, you also have the right to create a ceremony that reflects the unique personality of your family and the person who died. Do not be afraid to add personal touches to even traditional funerals.
  3. You have the freedom to ask friends and family members to be involved in the funeral. For many, funerals are most meaningful when they involve a variety of people who loved the person who died. You might ask others to give a reading, deliver the eulogy, play music or even help plan the funeral.
  4. You have the freedom to view the body before and during the funeral. While viewing the body is not appropriate for all cultures and faiths, many people find it helps them acknowledge the reality of the death. It also provides a way to say goodbye to the person who died. There are many benefits to viewings and open casket ceremonies; don’t let others tell you this practice is morbid or wrong.
  5. You have the freedom to embrace your pain during the funeral. The funeral may be one of the most painful but also the most cathartic moments of your life. Allow yourself to embrace your pain and to express it openly. Do not be ashamed to cry. Find listeners who will accept your feelings no matter what they are.
  6. You have the freedom to plan a funeral that will reflect your spirituality. If faith is a part of your life, the funeral is an ideal time for you to uphold and find comfort in that faith. Those with more secular spiritual orientations also have the freedom to plan a ceremony that meets their needs.
  7. You have the freedom to search for meaning before, during and after the funeral. When someone loved dies, you may find yourself questioning your faith and the very meaning of life and death. This is natural and in no way wrong. Don’t let others dismiss your search for meaning with clichéd responses such as, “It was God’s will” or “Think of what you still have to be thankful for.”
  8. You have the freedom to make use of memory during the funeral. Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. You will always remember. Ask your funeral officiant to include memories from many different people in the eulogy. Create a “memory board” or a “memory table.” Ask those attending the funeral to share their most special memory of the person who died with you.
  9. You have the freedom to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. Especially in the days immediately following the death, your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals.
  10. You have the freedom to move toward your grief and heal. While the funeral is an event, your grief is not. Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and avoid people who are impatient and intolerant with you, before, during and after the funeral. Neither you nor those around you must forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.

Related Resources

Helping Create a Meaningful Eulogy

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Planning a meaningful, personalized funeral is one of the most important tasks you will ever undertake. Think of the funeral as a gift to the person who died. It is your chance to think about and express the value of the life that was lived.

When personalized, the eulogy (pronounced EWE-luh-jee) is perhaps the most memorable and healing element of the funeral ceremony. This article will help you choose the right person to give the eulogy as well as offer tips for writing and presenting the eulogy.

What is the eulogy?

Also called the remembrance, the eulogy is the speech or presentation during the funeral ceremony that talks about the life and character of the person who died. The eulogy acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it. The eulogy typically lasts 15-20 minutes, although longer presentations may also be appropriate.

Who presents the eulogy?

The eulogy can be delivered by a clergyperson, a family member or a friend of the person who died. Instead of a traditional eulogy delivered by one person, you may choose to ask several people to speak and share their memories. There is also a growing trend toward having people attending the funeral stand up and share a memory of the person who died. This works well, especially at smaller or less formal gatherings.

What if the person presenting the eulogy didn’t really know the person who died?

Keep in mind that the eulogy doesn’t have to be delivered by the person leading the service. Only if your clergy person or another person facilitating the ceremony knows your family well and can speak personally about the person who died is this appropriate. If the clergyperson didn’t know the person who died, it’s much more meaningful to have a family member or friend give the eulogy. Or you might ask several people to speak.

If your family would feel comforted by a religious sermon during the ceremony, ask a clergyperson to give one. Just be sure to have someone else (or several people) deliver a personalized eulogy in addition to the sermon.

If you must choose someone who didn’t know the person who died well, make an effort to share with him or her anecdotes and memories that are important to you. Ask yourself, “What stands out to me about this person’s life?” “What are some special memories I’d like to share?” “What were some times I felt particularly close to this person?” “What were some admirable qualities about this person?”

What should be said during the eulogy?

We have already emphasized that the best eulogies are personalized. They include memories and anecdotes of the person’s life. They also try to capture personality. If the person who died was kind, the eulogy would give examples of this kindness. If the person who died had a good sense of humor, the eulogy might relate funny stories or expressions.

The eulogy doesn’t have to cover every aspect of the person’s life, however. In fact, often the best eulogies are those that focus on the eulogy-giver’s personal thoughts and memories. Do try to acknowledge those who were closest to the person who died as well as important achievements in the person’s life, but don’t feel obligated to create an exhaustive biography.

Also keep in mind that the word eulogy comes from the Greek eulogia, meaning praise or blessing. This is the time to give thanks for a person’s life and to honor his or her memory. This is not the time to bring up painful or difficult memories but to emphasize the good we can find in all people.

Some tips for eulogy-givers

Writing and delivering a eulogy is a loving, important gesture that merits your time and attention. Though the task may seem daunting right now, you’ll find that once you start jotting down ideas, your eulogy will come together naturally. Afterwards, many who attend the funeral will thank you for your contribution, and your eulogy will be cherished always by the family and friends of the person who died.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Be brave. The thought of writing a speech and presenting it in public makes many people anxious. Set aside your fears for now. You can do this. Focus on the person who died and the gift you will be giving to all who knew and loved him or her.
  • Think. Before you start writing, go for a long walk or drive and think about the life of the person who died. This will help you collect your thoughts and focus on writing the eulogy.
  • Brainstorm. Spend half an hour (longer if you want) writing down all the thoughts, ideas and memories that come to you.
  • Ask others to share memories. A good way to include others in the ceremony is to ask them to share thoughts and memories, which you can then incorporate into the eulogy.
  • Look at photos. Flipping through photo albums may remind you of important qualities and memories of the person who died.
  • Write a draft. Once you’ve brainstormed and collected memories, it’s time to write the first draft. Go somewhere quiet and write it all in one sitting, start to finish. Don’t worry about getting it perfect for now-just get it down on paper.
  • Let it sit. If time allows, let your eulogy draft sit for a few hours or a day before revising.
  • Get a second opinion. Have someone else-preferably someone who was close to the person who died-read over your draft at this point. This person can make revision suggestions and help you avoid inadvertently saying something that might offend others.
  • Polish. Read over your first draft. Look for awkward phrases or stiff wording. Improve the transitions from paragraph to paragraph or thought to thought. Find adjectives and verbs that really capture the essence of the person who died.
  • Present your eulogy with love. Now you need to present your eulogy. You may feel nervous, but if you can keep your focus on the person who died instead of your own fears, you’ll loosen up. If you break down as you’re talking, that’s OK. Everyone will understand. Just stop for a few seconds, collect yourself and continue.
  • Speak up. It’s very important that you speak clearly and loudly so that everyone can hear you.

A Final Word

Again, the word eulogy means “praise or blessing.” Your willingness to help create a personalized, meaningful eulogy is, in fact, a very real blessing.

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Helping Your Family Personalize the Funeral

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

If you are in the midst of planning a funeral, you may be feeling overwhelmed right now. Many details must be attended to. Many people must be contacted. Many decisions must be made. Your natural and necessary feelings of grief make these tasks even more difficult.

Still, I encourage you to slow down, take a deep breath and focus on what is really important-what is essential-about the funeral you are planning. What is essential is the life that was lived and the impact that life had on family and friends. To honor that unique life, the funeral must also be unique. Over and over families tell me that the best funerals are those that are personalized.

Consider the unique life of the person who died

As you begin to think about personalizing the funeral, turn your thoughts to your memories of the person who died. Think about his or her qualities and what he or she meant to others. Consider his or her passions, hobbies, pastimes, likes, dislikes.

You might try making a list of the following:

  • attributes or passions of the person who died
  • special memories to share
  • achievements of the person who died
  • important people to include somehow

Personalize the elements of ceremony

Once you’ve given thought to the unique life and personality of the person who died, it’s time to incorporate those memories into the funeral plan. Be creative as you, together with your family, friends, funeral director and the person who will lead the service, brainstorm how to remember and honor this special person.

A good way to personalize the funeral is to personalize the common elements of funeral ceremonies:

  • the visitation
  • the eulogy
  • the music
  • the readings
  • the procession
  • the committal service
  • the gathering or reception

Each of these elements can be personalized in many ways. If you’re having a visitation, for example, you could set up a display of photos, memorabilia, collections or artwork. You could do the same at the gathering following the ceremony. Choose music that was meaningful to the person who died or to your family. Select poetry and other readings that speak to the life of this unique person. Ask the people who were closest to the person who died to participate by playing music, giving readings, being pallbearers, making food for the gathering-whatever suits their own unique talents.

The eulogy is especially important

When personalized, the eulogy (pronounced EWE-luh-jee) is perhaps the most memorable and healing element of the funeral ceremony. Also called the remembrance, the eulogy is the speech during the funeral ceremony that talks about the life and character of the person who died. The eulogy acknowledges the unique life of the person who died and affirms the significance of that life for all who shared in it.

The eulogy can be delivered by a clergyperson, a family member or a friend of the person who died. Instead of a traditional eulogy delivered by one person, you may choose to ask several people to speak and share their memories. There is also a growing trend toward having people attending the funeral stand up and share a memory of the person who died.

More ideas for personalizing a funeral service

The funeral service you have should be as special as the life you will be remembering. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Write a personalized obituary. Some newspapers allow you to express a little more than the usual who/what/why/where/when. Appoint a creative “word” person in the family to handle this task.
  • Create a column in the guest book for people to jot down a memory after they sign their name.
  • Display personal items or hobby paraphernalia on a table at the visitation, the ceremony and/or the gathering afterwards.
  • Have more than one person deliver the eulogy. Ask several people to share memories and talk about different aspects of the person who died.
  • Choose clothing for the person who died that reflects his or her life, interests, passions, etc. The clothing needn’t be formal or somber!
  • Create a personalized program for the ceremony. You can include photos, poems, anecdotes-whatever you’d like! Your funeral director can help you with this.
  • Show a videotape or slide show of the person’s life during the funeral. Pictures tell a thousand words!
  • Ask children if they would like to write a letter or draw a picture for the person who died. Their “goodbyes” can then be placed in the casket alongside the body.
  • Select flowers that were meaningful to the person who died. A simple arrangement of freshly-cut lilacs, for example, might be perfect.
  • At the funeral, invite people to write down a memory of the person who died. Appoint someone to gather and read the memories aloud.
  • Create a funeral that captures the personality of the person who died. If he was zany, don’t be afraid to use humor. If she was affectionate, have everyone stand up and hug the person next to them during the ceremony.
  • Display photos of the person who died at the visitation, the ceremony and/or the gathering. In fact, putting together a photo collage can be a very healing experience for the family in the days before the funeral.
  • Use lots of music, especially if music was meaningful to the person who died or is to your family. Music can be played at the visitation, the committal service and the gathering as well as the funeral service itself!
  • Create a personalized grave marker. Include a poem, a drawing or a short phrase that defines the person who died.

A final word

I hope you have been encouraged in your efforts to create a personalized funeral ceremony. While it may seem overwhelming right now, I promise you this: a well-planned, inclusive, personalized funeral will touch your family, the friends of the person who died and you yourself deeply. The funeral will help you begin to heal and will provide you with great comfort and satisfaction in the months and years to come.

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The Mourner’s Bill of Rights

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Though you should reach out to others as you do the work of mourning, you should not feel obligated to accept the unhelpful responses you may receive from some people. You are the one who is grieving, and as such, you have certain “rights” no one should try to take away from you.

The following list is intended both to empower you to heal and to decide how others can and cannot help. This is not to discourage you from reaching out to others for help, but rather to assist you in distinguishing useful responses from hurtful ones.

1. You have the right to experience your own unique grief.

No one else will grieve in exactly the same way you do. So, when you turn to others for help, don’t allow them to tell what you should or should not be feeling.

2. You have the right to talk about your grief.

Talking about your grief will help you heal. Seek out others who will allow you to talk as much as you want, as often as you want, about your grief. If at times you don’t feel like talking, you also have the right to be silent.

3. You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions.

Confusion, disorientation, fear, guilt and relief are just a few of the emotions you might feel as part of your grief journey. Others may try to tell you that feeling angry, for example, is wrong. Don’t take these judgmental responses to heart. Instead, find listeners who will accept your feelings without condition.

4. You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.

Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. And don’t allow others to push you into doing things you don’t feel ready to do.

5. You have the right to experience “griefbursts.”

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but is normal and natural. Find someone who understands and will let you talk it out.

6. You have the right to make use of ritual.

The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. More importantly, the funeral is a way for you to mourn. If others tell you the funeral or other healing rituals such as these are silly or unnecessary, don’t listen.

7. You have the right to embrace your spirituality.

If faith is a part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you feel angry at God, find someone to talk with who won’t be critical of your feelings of hurt and abandonment.

8. You have the right to search for meaning.

You may find yourself asking, “Why did he or she die? Why this way? Why now?” Some of your questions may have answers, but some may not. And watch out for the clichéd responses some people may give you. Comments like, “It was God’s will” or “Think of what you have to be thankful for” are not helpful and you do not have to accept them.

9. You have the right to treasure your memories.

Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. You will always remember. Instead of ignoring your memories, find others with whom you can share them.

10. You have the right to move toward your grief and heal.

Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and avoid people who are impatient and intolerant with you. Neither you nor those around you must forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.

The Journey Through Grief

The Mourner’s Six “Reconciliation Needs”

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

The death of someone loved changes our lives forever. And the movement from the “before” to the “after” is almost always a long, painful journey. From my own experiences with loss as well as those of the thousands of grieving people I have worked with over the years, I have learned that if we are to heal we cannot skirt the outside edges of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it, sometimes meandering the side roads, sometimes plowing directly into its raw center.

I have also learned that the journey requires mourning. There is an important difference, you see. Grief is what you think and feel on the inside after someone you love dies. Mourning is the outward expression of those thoughts and feelings. To mourn is to be an active participant in our grief journeys. We all grieve when someone we love dies, but if we are to heal, we must also mourn.

There are six “yield signs” you are likely to encounter on your journey through grief – what I call the “reconciliation needs of mourning.” For while your grief journey will be an intensely personal, unique experience, all mourners must yield to this set of basic human needs if they are to heal.

Need 1. Acknowledging the reality of the death.

This first need of mourning involves gently confronting the reality that someone you care about will never physically come back into your life again.

Whether the death was sudden or anticipated, acknowledging the full reality of the loss may occur over weeks and months. To survive, you may try to push away the reality of the death at times. You may discover yourself replaying events surrounding the death and confronting memories, both good and bad. This replay is a vital part of this need of mourning. It’s as if each time you talk it out, the event is a little more real.

Remember – this first need of mourning, like the other five that follow, may intermittently require your attention for months. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you work on each of them.

Need 2. Embracing the pain of the loss.

This need of mourning requires us to embrace the pain of our loss – something we naturally don’t want to do. It is easier to avoid, repress or deny the pain of grief than it is to confront it, yet it is in confronting our pain that we learn to reconcile ourselves to it.

You will probably discover that you need to “dose” yourself in embracing your pain. In other words, you cannot (nor should you try to) overload yourself with the hurt all at one time. Sometimes you may need to distract yourself from the pain of death, while at other times you will need to create a safe place to move toward it.

Unfortunately, our culture tends to encourage the denial of pain. If you openly express your feelings of grief, misinformed friends may advise you to “carry on” or “keep your chin up.” If, on the other hand, you remain “strong” and “in control,” you may be congratulated for “doing well” with your grief. Actually, doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain.

Need 3. Remembering the person who died.

Do you have any kind of relationship with someone when they die? Of course. You have a relationship of memory. Precious memories, dreams reflecting the significance of the relationship and objects that link you to the person who died (such as photos, souvenirs etc.) are examples of some of the things that give testimony to a different form of a continued relationship. This need of mourning involves allowing and encouraging yourself to pursue this relationship.

But some people may try to take your memories away. Trying to be helpful, they encourage you to take down all the photos of the person who died. They tell you to keep busy or even to move out of your house. But in my experience, remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible. Your future will become open to new experiences only to the extent that you embrace the past.

Need 4. Developing a new self-identity.

Part of your self-identity comes from the relationships you have with other people. When someone with whom you have a relationship dies, your self-identity, or the way you see yourself, naturally changes.

You may have gone from being a “wife” or “husband” to a “widow” or “widower.” You may have gone from being a “parent” to a “bereaved parent.” The way you define yourself and the way society defines you is changed.

A death often requires you to take on new roles that had been filled by the person who died. After all, someone still has to take out the garbage, someone still has to buy the groceries. You confront your changed identity every time you do something that used to be done by the person who died. This can be very hard work and can leave you feeling very drained.

You may occasionally feel child-like as you struggle with your changing identity. You may feel a temporarily heightened dependence on others as well as feelings of helplessness, frustration, inadequacy and fear.

Many people discover that as they work on this need, they ultimately discover some positive aspects of their changed self-identity. You may develop a renewed confidence in yourself, for example. You may develop a more caring, kind and sensitive part of yourself. You may develop an assertive part of your identity that empowers you to go on living even though you continue to feel a sense of loss.

Need 5. Searching for meaning.

When someone you love dies, you naturally question the meaning and purpose of life. You probably will question your philosophy of life and explore religious and spiritual values as you work on this need. You may discover yourself searching for meaning in your continued living as you ask “How?” and “Why” questions.

“How could God let this happen?” “Why did this happen now, in this way?” The death reminds you of your lack of control. It can leave you feeling powerless.

The person who died was a part of you. This death means you mourn a loss not only outside of yourself, but inside of yourself as well. At times, overwhelming sadness and loneliness may be your constant companions. You may feel that when this person died, part of you died with him or her. And now you are faced with finding some meaning in going on with your life even though you may often feel so empty.

This death also calls for you to confront your own spirituality. You may doubt your faith and have spiritual conflicts and questions racing through your head and heart. This is normal and part of your journey toward renewed living.

Need 6. Receiving ongoing support from others.

The quality and quantity of understanding support you get during your grief journey will have a major influence on your capacity to heal. You cannot – nor should you try to – do this alone. Drawing on the experiences and encouragement of friends, fellow mourners or professional counselors is not a weakness but a healthy human need. And because mourning is a process that takes place over time, this support must be available months and even years after the death of someone in your life.

Unfortunately, because our society places so much value on the ability to “carry on,” “keep your chin up” and “keep busy,” many mourners are abandoned shortly after the event of the death. “It’s over and done with” and “It’s time to get on with your life” are the types of messages directed at mourners that still dominate. Obviously, these messages encourage you to deny or repress your grief rather than express it.

To be truly helpful, the people in your support system must appreciate the impact this death has had on you. They must understand that in order to heal, you must be allowed – even encouraged – to mourn long after the death. And they must encourage you to see mourning not as an enemy to be vanquished but as a necessity to be experienced as a result of having loved.

Reconciling your grief

You may have heard – indeed you may believe – that your grief journey’s end will come when you resolve, or recover from, your grief. But your journey will never end. People do not “get over” grief.

Reconciliation is a term I find more appropriate for what occurs as the mourner works to integrate the new reality of moving forward in life without the physical presence of the person who died. With reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of the death and a capacity to become reinvolved in the activities of living.

In reconciliation, the sharp, ever-present pain of grief gives rise to a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Your feeling of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future, realizing that the person who died will never be forgotten, yet knowing that your life can and will move forward.

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