Rachel's Homework

"You've started your grieving here, by talking about your loss with me. But you must work on it other places, too. And, don't forget, grieving is work. Think of these suggestions as your homework.

"First, find a comfortable work environment. Find a private place, without distractions. Do you have a private place at home?"

"My sewing room is mine. I don't sew much any more, but I use the room for reading. It would have been the baby's room. Jack never goes in there."

"Good. Use your sewing room for grieving. Grieving is your new craft. Plan to master it.

"Social support is also important in grieving. You are able to accept my support, now, and Marilyn's. Later, you can find support from your other friends. You may even want to join a group for people who are going through a divorce."

Rachel stiffened when I referred to her sharing her grief with others, but I assured her that she could eventually find it helpful. I continued.

"Keep a pencil and a notebook handy. Make a journal of your progress. Write your thoughts and feelings in it.

Budgeting Her Time

"Next, budget your energy. Discipline yourself. Set aside time for grieving. Make a schedule, and stick with it.

"If you don't deliberately grieve, your unconscious mind will try to make you do it, anyway, and you'll feel miserable all the time.

"Your unconscious mind is like your guardian angel. It watches out for you constantly. It never sleeps. It always tries to do what's good for you.

"However, your guardian angel doesn't have the tools to grieve, so all it can do is nag you to get your attention. You'll know your guardian angel is at work if you find yourself distracted and preoccupied, and find it difficult to concentrate on your work. Your dreams and daydreams will be filled with images of your losses.

"Budgeting your time will get you off the hook. Your guardian angel will get off your back if you proceed with grieving.

"Besides, budgeting your time will help you to grieve without interfering with other parts of your life."

"This sounds like a big job," Rachel noted, laughing. "What do I do next? Start crying?"

"As it turns out, yes. But don't just cry. To grieve, you also must think. You must know why you are crying. This will allow you to connect your tears with your losses.

Facing Her Losses

"When you are ready to work, force yourself to face your losses in the cold light of reality. Remember your wedding day. Look carefully at your wedding album. Look at your smiles. Remember your hopes.

"Remember how happy you were looking forward to sharing your life with Jack. Remember how you anticipated having children with him.

"Also, remember songs that were important to you. Play them if you have the records. Remember the good feelings they brought. Go ahead and cry.

"Next, keep these memories in mind, and force yourself to look at your life today. Count your disappointments. In your journal, list the dreams you'll lose if you stay in this marriage. Later, you can refer to this list.

"You'll feel angry when you recognize your disappointments. Don't be afraid of your anger. Remember that it's normal and healthy.

"In your anger, you may even wish Jack dead. When you feel guilt over this wish, put it in perspective. You're not powerful enough to kill anyone with your wishes. Besides, your wish is no more than a problem-solving wish: If Jack disappeared, your marriage would, too."

Rachel smiled embarrassedly when I spoke of death wishes. I guessed that she had wished Jack dead before.

I suggested, "Write your death wishes in your journal. You'll laugh about them eventually.

"I have a friend who wrote a whole book about ways she wished her ex-husband would die. It was really funny."

Rachel chuckled, and then turned serious again.

Rachel's Sadness

"What about sadness? I felt sad when you were talking about my memories and my favorite songs. Particularly one song, `Sunrise, Sunset' from Fiddler on the Roof. That song always makes me sad."

"Of course. It reminds you of the children you haven't had. Sadness is a meaningful emotion of grieving. You feel sad every time you think of what might have been.

"A hundred years ago, a poet wrote,

For all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these:

`It might have been.'

"That can be the biggest loss of all: Your dream of 'what might have been.'

"Allow yourself to cry when you feel your sadness. Crying is a natural tranquilizer.

"You were feeling sadness before when you cried while thinking about divorce. Don't hide from your sadness as you did then. Or as you hid from of your painful feelings after your mother died."

Rachel looked like she was ready to cry when I mentioned her mother's death. She held back her tears, however, and said, "This sounds depressing."

Managing Her Sadness

"Not depressing, just sad. Sadness is the emotion of depression," I said, "and it's an emotion of grieving, too. Yet depression is different from sadness and grieving.

"One difference is that depression lasts a long time. If you grieve, however, you won't become depressed; that is, you won't feel sadness forever. In fact, the more you practice feeling sadness, the less sadness you'll feel.

"Sadness also differs from depression in that you can regulate it. You can decide when to feel your sadness, and when to stop feeling it.

"Sadness is the emotion of remembering the good times before your loss and realizing you'll never have them again. Therefore, you can turn your sadness on and off by controlling your recollections.

"Remember, the more you feel with your sadness now, the quicker you'll heal--and prevent depression later.

"Anger and sadness are the most prominent emotions of grieving. When you feel these emotions, you'll know that you are grieving."

As Rachel prepared to leave the office, she looked resolute.

"I'll do my homework. But you'd better be here next week to pick up the pieces."

"I'm sure that you'll be in one piece, but I'll be here, anyway."

What Rachel Learned

Rachel surprised herself during the week. In doing her homework, she discovered that her sadness diminished significantly after she reflected on her disappointments several times. Beyond that, she found that making her decision to lose her marriage was much easier than she had expected.

"I remembered what you said: that feeling sad and angry meant that I was grieving. I discovered that I could grieve after all. That helped me with my decision.

"Last night, I told Jack that I was considering a divorce."

"Was it difficult?"

"Yes and no," Rachel said smiling. "It was difficult at first, but then I remembered what you said about my anger. I wasn't going to kill Jack, and I didn't even want to. I just wanted to solve my problem. I guess it was my anger, the energy it gave me, that made it easy."

"How did Jack respond to your announcement?"

"I expected him to be upset and to try to argue me out of it, but he was calm. He just said, `If that's what you want.' I felt like a ton of weight had been lifted from my shoulders."

"How did you come to your decision? A week ago, you were still going back and forth about it."

"You helped me to realize that I didn't kill my marriage. It just died. I realized that I'd been trying to save the marriage so that I wouldn't lose my dreams. But in reality, I had been maintaining my marriage on a respirator even though there was no hope for life. When I realized this, I pronounced it dead.

"Your poem about the cactus and the mushroom helped me, too. I know that Jack is a good person, and so am I. We just weren't meant to live together."

After learning that she could heal, Rachel chose to accept the loss of her marriage. This loss was beneficial, and she eventually felt the joy of a problem solved.

Over the next few months, she also used her new grieving skills to heal from the loss of her mother. She was delighted to discover that her depression disappeared after accomplishing this.

I haven't seen Rachel for more than four years. However, about two years ago, she called to tell me she had married again. And six months ago, I received the announcement of the birth of her first child.


Assess Your Dreams Realistically

When she first consulted me, Rachel felt depressed because she had lost hope for her marriage. She had wrapped up all of her dreams in this relationship, and the threat of losing her marriage made her feel as though she would lose everything she lived for.

However, by sorting out the issues in her relationship with Jack, she discovered that she didn't have to lose all of her dreams: She could revive her dream for children, but to do so, she needed to give up her marriage. This dream was ultimately fulfilled.

Losing a dream is losing hope, and the sense of hopelessness is one of the main symptoms of depression. If you feel hopeless, you may believe that you have lost an important dream. If so, it is important to identify your lost dreams. As Rachel did, you may find that you have lost some dreams, but not others. If so, you can grieve for your lost dreams, but cherish the dreams you still nurture.

Not all dreams can be revived, of course. We may dream of our ambitions fulfilled, but lose ground to others more skilled or talented. We may dream of keeping our youthfulness forever, but lose it to the natural aging process or to poor health. We may dream of a comfortable retirement, but lose our pension through poor investments or the sale of the company we work for. We may dream of our child's success, but our child dies.

For dreams that can't be revived, it is essential to bury them, and to heal. Otherwise, you may waste your life by striving for impossible dreams. This is like buying a lottery ticket to secure your dream of winning a fortune. Before the lottery drawing, your ticket is valuable because it represents hope. After you have lose the lottery, however, it is trash. If you hold this trash, and depend on it for future winnings, you destroy your chances of ever winning.

To avoid wasting your life pursuing impossible dreams, you must divide your viable dreams from those that can't survive. To accomplish this, it is usually necessary to look beyond the dream itself to find what originally sustained it, and what ultimately killed it.

Some dreams die because they lose their life support. Age alone, for example, kills some dreams. A fifty-year-old man's dream of coaching a major league team may be viable, but his dream of playing major league baseball can't be revived.

Other dreams die because they never had a chance to thrive. This was the case for Rachel's dream of having children in her marriage with Jack. She sustained this dream by dreaming that Jack would change, but this dream was unrealistic.

Use your reasoning mind to test reality. Determine which of your dreams can be revived, and which should be put to rest. This will establish whether you should start again on your original dream or follow a different dream. In either case, you can use your emotional energy to further your goals and to thrive.


Emotions After Losing a Dream

Because our dreams are so important to us, losing a dream evokes strong emotions: anger, sadness, fear, and even joy. Our anger is proportional to the frustration or disappointment we feel. Our sadness varies as we remember the importance of our lost dreams. Our fear is as great as the other dreams we risk losing. And our joy is measured by our ambivalence about the dream we lost.

Nature endowed us with emotions because they are essential for living well. Remember, however, that we don't think with our emotions. Emotions alert us to problems, and prepare us to solve them; they do not tell us what the problems are or how to solve them.

For example, anger nags, "You have a problem! You have a problem! You have a problem!" Obviously, this doesn't provide a solution to problem. We need to use our reasoning minds for this. Our reasoning mind may say, "Your problem is, you are too old to compete in the Olympics. Yet, you can still enjoy your sport by rooting for your favorite team or athlete."

To prevent your emotions from dominating your life, you must understand why they occur and how to manage them. You can read about anger in Chapter 3, "Using Your Anger to Heal." Sadness, fear, and joy are discussed below.


Sadness is the most painful emotion of grieving. It results from remembering our lost treasure. By recalling memories, we start a chain of mental events involving our world-image. We compare it with the real world--a world that does not contain the treasure. The disparity between what we want to see and what we actually see makes us sad.

Because sadness results from remembering, we can regulate it by deliberately choosing to recall our losses and their consequences. By doing this, we can choose a suitable time and place to relieve the emotional pressure of sadness--mainly by crying. As we regulate our sadness, it eventually diminishes because focussing on our loss helps us re-draw our mental maps of the world; it makes our world-images correspond to the real world. In the process, we can avoid depression. And our once-painful memories become cherished new treasures.

On the other hand, if we don't deliberately set aside time to recall our losses, we invite depression. This occurs because our unconscious mind takes over, and it reminds us constantly of the pain caused by our losses. That's why sadness is the chief emotion of depression.

Grieving and Depression

Grieving can't be distinguished from depression by looking at symptoms alone. Many of the symptoms of grieving are identical to the symptoms of depression. Sleeplessness, weight loss, and loss of interest in usually pleasurable things appear in both. Grieving can also bring the three hallmarks of depression: helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. The first two of these are often realistic, but the last rarely is.

The sense of worthlessness is unrealistic, because people who believe they are worthless are usually victims of conditioned guilt and self-reproach. Because they feel they don't deserve to heal from their loss, they continue to block their grieving.

If the sense of worthlessness appears after your loss, you can learn to master it to avoid chronic depression. Use the methods that are illustrated in Chapter 5, "Mastering Guilt."

Unlike worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness are often realistic aspects of lost dreams. Hopelessness comes from knowing that we will never again enjoy the pleasures our treasure brought us. Helplessness is knowing that the loss is final, and that we can't reverse it. Normal sadness accompanies these realistic perceptions.

To overcome depression, we must force ourselves to accept the basic limits of our power. We must realize that not all of our hopes and dreams can be fulfilled, that we can't always make things the way we want them. By accepting these limits realistically, we can begin to resolve our depression.

On the other hand, we don't have to believe that we are totally helpless. Our helplessness extends only to preventing or reversing the loss. We can continue to live our lives controlling most of the things we controlled before. Knowing that we aren't totally helpless means that we have hope.

Rachel came to these realizations by comparing her original dreams with the realities of her marriage. As she forced herself to accept the loss of her dreams, her depression diminished. Her success surprised her because she had expected her sadness to continue to grow as it had through the years after her mother's death. The difference was that she hadn't faced her sadness after her mother died. She hadn't even cried. Instead, she had hidden her feelings to please her aunt. This is how she blocked her grieving at that time, and this is also how she came to believe that she couldn't endure any further losses.

Moreover, because her grieving was blocked, Rachel was unable to realistically accept her limitations. She reproached herself for being helpless and hopeless. This unrealistic self-reproach developed into her feelings of worthlessness--her belief that she didn't deserve to achieve her dreams. Thus, she became depressed.



Fear is anger about future problems. Fear is common in grieving because the loss of a treasure often triggers associated future losses. For example, when Rachel thought about losing her marriage, she worried about losing her security, her friends, and her social status.

Though expected future problems produce the discomfort of fear, anticipating problems can be helpful because many problems are preventable. For example, when Frank was faced with losing Melody, he anticipated feeling guilt after her death. By deciding to share his grieving with her, however, he was able to prevent this potential problem. Frank's experiences are related in Chapter 5, "Mastering Guilt," and Chapter 6, "Anticipating Losses."

Fear of Loneliness

Fear of future losses occurs regularly among children who must frequently change residences and schools. Because each move means the pain of losing friends, many of these children avoid making friends in the future. This decision may protect them from losses, but it also means social isolation and loneliness. The same kind of isolation is invited by people who choose to avoid love relationships after painful divorces or breakups of other relationships.

These are harmful trade-offs for such people. To prevent the temporary pain of future losses, they accept the permanent distress of loneliness and unfulfilled lives. The trade-offs are also unnecessary. It is far better to learn to heal after the original loss. Knowing that they can heal after lost treasures, even lost dreams, these people can safely pursue new dreams. Remember that choosing to not have a treasure is often worse that losing it, for it means losing the dream of ever having it.

Fear promotes blocked grieving for the same reasons that anger does. This is not surprising, because fear feels like anger. When we are afraid, for example, we aren't able to sleep or eat normally, and we can't concentrate on our usual tasks.

The Energy of Fear

Fear not only feels like anger, it produces the same effects on our bodies. Like anger, fear generates adrenalin that energizes us for fight or flight: to fight for our lives, or to run from the danger. Since the energy of fear is like the energy of anger, we can manage it to use to our advantage. If we don't manage our fear-energy well, however, we are likely to use it unwittingly against ourselves.

The most important difference between managing anger-energy and fear-energy is that, with fear, the problems to be solved are in the future. In other words, fear-energy can often be used to prevent problems.

Unfortunately, many people who are afraid to use their anger-energy also are afraid to use their fear-energy. Therefore, not only do they waste one of their most valuable resources for survival, they paralyze themselves in terror. That is, they may avoid taking actions that would prevent further losses. In Chapter 8, "Delayed Healing," the story of Eben provides an example of a person who compounded his losses because of his fear.

Instead of paralyzing yourself with fear, use your management skills to prevent future problems if you can. How to manage psychological energy is discussed in Chapter 3, "Using Your Anger to Heal."



Joy is the emotion of gratifications received and of problems solved. The reasons for joy after a beneficial loss are obvious. We feel happy, for example, after we lose an inflamed appendix, or a bad relationship. This joy is easy to accept.

On the other hand, it's usually difficult to acknowledge the reasons for our joy after losing a treasure. That's because we focus on the problems caused by the loss, not the ones that are solved. In other words, we lose sight of our ambivalent feelings regarding our lost treasure.

In itself, joy is pleasurable, yet it often produces unpleasant feelings after a loss--particularly guilt feelings. For example, Calvin experienced unrealistic feelings of guilt because of his normal, healthy ambivalence about his younger brother. Frank also felt guilt when he thought about the problems that would be solved by Melody's death. Both men found relief from their guilt by consciously facing their ambivalent feelings. Ambivalence is discussed in Chapter 5, "Mastering Guilt."

Because of guilt, it may seem contradictory to speak of the joy of grieving. Yet, it is essential to address joy as an emotion generated by losing a treasure because it is virtually always present. That's why avoiding joy can create major stumbling blocks to grieving.