Saturday, February 21, 2015

Understanding the Griever: How Others Can Help

Here's a post I found that I wrote back in 2002 and decided today would be a good day to reprint it here.


When I invited Martha to the gathering at my house, she accepted the invitation cheerfully. Martha was new to the area and so I thought this small potluck I was hosting would be a chance for her to get to know other women in our town. Martha stuck it out till the end, softly responding to each person’s questions about where she had moved from and the details involving her current job. It was not until the last guest left that night that she was able to utter her fears, “Oh, Alice, maybe I shouldn’t have come.” Then she fell apart in tears.

Martha’s son had died in a car accident in Tennessee a year ago. She had tried to hold it together during the whole evening, blocking her tears, until at last she had to let go. A private person, she hadn’t wanted to tell the others gathered about her son.

As she sat at my kitchen table with the tissues I supplied for her, Martha shared about her son Tony and her love for him. She needed to go over the circumstances which led to his accident that snowy night on a mountain road.

I well remembered how much my husband and I had needed to go over every detail at the one-year anniversary of our son Daniel’s death. We had to relive it all in order to get beyond the truth that we could not have prevented his death; we had not been in control.

To complicate matters, before coming to my house, Martha had just gotten off the phone with her sister. Her sister was excited over her upcoming marriage to John. Martha couldn’t muster up an ounce of happiness for her sister’s special day for the thought that her Tony wouldn’t be at the wedding was all consuming.

Then when her sister laughed and said, “If John’s dad wears that horrible toupee of his, I think I’ll die!” Martha felt her heart ache.

Martha was having a hard time dealing with what all of the bereaved must deal with – how a society can carry on as though we should be “fine” about the death of our loved one, especially after a year’s time and how we can keep on in a society which denies our grief and even pokes fun at death.

We do not live in a sensitive society, especially when it comes to understanding death and grief. Perhaps the use of certain phrases that have the word “death” in them, but don’t mean physically dying, proves that we are not “death sensitive.” One of Daniel’s oncologists answered my question of “Why do we make fun of death?” with “We often make fun of what we are afraid of.”

How many of these phrases that have to do with death and yet do not involve really dying have you heard this week?

Drop-dead gorgeous

A dead ringer


Dead in my tracks

Almost died

Scared to death

Dying to see

Died laughing

To die for

She looked like death warmed over

It was like I died and went to heaven

We aren’t really speaking of death when we throw out these phrases. The girl who wore the t-shirt to the museum that said she was “brain dead” during school hours didn’t really mean she was either. Yet, it offended me and anyone else who has had a loved one who was medically brain dead. She thought it was cute. I wanted to leave the museum and cry.

Do others “get it?” Do they care? Some days their words may help; other times, their words sting. They may be well meaning, but they are at a loss as to what to say. Some say nothing and some say the wrong thing. And there are days when the arms of a church or family member may encircle you and make you feel included and loved. There are other times when you feel isolated from your family and friends.

It was stated to me many times that I should tell others how to treat me. I needed to give them wisdom in knowing how to reach out and help me. In the early months of grief, this can be one of the strangest things to have to do. It is like having a broken leg and telling the doctor how to fix it. Shouldn’t he know? Likewise, we are the hurting ones having just buried a loved one, shouldn’t the rest of society know how to help us? Why do we, when we are already in agony have to show people how to treat us?

If we don’t, they will never get it. If we don’t let them know that we need permission to grieve, they will continue on in their lack of understanding. If they say, “Well, he’s in a better place,” and you let it go, they will not know how that statement tears at your heart. But if you can say without too much venom in your voice, “But he’s my son and I want him here just like you want your son with you!” then you have done a great service to that person.

I wish that we could all be as truthful and articulate as my friend Peg from Wisconsin. She says, even now, nine years since Ross, her 4-year-old’s death from cancer, “I miss what he would have brought to the rest of my life.”

For the truth is, death is all around us. We are born to death. From the beginning of time humans have had to deal with their own mortality. But instead of accepting this, we joke, tease and try to avoid death. We use the phrase that the only two certainties of life are death and taxes and yet, we pretend death won’t get us.

To speak about death has been called the greatest taboo. Yet, really, even more of a taboo is to admit that grieving over the death of a loved one is real and important.

We want to shove grief out the door. People don’t want you to make them feel uncomfortable or sad when you cry. They want to see you smile and be like you used to be before the death of your wife or sister.

When asked by a coworker how she was doing one mother, who had just lost her son said, “I’m not doing as well as I was three months ago.”

“Three months ago?” asked the coworker, puzzled by this answer.

“Yes, that was before my son died.”

There is nothing wrong with saying, “Not so good today” when asked how you are doing. Sure everyone wants to hear that you are “fine,” but if you’re not, why lie?

However, we all know the setbacks to telling the truth. We struggle because, while at times we want to let others know how we really are doing (not well today, thank you), we want to be careful that we don’t get an earful of unwanted cliches or platitudes that wrench our stomachs and torment our minds.

There are other platitudes people say in order for them to have something to say or perhaps in hopes that these will make them feel better about your devastation.

“Just trust God.”

“God needed another flower for his garden.”

“Life isn’t fair, you know.”

“You’ll grow stronger and better because of this.”

“God never makes a mistake.”

Whether these are true or not, the bottom line is that they don’t help we who are grieving.

In the words of Joe Bayly: “I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of why my loved one had died, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly. He said things I knew were true. I was unmoved, except to wish he’d go away. He finally did.

Another came and sat beside me. He didn’t talk. He didn’t ask me leading questions. He just sat beside me for an hour and more, listening when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply, left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.”

People want us to “get over it” and to “move on with our lives.” These do not know the first thing about grief. Grief is not an illness or an act of stubbornness or a desire to be difficult. Grieving the loss of a loved one is a deep complicated inexplicable truth.

Over the next months I tried to help my friend Martha learn the ropes we bereaved parents all must learn – gently teaching and guiding others to understand the heart of a griever.

Copyright 2002 by Alice Wisler

Friday, February 20, 2015

Write to Heal: Online Workshop starts March 30!

Are your thoughts muddled? Is your heart broken? Are you going through a difficult season in your life?

Learn to write poetry, essays, and letters to and in memory of your loved one. Pouring out your pain onto paper is cheap therapy and in this guided course I will show you how to use writing as a tool for healing. The course lessons will be sent to you via email each week.

The beauty of this workshop is that you can work at your own pace in the comfort of your own home. Each week, you will be instructed on how to complete your assignments. Once completed, send them back to me and I will critique your work, offer suggestions, and support.

I started this workshop in 2001 for those, like me, who lost a child to death. Others who had a loved one (not a child) die took the course and found it beneficial. Then, those who had suffered wounds in their lives (significant sorrow and losses) participated in the workshop and told me that this course is for anyone who has experienced heartache. The testimonies speak loudly---writing through anguish brings healing, no matter what path you are on. ~ Alice J. Wisler

Outline for Writing the Heartache Online Workshop
1. Week One: Introduction - Getting to Know You
2. Week Two: Introducing Your Loved One Through Poetry
3. Week Three: Writing a Letter to Your Loved One and to Others
4. Week Four: Writing for Change - The Essay
5. Week Five: Writing for Publication

Sign up today for the March 30th workshop. Click the link below to register or for more information:
Writing the Heartache

Monday, February 16, 2015

Guest blogger: My New Overcoat

Happy to welcome guest blogger, Gary Toye, to the Writing the Heartache Blog today. Welcome here, Gary, and thank you for sharing from your heart.


Not long ago, I got a new overcoat. It's very heavy. The fibers are dense, you can tell it's a quality garment, made to last a lifetime. The inside label says "Grief Brothers" It has the name of my youngest son embroidered on the inside pocket - below that, two important dates. April 17, 1987, the day he was born and October 10, 2014, the day he died.

This new overcoat is extra heavy, soaked with tears, so much so that it drips when I move. Sometimes I wonder how someone who feels so hollow can bear such weight. Yet, regardless of how unreal it seems, it is mine to bear. Every once in a while, I feel like a pocket or maybe the lapel may be drying out and my new overcoat may get a little lighter. Then a song comes on the radio, a commercial comes on the television or just a thought flashes across my mind. I put my hand in that pocket or brush that lapel and it's soaking wet all over again.

In one pocket there is a mask. Half mask really, from just the nose down. It has a smile on it. I put it on when I am getting out of my car to go into the store or in to my office. The mask smiles, but if you look at my eyes, you can see the pain. It's too fresh to hide completely. Most people, kind, well meaning, loving people, have moved beyond the terrible event that bought me my new overcoat. It's amazing how the world still goes on, spinning every day. Morning, Noon, Night . . . Repeat. A new workday starts, holidays come and go...time is very unkind to someone with a new overcoat. It selfishly keeps marching on, leaving me stuck in this place, yet somehow running to catch up. It's harder to run with all this extra weight, but fear of not keeping up with the world forces me move forward. Most days I'd rather stay in bed with the blankets over my head and leave my overcoat in the closet, unfortunately -- or fortunately, that’s not an option.

Friends and family ask "How are you?" and seem so relieved when I say "fine". Either they or I change the subject quickly so neither has to be uncomfortable. They give my arm a squeeze or a supportive pat on the shoulder. They quickly pull their hand away when they feel that soaking wet fabric not knowing what to say . . . where to wipe their hand. I wonder if they realize just how comforting that touch is or how much I appreciate them literally reaching through their own comfort zone to share it.

Over time, I'm told, my overcoat will dry out. Bit by bit, fiber by fiber, piece by piece. Oh there will be times a shower or thunderstorm will come along and get it wet again -- birthdays, anniversaries, his kids graduating high school or college. There will surely be more rain, but I look forward to the day when my new overcoat is mostly dry.

I'll wear it, you see, for the rest of my life. Taking it off is not an option. I paid way too much for it not to wear it. Money can't buy an overcoat like mine. Only true love can make a purchase so great. It is because of the love I have for my son, that I’ll wear this overcoat until the day they lay my own weary body down.

I look forward to the day I can hang it in the coat closet just outside Heaven’s door. I can’t wear it in. There’s a sign at the door… it reads “No Tears, Pain or Sorrow Allowed.” Hmmm, there are a lot of other coats in here . . . let me see if I can find a hanger . . .

By Gary Toye

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What's Love Got to do With it? Valentine's and Journaling

My oldest was talking about her new position at work and how much it takes out of her. This morning she said to me before heading to her job, "I didn't really want to, and for some reason, I put it off, but when I did write in my journal last night, it helped so much. It was freeing."


All that chaos in our brains----from work, or grief, or just from the daily situations life hands us-----can make us worry, doubt, and become even fearful. Yet, unleashing it onto a blank page is liberating! We don't have to carry the load alone in our hearts. When we put pen to paper, it's like sharing problems with a trusted friend. The page carries the weight of our emotions for us. We've literally, taken it off our chests.

It's almost Valentine's Day, the day set aside to show love. Show yourself some love by giving your heart needed attention----write!

Writing is healthy, inexpensive, stress-reducing, and can be done just about anywhere.

And yes, it is freeing!

Make writing a way of life. Start with just five minutes. You might be surprised all that you have stored inside your heart that needs to come out.

Keep in mind:
* Freely write, no censoring allowed!
* Writing to music helps many write more honestly
* Don't worry about messy handwriting or spelling--this is for your eyes only
* You don't have to share with anyone
* Writing about real issues has been proven in a study (by Professor James Pennabaker) to lower blood pressure and heart rates
* After some time, you can develop a healthy habit of journaling

"Pick up your pen and see how grateful your heart will become." ~ Alice J. Wisler

Monday, February 9, 2015

Guest Post: When It’s Divine to Mourn

One of the things I'd like to do more of this year is to have guest bloggers here. So if you would like to send me something (an article, a poem) for Writing the Heartache, please email it to

Today's guest on my blog is Kit Tosello. Welcome, Kit!

When It’s Divine to Mourn

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. -Ecclesiastes 3:1

If you ran into me in town lately and I told you I was fine, I was sort of lying. Please don't take it personally; I was lying to myself too. I see now that I've been in a bit of a funk. As usual, I didn't recognize it until it was half-way into the rearview mirror.

Something happens every fall. Grief sneaks up on me silently, like bare feet on a soft forest path. I pride myself on my Annoying Perkiness (seriously, I've been told that I have AP), so I turn the music up, raise my chin a little higher, and say I'm doing fine until it's clear I'm deceiving myself.

This time of year, I identify with words like taciturn and melancholy. I lose track of time scrolling through old photos, text my adult children more often, and take longer naps. I'm not depressed. I'm just melancholy. That's okay, right?

I'm grateful . . . I've never dealt with clinical depression. Just this old, familiar ennui that slips its arms around me from time to time. Especially at this time of year. I've learned not to fight it. Those arms are not going to crush me. It's more than okay to give in, to mourn things lost, to wait for the cleansing tears.

It's like a deep longing for something beyond my grasp.

If I allow myself to put a face to it, I see my dad smiling at me with squinty, mischievous eyes, cigarette-stained teeth, and gray cheek-stubble. I see my sweet mom wearing her pale green blouse, giving me that one look. The one that says, "You are so indescribably special to me." I want so badly to reach out and touch her on the shoulder.

I see my kids when they were young. Sean has colored up his face with my berry lipstick. Marissa is picking out a song by ear on the piano.

It's clear to me now that grieving a loss is never a once-and-for-all process. It's a slow shedding of leaves that you had hoped to keep forever. Every time the breeze carries a few more away, you feel a little more uncovered and vulnerable. We say we're learning to let go, but do we really have a choice? You can do this the hard way, or you can do this the easy way.

Each day, more speckled leaves coat our lawn and driveway. They're lovely, reminding me that death and loss and change can be hauntingly beautiful. And the rotating seasons affirm that it's not an end. Just another new beginning.

Solomon wrote that there are divinely appointed times for mourning. I'm okay with my divine funk. Laughter will follow soon enough.

~ By Kit Tosello
(This post first appeared at on Oct. 2, 2014)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Write the Gratitude!

When Daniel died, I wanted more. More smiles, more birthdays, more words, more experiences. Like any mom, I wanted my child to have a full and healthy life.

When Daniel breathed his last, all I had was four years and five months and eight days. He hadn't made it to five; he hadn't even made it to four-and-a-half. We had more sunsets to watch, more waves to play in, more watermelon to drip down our faces. I felt cheated.

My journal reflected my anguish and sorrow. I wrote day after day about how unfair this all was---for me, for my husband, for Daniel's older sister Rachel, and baby brother Benjamin. And then three months later when his new baby sister arrived, I wept for her. She'd never know Daniel, never be photographed with him, never feel his hand tickling under her chin.

As bereaved parents, there is a place for anguish and anger, especially at the unfairness. This was not how we were taught that life works. Parents don't bury their children.

Unfair. Overwhelming emotions. I believe in writing through all of that. Get it on paper, scribble, write in big, bold letters, get it out. It's part of this journey we call Grief.

But we can't stay in the pit of despair forever. We aren't made that way. I'm not and you're not. You have too much to offer the world to live a life of mad.

There will come a day when you will feel the gratitude for having had your child----even if only for a little while. Some people don't get the privilege of being Mom or Dad. Some never get to stoke the hand of a newborn. Some never get that positive pregnancy result.

I had four years and five months and eight days. Was it enough?! Heck, no! But it was all I was given. And for that time frame, I was Daniel's mama while he was on earth. I'm still Daniel's mommy, just not in the same capacity.

Writing always helps me. That's why I advocate it so much. So I ask you to take a sheet of paper and think of all the ways your child blessed you. Gratitude does a body good. You can form sentences like, "I'm so glad I got to make a grilled cheese sandwich that afternoon for Daniel." Or just jot down a word or two, like, Grilled cheese.

Keep this list by your bedside, take it with you in your car. Or have several pads of note paper around the house and in the car so that when you recall a happy moment or an attribute you love about your child, you can record it.

When we look at what we had instead of solely focusing on what we don't have, we begin to see the world, people, and even ourselves in a new light. We might even smile more, and laugh out loud.

This new light can give us the courage we need to travel on.

Let me know how you share your gratitude for your child's life.

Your advocate on the journey,
~ Alice

If you'd like to write some more, join me at the next online Writing the Heartache workshop, starting March 30th. Click here for more details.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review in The Christian Chronicle for Getting Out of Bed in the Morning

I haven't posted here in a long time. This year, I vow to give this blog just as much attention as I give my Patchwork Quilt Blog. Which isn't terribly much, but better than I have been taking care of this one.

Below is a book review I found today and wanted to share it. Not only does John Dobbs review my devotional, but other grief and loss books, too. For the full article at The Christian Chronicle, go here.

Alice J. Wisler. Abilene, Texas: Leafwood Publishers, 2013. 176 pages. $13.99. Order your copy here.

~*~*~* REVIEW

For those who desire a daily companion to encourage them along the journey of grief, "Getting Out of Bed in the Morning: Reflections of Comfort in Heartache" by Alice J. Wisler is a good choice. Wisler, a well-known Christian novelist, writes 15 years after the loss of her 4-year-old son, Daniel, to cancer. This book is written as a daily devotional and is divided into sections that accompany one along the path of loss and sorrow.

Each of the 40 devotionals offers Scripture, encouragement and prayer. At the end of each chapter is a thought to consider during a daily walk. The devotions speak to various familiar aspects of grief in a gentle but helpful manner.

This could easily become the book that friends may keep on hand to give to those who suffer losses. It has an excellent message, is easily read and contains practical suggestions for each day that will be a blessing to those who have suffered losses. I look forward to sharing it with others.

~ JOHN DOBBS is preaching minister for the Forsythe Avenue Church of Christ in Monroe, La. He and his wife, Margaret, have two children, one of whom died in 2008 at the age of 18. Dobbs travels and presents a Bible-based seminar, “Getting Acquainted with Grief.” Contact him via his blog,, for more information.