On her daily television show, Oprah Winfrey used to call stories of loss before-and-after stories: those things that happen to us that are an obvious doorway between what was and what now is. A doorway that once gone through requires that we rebuild – over time – the way we view and live our lives.

Several years ago, I taught an on-going class at a local college on loss as seen through the lens of before-and-after doorways called “The 5 Things We Cannot Change and The Happiness We Find by Embracing Them.” The class was based on a book by the same name authored by psychologist David Richo.

Richo wrote his book after concluding that in loss his clients seemed to struggle against and resist one or more of what he came to see as the same five unchangeable universal truths of suffering. The book resonated with me in a kind of “Aha!” way because in my work at the time as a stress resilience trainer – and as a listener to life stories in the grocery store line and on airplanes – I too had noticed the same resistance and struggle, which is why I decided to teach a class on the subject.

According to Richo, the five things we cannot change are the real facts of life; when embraced, the five things can act as windows to greater understanding and wisdom. When denied, the five things become roadblocks to moving forward after loss. Our perspective is determined by the degree to which we can let go of fear and pain. The road to letting go of fear and pain, says Richo, is to find a way to let go of our attachment to our expectation and personal preference that things should be other than what they are in the present. Richo outlined the five things as:

1. Everything changes and ends.

The fear: We may lose what we have.
How we mask the fear: Being less committed or becoming stoical.
To release the fear: Grieve and let go.

2. Things don’t always go according to plan.

The fear: Our expectations will not be met.
How we mask the fear: Plan every detail and try to stay in control.
To release the fear: Accept what happens and learn from it.

3. Things are not always fair.

The fear: We might not get our fair share.
How we mask the fear: Insist on keeping everything even and blame those who are unfair.
To release the fear: Have an attitude of “you win some, you lose some” while working toward justice/accountability.

4. Pain is a part of life.

The fear: We will not be able to handle it.
How we mask the fear: Try to be on guard and to avoid pain.
To release the fear: Allow pain that is natural and do not add to pain by attempting to control it.

5. People are not loving and loyal all of the time.

The fear: We will feel hurt and have to grieve.
How we mask the fear: Stay away from closeness in the future.
To release the fear: Speak up and say “ouch!” while not retaliating.

The 5 Things and the Doorway to Grief-Healing

The loss of a loved one presents us with a before-and-after doorway between what was and what now is. And it presents us with another doorway – a doorway between the pain of grief and grief-healing. The key that opens this second door is grief-processing. My current work is primarily as a grief support coach and spiritual counselor. Recently, upon re-reading Richo’s book, I took away several things that I would like to share that can be applied to grief processing and healing.

Embracing the 5 things we cannot change is about finding acceptance of the reality of a loss. The first task presented to us by loss is to learn to accept the reality of what was lost. That reality can include: “everything changes and ends” – including our earthly relationship with a loved one; “things don’t always go according to plan,” such as our planned-for future with a loved one; “things aren’t always fair” – losing a loved one before we’re ready can feel incredibly unfair; “pain is a part of life” – well yes, of course, but can I handle a loss this big?; and “people are not loving and loyal all of the time” – a reality that needs to be processed if a loved one dies before we have resolved issues of regret and forgiveness. In order to heal grief, it is important to process whichever of these five things applies to our loss.

Feeling fear and having many fears is natural after change and loss. For most of us, our loved ones are our places of belonging, our places of certainty – the places where we most often can be our authentic selves without inhibition. When a place/person of belonging is lost, our world is up-ended and it’s natural to temporarily fear that we won’t be able to handle it and/or find a new place of belonging: Will I ever be happy again? Can I make it on my own? Will anyone else accept me just as I am in the way he/she did? These are examples of common fears that arise after loss. Part of grief processing is learning to move forward toward newness and uncertainty even in the presence of fear.

Struggle is necessary. Struggle is uncomfortable. And it is a necessary part of grief-processing. Struggle indicates that we are seeking a new direction, looking for flow or forward movement – in other words we are in the process of working through the pain and complexity of grief and trying to adjust to an environment in which our loved one is missing. The key to skillfully dealing with struggle after the loss of a loved one is to undertake actions that allow us to feel and express struggle without self-judgment. For example, learning to feel what we feel might include anything from learning calming breathing techniques to getting regular massages; expressing what we feel may include doing feeling-based artwork or by doing honoring rituals that reflect our unique relationship with our loved one. A consequence of trying to avoid the discomfort of struggle after loss can be getting stuck in grief; in that sense learning to be with and work through struggle is imperative to grief healing.

In a Healthy Grieving Process, Before-and-After Stories Evolve Over Time

Over time as grief is processed, our before-and-after stories change, often from “I don’t want this!”, or “I don’t think I can deal with this,” or “I don’t know how to go on,” to “I’ve started to have more moments of happiness” and “I’m thinking of starting something new.” Making this transition is the forward movement found from feeling our fears and acknowledging the necessity of struggle after loss. And it is found in embracing with acceptance the reality of the five things we cannot change.