Life after Loss

A Practical Guide to Renewing Your Life after Experiencing Major Loss


By Bob Deits

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“One of the classics in the field of crisis intervention” (Dr. Earl Grollman), Life after Loss is the go-to resource for anyone who has suffered a significant life change. Loss can be overwhelming, and recovery often seems daunting, if not impossible. With great compassion and insight, Deits provides practical exercises for navigating the uncertain terrain of loss and grief, helping readers find positive ways to put together a life that is necessarily different, but equally meaningful. With two new chapters and significant changes throughout reflecting Deits’s ongoing experience in counseling, Life after Loss is an essential “roadmap for those in grief” (Lawrence J. Lincoln, MD, Staff, Elisabeth KüRoss Center).



The first edition of Life after Loss was published in 1988. During the ensuing years I have frequently received letters, e-mails, and telephone calls from people who credit the book for providing the strength to get through life's most difficult experience. Some have said, "It saved my life." I have met people at seminars and conferences who are carrying an older edition that shows the signs of heavy use. Professionals in the field have also praised it. Dr. Earl Grollman described it as "One of the classics in the field of crisis intervention." Dr. Howard Clinebell Jr. called it "The best book ever written in the field of grief and loss." More than 100,000 people have found help through the first five editions, not counting those reached through seven foreign-language translations.

My experiences as a counselor informed each of the previous editions. This edition, however, is different. My wife, June, died after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was my girlfriend at the age of fourteen—the only girlfriend I ever had—and my wife at eighteen. Her death came a month prior to our sixty-fourth anniversary. She and I were the definition of soul mates.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt says in his book When Your Soulmate Dies, "Whether they are also lovers or not, soulmates almost always describe themselves as best friends. They genuinely like each other. They communicate. They talk regularly and share things big and small. They confide in one another. They are loyal to one another. They make joint decisions. They go through life's ups and downs together as if on a bicycle built for two."1

The death of a loved one is not the only source of grief.

This firsthand experience with loss and grief changed my perspective, and I wrote this edition not only as a grief counselor, but as one who has walked the same path as you are walking now.

Of course, the death of a loved one is not the only source of grief. When someone dies, it is the death of a body. Divorce is the death of a relationship and can be just as painful. It actually wasn't a death that first pulled me into a new understanding of grief and the work of grief recovery. It was relocating to Arizona from California. That loss entailed losing familiar places and faces, including leaving our first grandchild who was born a few months prior to our move. When June had to choose between losing a breast or a much higher chance of losing her life to cancer, that choice was not as easy or automatic as it might seem.

Learning how to grieve effectively is the most important skill anyone can learn.

Whatever the source of our loss is, I am more convinced than ever that learning how to grieve effectively is the most important skill anyone can learn.

The challenge of grief recovery after any loss is to establish a "new normal" for life. It isn't easy, but it is possible. In the pages that follow you will find insights to help you avoid making an extremely difficult task worse than it already is. You will also find specific things to do to guide you through the process of recovery. The true stories of others who made it will inspire you.

The category of losses my wife, June, called quiet losses has affected many. These are major losses that seem more difficult to talk about with others. In the previous edition June told of being a survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and breast cancer and broke the silence about her new challenge of facing memory loss and early signs of Alzheimer's disease. In this edition, I am writing in memory of her and to honor her insights and gifts of healing to so many people.

The challenge of grief recovery after any loss is to establish a "new normal" for life.

The subject of God and the role of religion in grief recovery is an important one. The temptation of "make a wish" religion persists and continues to be a barrier to healing. You will find practical help in choosing a healthy spiritual outlook so that your religious experience can be the resource it is meant to be.

The chapter titled "Losses in Later Life" will speak to an ever-growing number of people known as baby boomers who have become senior citizens. People are living longer, many into their nineties, even one hundred and beyond. Life as a senior citizen is another of those events for which we are not adequately prepared. You will find many helpful insights to guide you and enable you to better understand those who are already there and what lies ahead for you.

At the other end of the age curve, you will find good advice in helping children and adolescents cope with loss and grief. How the adults in their life respond at the time of a death or divorce goes a long way in determining what impact the loss has years later when they are adults.

If you have not yet experienced a major loss, you know someone who has. "What can I do to help?" is a question we ask because we often feel so helpless. This book is a great caregiver's manual. It will enable you to understand what is going on inside others after a major loss. It offers guidance on what to do or say—and what not to do or say.

An overriding purpose of this book is the survival of the survivors.

It has been demonstrated by researchers that we face increased risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses after a major loss. Dr. Glen Davidson and his team at Southern Illinois University identified the factors of the increased risk. After testing a hundred possible ways to avoid increased risk, they discovered five things to do that make a difference. You will find these incorporated into the "doing" part of the book.

An overriding purpose of this book is the survival of the survivors.

The act of grieving can actually be an avenue for personal growth. It will be demonstrated through the true-life stories of people who faced the worst and came out on top.

If you understand the principles of grief recovery spelled out in this book and put them into practice, you will have learned, in the words of Dr. Howard Clinebell Jr., "how to turn a miserable minus into a positive plus."


Loss and the Mourning After

A Universal Human Experience

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.

—Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, 4

One of the things every human being shares with every other human being is that our life is mortal. We all die sometime. Until we die, there is only one other experience that is universal.

We all experience at least one major loss during our lifetime, and usually more than one. A major loss is any loss experience that destroys a significant piece of what makes our life normal. It might be the death of a loved one, a catastrophic injury to oneself, the trauma of divorce, or relocation to another city. These major losses happen to everyone without regard to economic status, ethnic origin, religious belief, or gender. If there is any good news, it is that we are never the only one to have major losses and feel as we do.

The emotional pain is beyond words. Therefore, no response is more appropriate than grief.

However, major loss and the grief that follows remain among the most misunderstood of all human experiences. When a friend loses a loved one to death, we don't know what to say. The same is true if that person goes through a divorce, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, or has a business that fails.

It's worse when the loss happens to you. You don't have words to express what you are feeling. The pain can exceed the worst toothache you ever had. Friends and family members may pull back, leaving you feeling abandoned. Equally frustrating and painful are the really stupid things said by people who don't have a clue as to how you are feeling—and who really don't want to know. It may seem as if you have fallen into a pit from which there is no escape. The world around you will act as if you should be back on your feet and functioning as though nothing has happened in a matter of days—a couple of weeks at the most. You can't do it—and you shouldn't.

You need to hear this: Experiencing a terrible loss and the grief that goes with it is the most concrete proof there is that you are a real, live, normal human being.

The first goal of this book is to help you avoid making the worst experience of your life worse than it already is. It's bad enough all by itself.

You will make it worse if you:

• Have unreasonable expectations of yourself.

• Keep your feelings and thoughts inside instead of talking about them with people who do understand. That often is in a grief support group with others who are walking a similar path as you.

• Believe that your religious faith can lessen the impact of your loss or give you a shortcut through grief.

• Get trapped in the "why?" questions and assume that you are the only one who has ever had such sadness.

• Believe you will always feel as you do in the first weeks and months. You won't.

You can also make the task more difficult by not taking your loss as seriously as you should.

You will not always feel as you do in the early weeks and months after a major loss.

You expect to grieve when a friend or loved one dies. But it is equally important to mourn the death of a relationship, a divorce, the loss of familiar surroundings when relocating to another city, the loss of a job, or any other loss that makes a major impact on the quality of your life. All the risk factors that follow a death also apply to these and other major losses.

If you even suspect that you may have been the victim of sexual abuse as a child, you are among a large group of people who have experienced this horrible trauma, which included June. Statistics indicate that more women than men have faced this experience that June called a "loss of innocence." However, the pain is just as great and the grief process just as difficult, regardless of gender.

Losing a body part to surgery is often more painful emotionally than physically. Women who have a mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer frequently struggle as much with the loss of one or both of their breasts as they do with having the disease. The same is true for men who have prostate surgery and have their sexual function damaged. These kinds of procedures can leave emotional scars that are far deeper than those on the body. June named them quiet losses. I address them in more detail in Chapter 13.

The death of a pet can be a terribly difficult experience for many people.

Throughout this book, you will find guidance on how to avoid making your journey through grief worse than it has to be. You will, in fact, learn how to take charge of your own grief and come out stronger than before your loss.

The Universal Experience

Loss is a fact of being alive in our world, and no one is immune from the experience. Rabbi Harold Kushner was absolutely correct—bad things do happen to good people.

Major loss affects good people, not-so-good people, and everyone in between. It does not check out the color of your skin, your ethnic origin, how much your grandchildren love you, or whether you are a faithful giver to your church, synagogue, or mosque.

You can get through every major loss without being destroyed by it.

One of the more challenging facts of loss is that there is no quota system. Having one major loss does not prevent you from having other losses. You need this book because Life after Loss will help you cope with present and future losses. Consider these facts of life:

• We live in a mortal, frail, imperfect world in which the word fair doesn't always apply.

• Every marriage ends one of two ways: death or divorce.

• Life is always a terminal condition. There really is a time to be born and a time to die.

• Every career comes to an end.

• Every relationship is temporary.

• The aging process is inevitable and so is the increase in frequency of the losses that come with it.

Now for Some Good News

You can get through every major loss without being destroyed by it. You can enjoy life to the fullest, knowing all the while that it will end. Everybody is capable of becoming good at doing grief work.

Healthy grief is not a passive experience. It isn't something that happens to you. The loss is what happens to you—grief is the normal, appropriate response to loss. Grieving is something you do to heal the wounds in your life after a major loss. There is much more for you to do in response to any loss than just wait and suffer. You can actually take charge of your own grief process. You are the one person who can turn the pain of any loss into a creative hurt—an experience from which you learn and grow.

The exercises you will find in subsequent chapters will teach you how to do everything from getting a good night's sleep to learning how to cry.

Real Stories of Real People's Victories

Ginnie's husband, Jack, died of cancer. She immediately joined the grief support group and put herself fully into the work of grief recovery. She remained in the group for ten years and occasionally led it in my absence. It was Ginnie who said the main task of grief recovery is to "create a new normal." It's a good image. Someone or something that was essential to making your life normal is gone and you can't get it or that person back. You have the difficult, but not impossible, job of letting go of the old normal and creating a new normal for your life.

Matthew was diagnosed with cancer on the day of his fourteenth wedding anniversary. His wife, Barbara, was at his side through chemotherapy. He seemed fine for a while, except for an unrelated back problem that resulted in surgery. The pain persisted even after the surgery. More tests revealed more cancer. Again, treatment seemed to be effective, but he grew steadily weaker. He had trouble breathing and tired quickly. This time, the tests revealed not cancer but pulmonary fibrosis—a side effect of the chemotherapy.

Four years after his cancer was diagnosed, Matthew died of pulmonary fibrosis.

Barbara was heartbroken and angry. She questioned why doctors could save him from cancer but killed him with the treatment. She was angry with God, who she felt had deserted them.

When Barbara came to our grief support group, she didn't have anything to say that was positive. Efforts to reach out to her were often met with sarcastic rejection. However, she kept coming, and over the course of time, a new person began to emerge.

Barbara would tell you that the key was the day she was able to forgive herself for not being able to save Matthew.

Today, she is a positive, outgoing person who is the life of any party she attends. For several years after Matthew's death, she drove a large motor home across country by herself. She maintains a cabin by a lake in Wisconsin during the summers and spends the winters in Arizona.

The life Barbara has is not the one she would have chosen for herself. Given a choice, she would give up everything to have Matthew back again. But she has a full, rewarding life that is good in its own way. She is also a stronger person for having overcome the tragedy life gave her.

Jan's story is different, but the pain was just as great. Jan was an accomplished roller skate dancer. She was as graceful on skates as she was dedicated to her sport.

That all changed just before Christmas one year. Jan was on her way to go caroling with her church group. A man ran a red light and broadsided her car. She was not wearing a seat belt. The impact threw her across the seat, and her head hit the passenger side door.

It was several weeks before she woke up out of her coma. When she did, it was clear that she had sustained serious and permanent damage to the motor section of her brain.

She had to learn to read and write—and to walk—again. Her sense of balance was damaged so much that she could never skate again. The amnesia she experienced was permanent. Among the memories lost was that of skating, which she said made the loss of that skill easier to accept.

Jan began walking every day. She again joined a choir. She went to the skating rink with her former partner and photographed the other skaters, then gave them the pictures.

Jan is another one who found a good and meaningful life after a terrible loss.

Jan and Barbara each went through a time of grief that was normal and healthy. The feelings they experienced were appropriate to the magnitude of their losses.

The grief recovery both of them achieved is not like getting over a case of the flu. It's like getting knocked flat on your back and working to get back up on your feet and recover equilibrium in your life.

It's this kind of grief recovery that you can have as well.

Not All Stories Have Happy Endings

Betty's husband fought cancer for five years before it took his life. Even as he became more and more jaundiced and gaunt, Betty remained certain that he was going to recover. Near the end, he was confined to a hospital in a coma. When I visited them, Betty assured me he would wake up soon. When he died, she was in shock and disbelief. She was also angry at God, the church, and me, as though we had somehow failed Matthew. She refused to take part in our grief support group. Over the next few years she became increasingly withdrawn and her own health began to fail. She kept Matthew's naval officer's uniform hanging in his closet with the cap on a shelf and his shoes freshly polished on the floor. She took the uniform to the cleaners on a regular basis. It looked as if it were ready for him to return any day. Betty was committed to the denial of his death. The result was years of broken physical and emotional health and, ultimately, her own premature death.

It Takes Time

Because it is an appropriate response to loss, grief is not a bad word! Neither is it a sign of weakness, nor does it represent a lack of religious faith. Grief isn't something to avoid at all costs and try to "get over" as quickly as possible. It isn't better to feel happy than to feel grief. It is certainly more fun to be happy—but it isn't better. If something good is happening, it is appropriate to be happy. If you have experienced loss, it is equally appropriate to be sad.

One of the greatest experiences of my life was standing in the delivery room of a hospital and watching our daughter give birth to her daughter on my birthday. It was an incredible gift of love and trust that our daughter invited not only her mother but also me to be present. That it happened on my birthday made it a rare experience indeed. If I was not overjoyed beyond words in that setting, I would be crazy by definition. At age sixteen, that same granddaughter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She underwent thirteen months of intensive chemotherapy. She was often vomiting for hours at a time, suffered extreme pain, and for a time was unable to raise her head or feed herself. I was overwhelmed with sadness and fear for her. If I wasn't, you would agree I would have been crazy by definition again.

The key word is appropriate.

If you have had a major loss, you already know that well-meaning friends will reward you if you can keep from crying in public. You will be told how strong you are and how "well" you are doing. In the first months after June's death, I heard that kind of message many times. The assumption seemed to be that because I have written books about grief, it must be easier for me. Wrong.

I'm glad I already knew that failing to cry is an inappropriate behavior that can put you at great risk of physical and emotional illness. Anyone who wants you to hold your grief in check is seeking his or her own comfort—not yours. To heal properly, you must express your sadness freely for as long as it takes to release it.

Many polls have asked the public, "How long should it take to mourn the death of a loved one?" The most common answer is, "Between forty-eight hours and two weeks." That misguided response has remained constant from at least the mid-1970s to the present. In truth, we have barely started grieving in that length of time. Research by Dr. Glen Davidson, a pioneer in analyzing the bereavement process, revealed it takes most people at least two years to begin returning to a normal life after a major loss.

In my experience it has seemed as if three years is the usual length of time before people have established a new normal for their life. Kay expressed it well in a grief support group when she said, "For the first year or two I went through boxes of tissues every day I cried so much. Sadness would pour over me in waves like those caused by a tsunami, powerful and crashing. Now that I am a little over three years out from his death, sadness still comes but it is like ocean waves coming up on a beach as the tide moves in and out."

There is even danger in establishing two or three years as a reasonable goal. I have known people who took as long as five years to finish mourning and came out healthy and strong. Yogi Berra, the colorful former major league baseball player and manager, once said that a baseball game isn't over until it's over. That's the way it is with the grief process. It's finished when it's finished.

I frequently hear a bereaved person say, "I'm so relieved to know that others still don't have everything worked out. I thought I was the only one who wasn't handling my loss as I should." A very dignified-looking gray-haired woman in our grief support group noted that an important part of aiding your own grief recovery is to not "should on yourself."

Very little is reasonable about grief. There is nothing sensible, reasonable, or fair about losing someone we love.

Nothing is easy about having a marriage end in divorce. Actually, there is nothing rational about any major loss. Whatever the loss, the experience is devastating. The last thing any of us needs at such a time is feeling guilty because we aren't responding in the "right" way.

If you are having problems with a loss after two, three, or four years, it only means you aren't finished with your grief. It doesn't mean you are weak. It doesn't make you less of a person. It just means you still have work to do. You don't have to feel embarrassed or shy about seeking help in doing it. My dad used to say there are those who enjoy hitting their thumb with a hammer because it feels so good when they quit. Don't inflict additional and unnecessary pain on yourself when you are grieving.

Grief is the last act of love we have to give those who have died.

If you are surprised by the length of a normal grieving process, you aren't alone. It isn't negative or morbid. A grief reaction means the loss was significant and life-changing for you. The sadness and emptiness you feel are appropriate. It helps to remember this: Grief is the last act of love we have to give those who have died.

Grief is the final way we can say, "I care about you; you matter to me very much and your loss leaves a huge hole in my life." When June died, I took my own words to heart. Reminding myself that the overwhelming grief I was experiencing was the final act of love I could give her gave purpose to my sorrow and meaning to the pain.

Dr. Earl Grollman, an internationally known counselor on death and bereavement, has said that the loss of a loved one is the most stressful of all life's changes: "You may look into the mirror and not even recognize the way you now look. Something in you is gone that can never be regained."

Your grief is a symbol of the quality of relationship you had with one who has died. Rather than trying to hide your grief, I encourage you to wear the signs of it as a badge of honor. Your tears, the heaviness in your heart, and the overwhelming sense of loneliness all say, "This person, this marriage, this part of my life has been so important to me that nothing will ever be the same again. My grief is the last act of love I have to give, and I will wear it with pride."

Other Kinds of Loss

Those who survive permanently crippling injuries face multiple challenges. Burn survivors often have to undergo many surgeries and endure a forced alienation if they are visibly disfigured. Charlene had an idyllic life. She was attractive, talented, and athletic. Her executive position was second in importance only to the man with whom she shared love and adventure. They had condos in Florida and Colorado and an island getaway in the Bahamas to which they flew as often as possible in their own plane. On one flight something went horribly wrong. They crashed while attempting a landing on the runway adjacent to their home. Both were badly burned. Charlene awoke from a coma of three months to discover that the love of her life was dead. She was burned and scarred on more than 60 percent of her body, including face, neck, hands, arms, and legs. The life she had treasured was gone forever. People looked away and children acted frightened by her appearance. After four years spent in rehabilitation and forty-nine surgeries, Charlene had a new life. She said, "I never wanted to die. I always looked forward to reviving my life again." She subsequently remarried and works as a communication specialist developing programs and resources to assist burn survivors and others with physical differences.

Not everything is bad in a marriage that ends in divorce. The worst of marriages has seen shared times that are good and meaningful. These, too, are worthy of your grief.

The fact of divorce can be a terrible loss in itself. Nancy said to me, "I think I grieved over the fact that I was now a divorcée. It was a label I never wanted."

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the significance of our attachment to a familiar place by grieving the loss of that place when we move away. Even less significant losses in your life will hang around in the recesses of your memory and emotions, gathering energy until they have enough combined force to make themselves felt.

Grief and Accumulated Loss

Have you ever found yourself overreacting to a minor disappointment? Do you have times when you are irritable and short-tempered without knowing why? Such behavior often results when some relatively minor loss experience calls forth the gathered energy of several buried losses from the past—losses that were not adequately acknowledged at the time they occurred. Thinking back about these losses is not enjoyable, but it is necessary if they are to be healed. I once heard Elisabeth Kübler-Ross say that it is as if every loss, great and small, is filed in a loose-leaf notebook in our memory. When a new loss happens, the notebook is opened again and we are confronted by any losses from the past that have not been resolved.

The desert community in which I live often experiences a gathering of thunderhead clouds on summer afternoons. Sometimes the result is little more than higher humidity and soft breezes. On other occasions the breezes become a screaming dust storm, followed by intense rain. These monsoons happen when the atmosphere has stored up the right conditions and something serves as the trigger to turn it loose.


  • One of the classics in the field of crisis intervention, with wise, reassuring, and understanding emotional guidance and practical suggestions for strength and support.
    Rabbi Earl Grollman. D.D., author of Living when a Loved One Has Died
  • [A] roadmap for those in grief.
    Lawrence J. Lincoln, M.D., Staff, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Center
  • A practical guide for those who have difficulty in finding their way back after profound ordeals....Highly valuable and compassionate.
    Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of an Illness
  • Old grief is as important a work as new grief, and it resurfaces with brand new lessons....Sooner or later, a difficult journey will come knocking (again), igniting the grief process. No one should be without this brilliant healing toolbox of a book.
    Maryann Makekau, founder of Hope Matters and coauthor of When Your Grandma Forgets
  • Loss is a universal experience and too often, because they don't know what to say, well-meaning doctors, friends, and family say, 'Don't worry, you'll get over it.' We never get over a major loss but we can find a way through it to enjoy a full and fulfilling life. In Life after Loss, Bob Deits provides compassionate and practical advice for grieving and rebuilding a meaningful life after loss. As a palliative care physician, I care for people dealing with serious illness and those facing the end of life and their loved ones--where grief and loss are a constant presence. I will recommend this wise and important book as essential reading to all my patients and their families.—Steven Z. Pantilat, MD, Kates-Burnard and Hellman Distinguished Professor of Palliative Care; Director, Palliative Care Program, UCSF; author of Life after the Diagnosis: Expert Advice on Living Well with Serious Illness for Patients and Caregivers

On Sale
May 2, 2017
Page Count
336 pages

Bob Deits

About the Author

Bob Deits, B.A. in Psychology and M.Th. in Pastoral Psychology, has been involved in pastoral counseling for nearly three decades, has conducted grief support groups since 1982, and lectures extensively. He lives in Mesa, Arizona.


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