Seven Choices

Finding Daylight after Loss Shatters Your World


By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, PhD

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Inspiring, profound, intimate, and moving, this updated edition of the classic self-help book brings solace, hope, and advice to anyone who has suffered loss.

Everyone experiences grief, but few books offer real help with the debilitating emotions of bereavement. Now, an internationally respected authority on personal change maps the terrain between life as it was and life as it can be. Readers can move at their own pace through the seven distinct phases of loss and can work towards a stronger, more balanced self. The author’s own story of the loss of a young husband, combined with the tales of dozens of individuals, and the most recent research on coping with loss, helps readers to become happier, healthier, and wiser beings.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: The stories told in Seven Choices are true. In order to honor the privacy of the more than sixty generous individuals who were willing to tell me the stories of their grieving process, I have altered names and other distinguishing features of the accounts. In addition, in telling my own story I have looked backward with eyes that can now see pattern, order, significance, and progression in what at the time was often only random, unconnected events. I have told the truth of my story at the same time that I have, on occasion, telescoped events, consolidated meanings, and altered strict chronological sequence in order to provide lucidity and precision in the discussion of the grieving process.

Grateful acknowledgment is given to the New York Times for the following: From "About Men—The Death of a Son" by Albert F. Knight. Copyright © 1986 by the New York Times Company. From "Sea Sculpture" by Ronald Pease. Copyright © 1981 by the New York Times Company. From "Middle-Age Dating" by Noel Perrin. Copyright © 1986 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.

This book was originally published as Seven Choices: Taking the Steps to New Life after Losing Someone You Love.

Copyright © 1990 by Neeld & Need, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Harper Neeld

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

This Warner Books edition is published by arrangement with Centerpoint Press, a division of MBI Publishing, 6706 Beauford Drive, Austin, TX 78750.

Hachette Book Group

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New York, NY 10017

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First eBook Edition: December 2008

ISBN: 978-0-446-55538-8

Warner Books and the "W" logo are trademarks of Time Warner Inc. or an affiliated company. Used under license by Hachette Book Group USA, which is not affiliated with Time Warner Inc.

Cover design by Brigid Pearson

Book design by Charles A. Sutherland

Text Illustrations by HRoberts Design


"Compelling substance … a gifted writer. … Elizabeth Neeld clearly meets Samuel Johnson's first criterion for genius."

—Washington Post

"Sound advice on how to adjust to change and form new life patterns and human bonds.

—Publishers Weekly

"A useful, wide-ranging work … trenchant … pertinent."

—Kirkus Reviews

"A highly original and meaningful approach to the grieving process."

—Psychology Today

"An affirmation of the power of the grieving process, a source of hope and validation. Dr. Neeld clearly goes well beyond a focus on coping (which is necessary) and acceptance to the importance of integration and self-empowerment."

—Dr. John Schneider, author of Stress, Loss and Grief

"A profound book … deeply compassionate and very wise."

—Coast Book Review Service

"Elizabeth Harper Neeld gives lessons written from experience and from the heart on rehabilitating your life when you are alone. This book is about becoming a person of joy.

—Liz Carpenter, author of Getting Better All the Time

"Unfortunately, there is no one-minute way to grieve. But Elizabeth Harper Neeld gives us the steps we must take to lead full lives again."

—Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

Writing, 1, 2, 3 Editions

Writing Brief, 1, 2, 3 Editions

Readings for Writing

The Way a Writer Reads

Writing: A Short Course

Options for the Teaching of English: The Undergraduate Curriculum

Either Way Will Hurt & Other Essays on English (ed.)

Harper & Row Studies in Language and Literature (ed.)

Fairy Tales of the Sea (ed.)

From the Plow to the Pulpit (ed.)

Yes! You Can Write (audio)

Sister Bernadette: Cowboy Nun from Texas (co-author)

A Sacred Primer: The Essential Guide to Quiet Time and Prayer

For Rachel and Tommie


Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team to bring a book from a thought in the author's imagination to a bound copy in a reader's hand. Without Chris Tomasino, my agent, who has represented and supported my work for more than a decade, this edition of Seven Choices would still be an idea instead of a reality. Chris's creativity, indefatigable energy, and commitment both to this book and to its author make her a friend and colleague I never want to be without. Caryn Karmatz-Rudy, my editor at Warner, is one of the most compassionate human beings I have ever met. Her commitment to making this book available to as broad a readership as possible has never wavered from the day she first read Seven Choices, while riding on the train from Pennsylvania to New York City, to the day we could all say the long publishing process had been completed. I count myself blessed to have both Chris and Caryn as partners.

Carol Anderson put a professional touch to the copyediting of the book, and Charles Sutherland created the new design. Howard Roberts drew the map of the Terrain of the Active Grieving Process. Brigid Pearson is responsible for a cover that speaks quiet hope. Keri Friedman saw that readers, the media, and professionals knew that the book was available. I am grateful for their specialized, creative skills. Adina Neufeld made sure all the research and references were accurate and up-to-date. Joey Bieber shot the author's photograph at the same time that she delighted me with her exuberance for living.

In the Directory can be found the wisdom of three friends who contributed generously to Seven Choices. Ann Rachlin, M.B.E., of London, provides suggestions for selections of music that are appropriate for each of the seven sets of experiences—from Impact to Integration. It was Ann's support and ingenuity that made Seven Choices available to many of her associates and friends in Great Britain. Ione Jenson, educator, author, lecturer, and psycho-spiritual therapist with degrees in education, counseling, and psychology, writes about how to help children who are grieving. A new section on helping teenagers deal with grief and loss is provided by Colleen O'Grady, supervisor, consultant, and trainer of family therapy in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Texas Mental Science Institute in Houston. Professor John Bradley suggested a list of movies about grief. Charles Anderson, professor at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, contributed a story that appears in the "Working Through: Finding Solid Ground" chapter about the definition and power of memory that readers say is one of the most helpful insights in the book.

Susan Echrich, in her leadership in the Grief and Loss Program of AARP, together with her colleagues Susan Duhamel, Kathy Wood, Judy Fink, Tim Wollerman, Selima Nelson, Nancy Griffin, Bill Moore, Tom Young, Eunice Hofmeyer, Dorothy McConnell, Ida Nezey, Florence Williams, Mary Yarber, Ann Black, and all the AARP Grief and Loss Program volunteers around the United States, inspire me to continue to do whatever I can to be of help to people who are grieving.

Kathi Appelt, Cynthia Whitcomb, Christine Head, Lee Herrick, Yvonne Donaldson, Eva Archer-Smith, Joe Mercer, Beth Mercer, Ernestine Hambrick, Sheri Harper, Gail Daniels, Dee Poole, Cathy and Russ Setzekorn, Ken Appelt, Robert Unterberger, Faye Walker, John Bradley, and Paula Hunter are family members and friends whose presence I count on and am grateful for every day of my life. The late William Stafford not only enriched my life with his poetry but gifted me with his friendship as well.

Dr. Betty Unterberger, who holds the endowed chair in history at Texas A&M University, has been a mentor, an inspiration, a friend, and a companion on my spiritual journey for more than twenty years. She is the person who taught me about silent prayer. Her support and love are with me every day.

My sister, Barbara, my brother, Frank, and my aunt Frances are daily connections to the very riverbed of my origins; they let no time go by when they do not remind me of their love and support. In so doing, they resonate for me the care and encouragement that my late parents, Tommie and Rachel, provided for all of us.

My husband, Jerele, once told me that he thought the reason I had come into this world was to write Seven Choices, and that the one person I had written it for had already read it … therefore everything else in my life after that could be pure pleasure. It's that kind of jollying up—and that kind of faith—that makes my life with Jerele fun and fruitful. And our shared commitment to the Holy Other empowers each of us every day. For all of this, I am always thankful.


Let me tell you a story …

How many times has such an offering been a boon to our lives: a break from doing sums in arithmetic class, a just-frightening-enough last activity around a campfire, a moment to laugh, a clarifying example that helps us understand.

And sometimes even a gift. A life-saving, life-giving gift.

A few months after my young husband, in perfect health, dropped dead one summer by the side of the road at our cabin in Tennessee, I went to a distant city on business. A friend, thinking to help, arranged a dinner in that city for me and another widow. When the woman was seated at the table where I waited, she immediately began to cry. And she cried during the entire meal. When the waiter brought the dessert menu, my dinner companion came close to becoming hysterical; she kept talking about how much her late husband loved chocolate.

It wasn't that I didn't empathize. How many meals had I cried through, just as she was doing now? But I must admit that I was a bit puzzled, for the whole idea of this dinner was that I would have an opportunity to talk with someone whose insights and experiences would benefit and help me.

As we walked out of the restaurant, I ventured to say, "I'm so sorry for your pain. How long has your husband been dead?"

When she answered, "Eighteen years," something snapped for me. I said to myself, in that very moment, "Elizabeth, whatever it takes, eighteen years from now you are not going to be walking out of a restaurant carrying in front of you a life-size cardboard cutout of a widow." I already knew enough about grieving from books I had been reading to realize that people have sad experiences and cry years and years after a loss. But I also knew enough to realize that this was not the case here. This person, instead of being caught in a momentary experience of "shadow grief," was living—it seemed to me—the lifestyle of someone whose very identity was the loss she had experienced.

What could I do to avoid this?

Perhaps because I was a researcher by training and a teacher of poems and stories, I decided to watch for people who had experienced loss and tragedy and ask them to tell me the narratives of their lives. But I wanted to hear the stories of a particular kind of person. I wanted to talk to people who, in spite of the awful things that had happened to them, had found some way to love life again. People who, through some means (though what these means might be, at this point, I didn't have a clue), had managed not to get stuck in the pain and emptiness of their loss. I wanted to learn from people who could say, like Mr. Manette in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, "I've been recalled to life."

I ended up, over time, talking to more than sixty people. When I began, I had no thought in mind except my own need. I had to know what people did or what they thought or what they learned that made the positive difference in their lives after loss had shattered their world. I would talk to them, and then I would go home and write what I remembered in my journal.

Later—in fact, years later—as I reflected on the stories and on my own experiences, I thought I saw a pattern of movement from the time when we feel the first blast of loss to the time when we can say, "I have found equilibrium again. I have freedom from the domination of grief. Life now has a 'new normal.' I am not stuck. I am again a participant in the wonderful mystery called life." This was the genesis of the book you are now holding.

From the testimonies of so many individuals who read the first editions of Seven Choices, I now know that the mapping of the terrain of active grieving that I made for myself—based on the experiences and examples of the generous community of people who shared their stories with me—offers something for all of us when loss blows our lives to smithereens. It is this mapping—flexible, personal, individual, and private—that forms the structure of this book, from "Impact: Experiencing the Unthinkable" to Daylight, when we can finally say that Integration is now a mark of our daily lives.

Buttressing the personal stories people told me are the works of scientists, medical professionals, philosophers, spiritual thinkers, and poets who provide evidence or offer powerful observation that such an "active grieving process" does exist and that it is within the power of each individual to make the choices that allow movement through that process. The process is unique to every individual; each of us moves at a pace and in ways that are right for us; nothing is automatic, and everything derives from our active participation in the ebb and flow of our own lives. Yet we all share the same humanity. We recognize the common elements of our grief, at the same time that we recognize that no two of us experience a loss in quite the same way. Each of us is a member of a community that is known the world over, a community of "those who mourn, those who have lost."

I begin each of the seven chapters of this book with a narrative of the loss of my husband. You will find, however, that my story merely serves as a mirror to reflect the disasters and the triumphs we all experience during the process of grieving many kinds of loss: divorce, death (parents, children, partners, brothers and sisters, friends), estrangement from a friend, loss of the shape of life as we knew it, financial and career setbacks, reversal of expectations, disappearance of a dream.

But enough framing of the tale.

Let me tell you a story …



Well, everyone can master grief 'cept he that has it.

William Shakespeare

I looked at my watch: 8:17 P.M.

"He really should be back," I thought. "I know it's harder to jog here than it is back home. But, even so, he's had enough time to finish his run by now."

Every summer, as soon as the spring term ended at Texas A&M, Greg and I came to our cabin in the Tennessee hills. We had bought the place four years earlier, just after we got married. We could barely believe our good fortune: The cabin cost us almost nothing, because it was so old and run-down (a condition Greg found most appealing—he loved to wield a saw and a hammer), and the location reminded us so much of the beautiful spot where we were married.

In fact, the mountains around our cabin were part of the same range that sheltered Cade's Cove, the site of our wedding. While we were dating, we came upon the tiny cove that appears so unexpectedly and incongruously among the rugged and steep mountain peaks. Here a few families of pioneers, trekking in the early nineteenth century toward a new life, had found a haven among the cove's meadows. The barrier of mountains that surrounded them required the settlers to rely on their own ingenuity. Their cabins, water mill, barns, churches, and pasture fences are still standing, now preserved as a national treasure, a testimony to the pioneer's self-sufficiency. When we decided to get married, it was the oldest cabin in the cove, the John Oliver place, that Greg and I chose as the wedding site. That cabin, with its hand-hewn timbers, its doors fastened with carved wooden hinges, its floor worn smooth by generations of living, was a symbol for us of the way we wanted to live our new life together: simple, strong, in harmony with the environment.

Our own cabin had been built only forty years ago, not over 150, but it and the surroundings had the same sense of timelessness and peace as Cade's Cove and John Oliver's cabin. Whether it was down at the feed store listening to the farmers guess about rain or on my parents' front porch with our chairs tilted back against the wall, listening to night talk, we felt our spirits renewed whenever we came here.

My seventy-two-year-old daddy, a Holiness preacher who had retired from pastoring but not from preaching, as he was quick to tell you, had settled himself and Mother a few years earlier in a little wood-frame house on Possum Creek in Soddy-Daisy, which was right nearby. Greg and I loved to walk up the road at the end of the day and visit with my parents on their front porch.

"Got two bushels of butter beans out of the garden today," Daddy would report. "And if we get rain there'll be more the day after tomorrow. … Here, Elizabeth, take this dishpan and see if your thumbs still know how to open a bean."

And then there'd be discussion about the progress of Mother's fourteen-day cucumber pickles and whether or not there were enough tomatoes to begin to can. Most nights there'd be homemade peach ice cream around bedtime; and then Daddy would say, "Time to turn in." Greg and I would start for our cabin.

We always seemed to be able to see the moon and at least one bright star in front of us as we walked down the country road. I would look up at the sky and chant a rhyme from my childhood:

I see the moon;

The moon sees me;

God bless the moon

And God bless …

Instead of "God bless me," I always said, "And God bless us."

Greg would answer:

Star light, star bright,

First star I see tonight;

I wish I may, I wish I might,

Have the wish I wish tonight.

"But," he'd say, pulling me close, "I've already got my wish. I've got you!" No matter how predictable this ritual, we still laughed every time he said those words.

Greg and I were both professors, and we used the summer months to do our writing. We had come to the cabin this summer to finish a book we were writing together, and our work was going well. In the five days since we arrived we had opened up the cabin, unpacked our books and supplies, and decided where each of us would work.

Greg's spot was at a small table on the tiny screened-in front porch. "Lets me see who's going up and down the road," he joked, as if any more than one or two neighbors were likely to pass in a whole day's time. I worked inside, at a table we had placed beside a long wall of windows. I could watch the chameleons that scampered along the old stone foundation, where, in some earlier time, another part of the cabin had stood. And if I looked up I could see the tops of the pine trees that grew all around the cabin. "Virgin pines. Hundreds of years old," Greg explained. "They've never been cut—that's why they're so tall."

Work had gone well today, and after supper Greg had said, "Want to join me for a six-mile run?"

"No, sir, offer declined," I said. "I'll do the two-mile route and see you back here when you're finished."

So I had run to the Possum Creek bridge and back, and it was now time—past time—for Greg to be home. Minutes passed. "I bet these hills did get to him," I said to myself. "He's probably walking the last miles. I'll take the car and go pick him up; he'll appreciate a ride back home."

I started the car and guided it carefully over the big roots of the trees that grew all the way up to the edge of the cabin. I turned onto the paved road from the cabin lane. It was that time between daylight and dark that makes one feel lonesome and melancholy. Reaching the bridge at Possum Creek, I noticed how still and deep the water looked. Everything was covered with that kind of gray-green light that's left in the mountains when the sun has almost gone down. I crossed the bridge and rounded a curve.

There I came upon a scene of confusion. Large groups of people were standing on both sides of the road and spilling out into it. Carefully, I threaded my way through the crowd. I drove past the black-and-white car that belonged to the sheriff's patrol. I drove past the orange-and-white ambulance parked in the gravel on the left-hand side of the road. What held my attention was getting back onto the open road.

The trees and bushes were thick and grew close to the pavement. "It'll be easy to miss him if you're not careful," I reminded myself as I left the crowd behind. So I drove slowly, looking carefully to the right and to the left.

There he is! I see him! It was a glimpse of Greg's orange running shorts. I had known I would find him taking it slow and easy up and down these hills! I accelerated the car and exhaled a sigh of relief. How long, I wondered, had I been holding my breath?

But when I got to the spot where Greg was, the orange turned out to be a cylinder that had been mounted on a post, meant to hold a newspaper. By now I had reached the country store that I knew was Greg's three-mile turnaround point. "I've just missed him somewhere on the road," I said, speaking aloud to no one but myself. "I'll turn around here. I know I'll see him on the way back. I've just managed to miss him."

When I got to the curve above Possum Creek, the crowd was still there. So was the black-and-white car that belonged to the sheriff's patrol. And so was the orange-and-white ambulance.

I noticed a man standing in the middle of the road. He seemed to be directing traffic.

"What happened?" I asked, rolling down the window when I got abreast of him.

"Lady, move on. You're blocking traffic," was the man's reply.

I eased the car down toward another man who was also standing in the middle of the road. This man appeared to be in charge.

"Sir, what happened?" I asked again.

"We found a man in the ditch," he answered.

"Well, I'm looking for my husband," I said. "My husband went for a six-mile run, and he hasn't come home yet."

For a few seconds the man said nothing. Then he spoke in a voice so low that I could hardly hear him. "Ma'am, I think you should pull your car over to the side of the road." I felt no emotion. I asked no additional questions. If there was any connection between what was happening beside that road and my life, it still was not apparent to me. But I did what I was told. I pulled over to the side of the road.

There was a place on the gravel where I could park. I pulled in beyond the ambulance and turned off the motor. By the time I put my feet on the ground outside the car, that man and another were there by my open door. They were waiting for me to get out of the car.

From my seat, I looked up at the two strange men. It was only then that I realized that the man they had found in the ditch and the man I was looking for were probably one and the same.

"Is he dead?" I asked.

There was a long silence. One of the men finally answered.

"Yes, ma'am. He is."

I got out of the car. One man stood on my right side and one on my left. We began to walk, not touching, toward the ambulance. Greg, my husband, was dead.

We reached the back door of the orange-and-white ambulance. The crowd standing there quickly moved aside. No one was talking. I stepped up to get into the ambulance. The wire-mesh grate under my feet did not seem stable. I held on to the railing to keep from falling.

A shiny chrome bench ran the length of the ambulance; it was cold when I sat down on it. In front of me a body lay on a stretcher, covered by a white sheet. A pair of jogging shoes rested on top of the body's stomach. Blue Adidas. I knew they were Greg's.

When the man pulled down the sheet, I felt no emotion. How can you cry when you know it is not possible that your husband is dead? "Look at him," I thought. "There's nothing wrong with him. He looks exactly the way he did taking a nap on the front-porch swing this afternoon. He couldn't have died from those gravel burns on his cheek. There's just some mistake; I know he's not dead." Nevertheless, when the man standing at the door of the ambulance said he needed to ask me some questions, I covered the body up again.

"Is this your husband? … What was his address? … What is his date of birth? … What is your name? … Does he have any children? … Are his parents living? … What was his occupation? …" I felt so competent, knowing all the answers. There was not a single one I stumbled over.

My mother and father arrived. I heard my father crying and calling out before I ever saw him. "I don't believe it's Greg," he was saying as he pushed his way through the crowd. "Let me through. I've got to see if it's him."

When he got to the door, I said, "Yes, Daddy, it's Greg." I got out of the ambulance so he could see. Then I saw my mother running through the crowd. She was crying, but there was no sound. Mother did not go to the ambulance; she came straight to me. We got into my car, and I drove back to the cabin.

I spent the next hours being efficient. People must be called: Make a list. Find the telephone numbers. Sit down and dial. Greg's two sons, his ex-wife, his mother. My family. Our friends. People we worked with. When one is emotionally frozen, one can deliver even devastating news without cracking.

My sister, Barbara, arrived from Chattanooga. She, my brother-in-law, and I went to the hospital to release the body. I went back to the cabin and chose the burial clothes. Neighbor women brought chocolate cupcakes and hot, strong coffee to my parents' home, where we had gathered. Neighbor men sat in silence on the front porch with my father. My friend Felicia arrived from Knoxville. My brother, Frank, came from Atlanta. Others were flying and would arrive tomorrow from more distant places.

Everyone sat in the living room all night. Frank, Barbara, and I planned the memorial service—I sat on the couch, Barbara on the floor, and Frank on the fireplace hearth. Frank wrote on memo paper that Mother brought him from beside the telephone.


On Sale
Dec 21, 2008
Page Count
480 pages

Elizabeth Harper Neeld, PhD

About the Author

Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D., is a natioanlly respected authority on the subjects of personal and organizational change.

Dr. Neeld lives in Austin, Texas with her husband.

Learn more about this author