by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Backtracking on the Route to Healing

Paradox 3: Mourners must go backward before they can go forward.

A paradox is a seemingly self-contradictory statement or situation that is in fact often true. The paradox of mourning we will consider together in this article might, at first glance, seem self-contradictory, but as I will reveal, it is actually a forgotten Truth with a capital T. It’s a Truth we must rediscover because it is essential to understanding how mourners begin to heal in the aftermath of significant loss.

After someone they love dies, well-meaning but misinformed friends and family members often tell mourners:

  • “He/she would want you to keep living your life.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.”
  • “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
  • “You need to put the past in the past.”

Not only do these oft-offered clichés diminish mourners’ significant and unique losses, they also imply that moving forward—in your life and in time—is what will ease their suffering. The truth, paradoxically, is that in grief we have to go backward before we can go forward.

Our cultural misconception about moving forward in grief stems in part from the concept of the “stages of grief,” popularized in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s landmark text, On Death and Dying. In this important book, Kubler-Ross lists the five stages of grief that she saw terminally ill patients experience in the face of their own impending deaths: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. However, she never intended for her five stages to be interpreted as a rigid, linear sequence to be followed by all mourners.

Grief is not a train track toward acceptance.  Instead, it is more of a “getting lost in the woods” and almost always gives rise to a mixture of many thoughts and feelings at once. A feeling that predominates at any given time —anger, say— may dissipate for a while but then later return full force. Grief is not even a “two steps forward, one step backward” kind of journey; it is often one step forward, two steps in a circle, one step backward. It takes time, patience, and, yes, lots of backward motion before forward motion occurs


Going Backward Through Memory

For the survivors, the loss created by death is the loss of the physical presence of the person who died. In the physical plane, your relationship with the person has ended. And so you grieve. But on the emotional and spiritual planes, your relationship with the person who died continues because you will always have a relationship of memory. Precious memories, dreams reflecting the significance of the relationship, and objects that link you to the person who died are examples of some of the things that give testimony to a different form of a continued relationship.

And so you must look backward through the lens of memory. Talking about or write out favorite memories. Give yourself permission to keep some special belongings of the person who died. Display photos of the person who died. Visit places of special significance that stimulate memories of times shared together. Review photo albums at special times, such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries.

In my experience, remembering the past is the very thing that eventually makes hoping for the future possible.  Your life will open to renewed hope, love, and joy only to the extent that you first embrace the past. Those who fail to go backward before marching forward after a loss often find themselves stuck in the morass of carried grief.

Going Backward to Tell the Story

A vital part of mourning is often “telling the story” over and over again. And the story of your love and loss is a backward-looking process.

You might find yourself telling the story of the death. You might find yourself telling the story of the relationship. You might find yourself wanting to talk about particular parts of the story more than others. Do you keep thinking about a certain moment or time period? If so, this means you should share this part of the story with others.

Find people who are willing to listen to you tell your story, over and over again if necessary, without judgment. These are often “fellow strugglers” who have had similar losses. Look for listeners who can be present to your pain without trying to diminish it, “solve” it, or take it away.

Because stories of love and loss take time, patience, and unconditional love, they serve as powerful antidotes to a modern society that is all too often preoccupied with getting you to go forward. Whether you share your story with a friend, a family member, a coworker, or a fellow traveler in grief whom you’ve met through a support group, having others bear witness to the telling of your unique story is one way to go backward on the pathway to eventually going forward.

Going Forward in Grief

I hope you are beginning to understand the necessity of going backward in grief before you can go forward. But as we’ve also explored, the going-forward nature of grief is itself a paradox. “Progress” in grief is difficult to pinpoint.  Grief is something we never truly get over. Instead, it is an ongoing, recursive process that unfolds over many, many months and years.

Something you can hold onto after you have put time and energy into your backward grief work, though, is hope. Hope is an expectation of a good that is yet to be. Hope is about the future. Going forward in grief means, in part, fostering hope.

How do you foster hope? You can write down your intentions for the future. You can make plans with friends and family so that you always have things to look forward to.  You can craft a vision board—a piece of poster board covered with photos and images that capture what you want your future to be like. You can make goals and achieve them. Start with small, easy goals that are only a few days out, then work toward longer-term goals.

And remember, as long as you are doing the work of grief—actively expressing your grief and living the Paradoxes—you are going forward in grief, even though it may not always feel that way. You may not notice that you are going forward as it is happening, but one day you will look up and find that you have indeed moved and changed.

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a respected author, educator and consultant to funeral service. Among his bestselling books on grief is The Paradoxes of Grief: Healing Your Grief With Three Forgotten Truths, from which this article series is excerpted. He also advocates for the value of meaningful funeral experiences in his death education workshops across North America each year and conducts an annual training program in Fort Collins, Colorado, on the “WHY” of the funeral for funeral directors. The 2017 training will be held June 12-14. For more information or to receive a brochure, call 970-226-6050, visit or email

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of “The Director.” Find the .pdf here. Find the Part 2 here.