After grief: Chop wood, carry water

'Just forget about it' may be the worst thing to tell yourself about your grief. Here's what you can do instead.

RESTON, Va., November 3, 2011 – If you are sad, you can feel loss severely. And if you experience the loss of a loved one, you feel very, very sad. Over time, this circular logic tends to reinforce itself. Your sorrow is a filter that causes you to interpret the world and your experiences in it negatively. As a result, you even see sadness hovering behind every moment of joy.

Your grief may cause you to think worse of yourself, with the result that you may even end up making differing judgments and coming to diametrically opposed conclusions based on the same set of facts.

Carry water.

Carry water.

When emotions swirl around you like frenzied, whirling autumn leaves, and you find yourself raging at the Universe because it has taken away someone or something you loved, what’s real? How can you know?

What Grief Does

Grief can impose repeating patterns of thoughts that take on lives of their own and are almost impossible to interrupt. When you arrive at the point where things have gone so far awry, there’s no way to reason them out with yourself, since your own self has become unstable, unreliable. Challenging your grief, questioning it, or trying to control it won’t fix your out-of-control feelings, much less alter the facts of your situation. Focusing is not forgetting.

Strong, overwhelming feelings of loss and uselessness don’t just lie down and play dead. Poking and prodding them only increases their strength and power. Your studied efforts to calm, correct, or collect your feelings only seem to animate your grief. Like a monster inside, grief lives within, transforming your hope into horror and your dreams into devastation.

What’s to be done? Remember: no matter how smart you are, your brain can work on only so much information at one time. Don’t try to forget you’re your feelings and your memories, but don’t dwell on them either.

Surviving Loss

Acknowledge your grief. Then, gradually, replace your grief with actions—actions that oblige you to make new plans and forge ahead, but without the person or thing you have lost. If thoughts and feelings hurt you, don’t live inside your brain. Come out of yourself and gradually ease back into the world, step by step.

Chop wood.

Chop wood. Never forget but try to move on with life. (Credit: National Archives.)

Replace the elements of your inner turmoil with specific, small actions to show the world—and prove to yourself—that you can survive tremendous loss. Acknowledge your grief and come to terms with it. Then, acknowledging it may always be with you in one form or another, move on. Yes, it can be painful. But re-establishing your life pattern, even if it’s somehow transformed, will help put you back on the path again.

Perhaps you’ve heard the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

The same is true for grief. Survive now. Thrive later.



Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter,Facebook, and/or LinkedIn. Read more about “Stages of Grief” in the Washington Times Communities.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from


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