By Elizabeth Harper Neeld,
When my mother, ten years younger than my father and in good
health, surprised everyone by dying first, I felt she—and my
sister, brother, and I—had been betrayed by life. We had expected
to have her with us at least a decade after Daddy died. Perhaps we
could help make up some for the years of sacrificial care she gave
our ailing father. She’d go with us on trips, which she loved to
do. Even in her late seventies she still imagined that she might
take a course or two at the local community college. I could
imagine helping to make that possible when our father died. I was
surprised at how angry I became when we got to do none of these
things. I was also surprised at how many years and how much work it
took for me to handle that anger. Sensible? No. Understandable?
Yes. My assumptive world had been logical; it just had not been
(Excerpt from Tough Transitions
When we are dealing with loss, we know what we have lost in the
outside world. We miss a person and everything that entails. What
we are often surprised by is that, in addition to losing a person,
we have lost something internally. We have lost the rudder that
guided our lives.
What we think of as a rudder can also be thought of as the
assumptions on which we based our lives, assumptions that seemed
firm and dependable until they suddenly weren’t. I think of the
deck on the back of our house. Ordinarily, I don’t go around
thinking about the framework of that deck. The structure is just
there. Until one day I see termites swarming on that deck. Then I
start to think about the posts that hold up that deck and the
foundation on which the deck is built.
The assumptions each of us holds about how life works can be
compared to the structure of a deck on a house. What kinds of
assumptions are normal?
People who are careful (hardworking, loving, believing, etc.) can
Parents die before children.
I will grow old with this person.
People who have faith or who are prayed for by those who have faith
will be protected.
Family members will be helpful.
Friends will always be there for me.
Now, if you pin us down, we know these assumptions don’t always
hold. We all can give examples of more than one of these
assumptions that did not prove to be true. But the fact is that it
is normal for human beings to act as if the assumptions by which we
live can be counted on. It is these mental maps, our assumptions,
that shape our daily actions and thoughts without our realizing it.
When a loss shatters that assumptive world, we suddenly find
ourselves questioning everything we lived by in the past.
Building a new assumptive world takes time. We have to identify and
examine all the assumptions we have unconsciously lived by and
decide which of these continue to hold true for us and which must
be jettisoned, clarified, or amended. We have to examine and
reflect on what we now believe, what we now know. When we have done
this, we stand on an even more solid foundation of a life that has
been examined. Until that new assumptive world can be built,
however, we feel as if we are living in Pogo’s “Land of the
How to Think About Rebuilding Our Assumptive World
A young man whose father died and who himself had just recovered
from a life-threatening disease told me:
The way I see it, everybody has a kind of contract with the
world. According to the terms of that contract, the world acts in a
certain way and you act in a certain way and the world responded in
a certain way. It’s a contract that builds up over time.
And I think one of the most fundamental clauses in that contract is
the immortality clause. The immortality clause says the world
doesn’t go on without you and those you love in it. We wouldn’t
admit to believing the immortality clause if we were pinned down to
it, but we act as if it is true nevertheless.
Then something comes along to contest that clause. With no warning,
with no signs pointing to it….All of a sudden everything is
shattered….So I have realized that the clause has gotten canceled,
and I have to rewrite the contract completely. The whole contract
with life has to be renegotiated because none of it makes sense any
longer. I’m now in the process of doing that renegotiation.
(Excerpt from Seven Choices
by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)
The Purpose of Grief and Mourning
Family Reorganization After a Loss
The Grief of Sibling Survivors
When an Infant Dies
The Grief of Grandparents
Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
How Can We Hope When There Is No Hope?
What Helps When We're Experiencing the Unthinkable
The Value of Reminiscing
What About This Thing Called 'Acceptance'?
Dr. Elizabeth Harper
Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal
experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief
and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished
consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books -
Tough Transitions and
Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your
World - she is
committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.
Author's photo by Joey Bieber
Image credit: ©iStockphoto.com/B52photography