I was asked recently by a PCC coach about appropriate approaches to dealing with grieving and loss and whether professional counselling, coaching or simply talking to close friends would be determined by personality types.
This made me reflect on my own personal experiences as well as clients I have coached where dealing with grief was not a predictable emotional trajectory, leading from distress and sorrow to ‘recovery’.
There are a variety of losses and everyone experiences and expresses grief in their own way in their own time. When coaching clients who have lost something very precious – some dealing with a lost pregnancy and others their job, relationship, health or home, I’m aware that everyone grieves differently – depending on personality, religious beliefs, maturity, emotional stability, and cultural traditions.
I reflected on how I reacted to loss and grief in my life and how my approach to trying to cope and deal with grief differed according to circumstances and how seismic the event was. For instance, I sought professional counselling when going through my divorce; I had in-depth coaching sessions when discovering I had glaucoma with vision impairment; however when my partner and soul-mate died tragically I fell into an abyss of despair and completely retreated from others – I needed solitude to reflect on life, my feelings and the meaning of living. I became deeply philosophical as I familiarised myself with my shadow side. I needed to make sense of my loss and my attachment to memories, feelings and wonderful experiences. I learned that I needed to ‘let go’ but in my own time. This self-reflection provided deep insight as I started to rehabilitate myself and grow stronger.
Religious and spiritual views impact how we may feel about our loss. Secular and religious views of life — and death — can be radically different. The view that life is permanent is radically different from the view that life is ephemeral and the forms of comfort and perspective that we find helpful in grief can also be radically different. The idea that life is eternal and we’ll see our loved ones again someday is radically different from the idea that life is transitory and therefore ought to be intensely treasured. Suffering a major loss usually causes us to confront and re-think our basic beliefs about God, religion, death and the afterlife. Some may turn to God as a source of strength and consolation at the time of a loss and find their faith has deepened whilst others may question their religious teachings and beliefs.
A challenging question is how do you deal with death — your own, or that of people you love — when you don’t believe in God or an afterlife; especially when some cultures so often handle grief with religion in ways that are so deeply ingrained, people often aren’t aware of it?
Platitudes, although well meaning, can alienate the person grieving especially assurances that their lost one was in heaven or by offers to pray for them when the person neither believes nor can accept this. Some atheists who don’t agree that their dead loved ones are in heaven can accept the intent behind the sentiments and can feel connected with and supported by believers even though they don’t share the beliefs whereas for many non-believers, these assurances and comforts are actively upsetting.
I’ve observed that deep faith in Christ does not prevent grief when a believer dies but can infuse grief with hope. I’ve also observed well-meaning people say, “Jesus took your loved one away,” and seen it cause people especially children to be angry with God. When facing trauma and grief I’ve seen believers start questioning, bargaining with God or letting go of their beliefs.
As a coach I encourage the bereaved person to share their feelings, then be a good listener and not be judgemental about what is said. I may suggest that they talk to a minister, priest or rabbi.
I let them know I am there to hear whatever feelings, memories, fears, or concerns come up.
What Is ‘Normal’ Grief?
There is a grief work model that stresses the importance of ‘moving on’ as quickly as possible to return to a ‘normal’ level of functioning – but no one can nor should tell us how we should feel. It is not helpful to hear that ‘time’ heals as time is not a determining factor. It is also not helpful for someone to prescribe their view on what they think is ‘normal’. Such models do not address the multiplicity of physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs experienced by the individual facing the deep loss and bereavement.
There can be many feelings and behavioural reactions which come and go throughout the grieving process. Everyone grieves in their own unique way; there is no “right way” to grieve and grieving is not a sign of weakness or failure nor is it something to ignore or “get over.”
Some of the common reactions to the death of a loved one include:
- Being in shock or denial. Feeling numb or like you are “going through the motions”
- Feeling helpless and powerless
- Feeling sad and crying a lot
- Feeling angry, confused, resentful or frustrated
- Not being able to talk about the event or telling the story again and again
- Feeling guilty or having regrets: “It was my fault” “If only I had ….” “I could have prevented this.”
- Having trouble sleeping or wanting to sleep a lot
- Having head or stomach aches
- Feeling afraid to be alone
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Dreaming about the death, having nightmares about the person and death details
- Wanting to be with the person who died
- Finding it difficult to concentrate on work or studies
- Feeling distressed that the pain, sorrow and grief will never go away
Healing a broken heart is similar to healing a broken leg where rushing the process can actually hinder our long-term recovery, like removing a cast before the bone is strong enough to bear weight.
As a coach I am mindful to remain grounded and not get caught up in the person’s suffering – rather to meet them ‘where they are at’ after all, all that we value we all will lose someday.