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An Invitation to Become More Grief and Loss Literate
“To become human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others,” is one of my favourite passages from David Whyte’s poem What to Remember When Waking. What I appreciate most is his invitation to explore what is hidden as a way of deepening connections. When I certified as an Integral Master Coach™ in 2014, I felt like part of me was being reborn. My experience with Integral Coaching Canada (ICC) invited me to explore the hidden parts of myself that I had left unattended for so long and in so doing, I was able to begin the long path towards reconciling my grief.
This blog was written to share what I’ve come to learn about grief and loss. My hope is that those reading this find something helpful to deepen your understanding of loss, become inspired to explore your own losses such as you can more fully meet those in your life from a place of deeper compassion, and commit to becoming more grief and loss literate.
Grief (our internal response to loss) is a topic I became more intimate with when my younger sister Tracy died of cancer 20 years ago at the age of 29. It was a life defining moment. My assumptive world was shattered. I didn’t know who I was anymore. My heart was broken, and I found myself questioning everything. Fear and loneliness were my companions during those dark days following her death. And as an Enneagram 3 with a 2 wing, I began to create an entire storyline around how I “ought to grieve.” The Way of the Stoic Mountain Climber became my current way of being for most of my 30s. Having three babies, a full-time job and completing my Master’s fed the narrative that as long as I can keep finding new mountains to climb, I will feel like I am living my life to the fullest and in so doing, will honour Tracy’s legacy. Here’s the thing: you can only keep climbing for so long before your body breaks down and you run out of oxygen. My experience with ICC invited me (kicking and screaming at times) to explore the hidden caves of grief and gave me the capacity to connect with, name, and more fully experience a broader range of my emotional landscape. This was the beginning of a new way of being with my grief. Since then, I have dedicated much of my life to learning about grief and loss and I have committed to a more holistic path… a path that invites grief to be observed, a path that acknowledges the pain of loss, a path that gives voice to the uniqueness of the loss experience, a path that does not offer a reward for speed, and a path that invites us to continue to honour those we have loved in unique and meaningful ways.
As Integral Coaches™, we intentionally develop our capacities to relate to others and we use a variety of tools, processes, and intuition to support our clients on their personal development journeys. What I have discovered through my own thanatological training over the past decade is that each life transition carries a form of loss. As we move from one experience to another, we leave parts of our self behind and yet, we often don’t create ceremonies or rituals to support the death of our old self as we invite a new shape to emerge. I have found this to be equally true when supporting clients as they navigate the turbulent waters of change. Moving from a Current Way of Being often requires a letting go of long held beliefs.
What bereavement theory offers is a deepened appreciation for the pain that gets triggered when the attachment we have is severed. Depending on someone’s attachment to their current way of behaving in, and understanding the world, we as coaches can learn how to more skillfully meet them in that dark well of grief. And when we do, we create the space for our clients to be more fully seen, heard, and met in their coaching topic as they move through each cycle of development. I have found that my capacity to serve has been elevated as a result.
Ways of holding loss
Inspired by the Six Central Needs of Mourning pioneered by international grief educator, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, I invite us all to consider loss in a more holistic sense. The death of a loved one is only one of many ways people can experience loss. Loss can include the death of a dream, the ending of relationships, career transitions, death of pets, and any and all endings that create suffering for an individual. Over time, these losses, if left unattended, can create a hardening that impacts the way we experience, or fail to experience, life. Far too often, I meet with people who are longing for something different, and part of what they are longing for has been shaped by unexpressed grief. Some of the risk factors to unreconciled grief including burnout, increased anxiety, depression, sleep disruptions, mood swings, and engaging in high-risk behaviours.
As an Integral Coach™, if I can more fully appreciate that my client’s topic will include a form of loss triggered by the severing of their attachment to a way of being in topic that’s important to them, I can support them by applying some of the wisdom of bereavement theory. This can also be helpful for anyone going through a loss themselves of trying to gently support a loved one in their own grieving process.
My hope is that the following tenets provide a healthy and more integrated way for us all to relate to their own losses and in so doing, to then be better able to companion others in their grief.
1. Acknowledge the reality of the loss
This dimension of grief invites us to acknowledge our pain. Full stop. Some of us may have never paused to consider all the losses we have accumulated across our lives, or done so on only rare occasions. The pain of not achieving your life’s goal or of watching someone you love die needs to be acknowledged in order for it to be reconciled. However, for most of the clients I work with, the dominant mindset can sound more like: “Let’s move past this; buckle up buttercup; focus on the future; forget about the past …” Sound familiar? What can feel like helpful commentary on the surface is also encouraging a silencing of the pain that these accumulated losses can generate overtime.
During these conversations, I invite my client to share their story of loss by asking ‘soul-based’ questions: In what ways did this loss impact you? Where do you feel the loss in your body? What is one emotion that describes how you are feeling about this loss? It is through our conversation that they feel like they have permission to share and the pain they are feeling becomes normalized as a result. For Integral Coaches™, we can leverage these questions to help the client more fully meet, express gratitude and say goodbye to the parts of their Current Way that potentially are no longer serving them or can include them in coaching conversations in other ways where it feels appropriate.
For all of us, it can be helpful to put aside some time when we feel settled and open to the experience, and explore these questions ourselves in connection with a loss.
2. Feel the pain of the loss
As Dr. Wolfelt likes to say, “We must say hello before we can say goodbye.” By inviting the pain in, we can learn to honour the grief they feel so they can begin to mourn the loss of what did not come to pass. I encourage my clients to share their feelings and emotions about the loss and the impact it has had on them. We work through the experience and encourage the expressing of tears, anger, frustration, shame, uncertainty, and fears as we navigate the unknown terrain. I have found that I can ‘lean in’ to these difficult conversations with greater ease trusting that my clients will guide me to where they need to go. Washington Irving, prolific writer and author, wrote: “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief … and of unspeakable love.”
In grief literature, the term bereavement means “to be torn apart”. For us and our clients, the pain of not achieving goals can leave us feeling torn up, less than, inadequate, ashamed, vulnerable, lonely. A safe space for someone who is feeling bereaved after a failed performance provides them with a safe haven to work through losses in a more holistic way. Beyond the emotional realm, we may also need to work through the physical (impact of grief on their body), spiritual (impact of grief on their life’s purpose and worldview), cognitive (impact of grief on thought processes), social (impact of grief on relationships with others) that the loss creates. Acknowledging that grief work often feels like being lost in the wilderness, without food, shelter, or a map, with no clear sense of direction, can help people feel less ‘isolated’ than they are sometimes made to feel. When coaching, we can help create a safe refuge for clients by using the right language to describe what is often unspoken.
3. Remember (and find ways to honour) the loss through conscious completion
In today’s society, we are less likely to have experienced the death of someone we love until we are adults. Many of the rituals that once accompanied the death of those we loved are slowly disappearing: funerals are becoming life celebrations, donations are offered in lieu of flowers; wearing black is no longer reserved for mourners; and there has been a move to treat grief as one would treat a physical ailment. So in our death-avoidant culture, how might speak bravely about what we have lost or encourage our clients to do the same?
I have come to believe that our rituals – the practices and behaviours we follow to initiate, close-off, or celebrate – can help us make meaning of something important to us. For instance, with my own journey through grief, some of my early therapeutic practices and coping strategies included journaling, lighting candles on important dates, special pictures, nature runs, reading poetry, and sharing with my trusted circle of friends and family. Over time, some of my practices have become rituals which have created a solid foundation upon which my grief could be expressed holistically. In what ways could we remember and honour our losses in a way that would allow for healthy transformation to occur? How might we encourage our clients to consciously complete in a manner that has their loss feel respected? The more we give voice to what scares us, the less power it has over us. Writer and author Marcel Proust reminds us that “we are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
4. Develop a new sense of self
When we experience a loss, something in us shifts. This shift often occurs at the unconscious level, impacting our decisions and behaviours and, if left unattended, can lead to unhealthy expressions such as anxiety and depressed states and/or unhealthy coping mechanism such as use of drugs and alcohol or other maladaptive life choices. I work with many high performing clients where they are expected to strive, overcome, and be brave. Yet when we face a loss, our natural response is to retreat, pause, reflect… so that we can recover. This space eventually allows a new version of ‘me’ to emerge from the shadows of grief. Being able make peace with my grief requires unlearning old habits that might be tied to my story of loss, making way for something new to emerge, and being a willing participant in the experience. This might mean that I need to face some important questions such as ‘what new skills do I need to be able to integrate this loss?’ And ‘who might I rely on as I work through this?’ The space between my former self and my new emerging self is filled with the unknown and can be incredibly uncomfortable for those that are used to having everything known and secure. Simply acknowledging that we might need time and space to recover from the loss by stepping away, taking a self-imposed time out to reflect, and connecting with trusted family and friends can support us in gaining additional insight into ourselves. We must be compassionate towards our self during this period of transition and, for those of us who are coaches, we can serve as a beacon of light for others that are feeling lonely and loss in the wilderness of their grief.
5. Search for meaning in the loss
What was the biggest learning of this loss experience? Who am I now that I have gone through this? Can I find the courage to face my fears? Is it worth staying with this company? How can I move on without having accomplished my big dream? Why did this happen to me? These types of questions are natural and vital in a holistic approach to experiencing loss and it is important to note that these dimensions are not linear. Too often it feels like we are stumbling along, trying to find our way in the dark. In his incredibly moving essay on grief, author C.S. Lewis wrote “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” When we are in a place of deep reflection and questioning, it can be incredibly scary. It’s like being lost in the woods with no sense of where you are. The one quality that helped me work through my own grief was to trust in something greater than myself. As an Integral Coach™, I am often accompanying high performing individuals where battling, fighting and overcoming challenges as efficiently as possible are rewarded. It’s no wonder that we keep our grief locked away! Inviting people to openly mourn losses, especially those generated during the pandemic, and creating shared language is an important step forward in acknowledging the significance of the loss and begins to address the real risk of not expanding our capacity to grieve holistically.
6. Be open to receive support from others
“The only way to the other side is through.” This quote from Helen Keller reminds us that on this journey we call life there will be many trials. There will be highs and lows; good times and bad times; deep joy and profound sadness. The journey through grief is a lifelong one. When we have loved others or devoted our life to being the very best we can be, we risk losing that which we so value. The alternative is that we experience life from a place of partiality, minimizing risk by never fully engaging in our lives. In order to fully work through the grief that sets in when we lose something or someone that we love or value, we need to feel supported by others. It also helps to know that there’s no defined timeline to our grieving process. We might experience a ‘grief burst’ or what the literature calls a STUG (Sudden Temporary Upsurge in Grief) unexpectedly. Something someone says can remind us of our loved one, or a new experience brings us back to a moment that triggers our current way of being in grief. Years can pass and it can still feel like yesterday when we are reminded of the moment we lost someone or something that was significant to us. As a grief companion, I have been trained to accompany others on their grief journeys. It’s helpful to remember that, when it comes to supporting people through loss, there is no reward for speed, no attachment to outcome… and to trust in divine momentum.
How to expand your grief and loss literacy
Being with someone in one of their darkest times is a deep honour and a calling. Grief is not pathology to be fixed or cured. At its core, “Death and grief are spiritual journeys of the heart and soul,” as shared by Dr. Wolfelt. While death ends a life, it does not extinguish the love that one feels, nor ends the relationship.
As I continue to learn about grief and loss, I am inspired by this anonymous quote that so beautifully reflects the role of companioning others: “When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe one of two things will happen – there will be something solid for us to stand upon, or we will be taught to fly.”
Dina Bell-Laroche is an Integral Master Coach™ based in Ottawa, Ontario. She offers coaching services in English and French. If you are interested in learning more about Dina’s grief and loss work and her teachings, please contact her at email@example.com