A Quick Start Coaching Guide for Grieving and Mourning Clients
Grief is our natural response and private reaction to loss, and there is nothing unhealthy or problematic about the act of grieving .
Grief is the feeling of wishing things would have ended differently, better, or less painfully. Mourning is the process we go through to adapt to our loss (Worden, 2008).
Emotional and physical experiences are clues that let us know we’re managing a loss that means something to us. Approximately 40 percent of grieving people will struggle with anxiety in the first year following their loss (American Psychiatric Association, 1980). Grieving people find themselves crying unexpectedly, waking up with headaches, feeling emotionally numb, having trouble sleeping, eating too much or too little, and carrying around a weight of sadness all day.
The following are clues that you’re grieving. These signs will give you a clue that you’re grieving, even if you’re not aware of it.
- Being short of breath
- Feeling very tired
- Experiencing restlessness
- Feelings of shock, fear, anxiety, guilt, and anger
- Blaming yourself or others for the loss
- Feeling confused
- Experiencing difficulties making decisions
- Avoiding other people
- Overreacting or reacting strongly to others
- Contemplating why pain and suffering exist
- Asking the universe why the loss had to happen to you
What will you experience when grieving? (Rando, 1991)
- Your grief will take longer than you think to pass.
- Your grief will take more energy than you imagined.
- Your grief will depend on how you perceive your loss.
- Your grief will entail mourning all the hopes, dreams, and unfulfilled expectations you had.
- Your grief will resurrect old issues, emotions, and unresolved conflicts from the past.
- Your grief will create some identity confusion and change how you perceive yourself.
- Your grief will cause you to begin a search for meaning.
- Your grief will lead you to question your faith or philosophy of life.
- You will grieve the needs that were unmet because of the loss.
- You will grieve what you have already lost.
- You will grieve what will be lost in the future.
- You will grieve the symbolic and intangible things you have lost.
Kübler-Ross’s five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are part of a popular framework that describes the process of learning to live with loss (Kübler-Ross, 1969; Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2005). Think of these stages of grief as a tool to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. The stages map the terrain of grief, and there is no typical response for any stage. Grieving must run its course; it’s over when we’ve done the work we need to do. There is a general flow to grieving, but it isn’t always linear. People move between the different stages at different rates and can jump around between phases.
Some grieving people may not experience every emotional stage, while others linger longer in one of the stages. One person may have intense feelings, and another may deny that any loss has occurred. Most people will find it difficult to recover from loss on their own and engaging with others is a critical element in resolving grief successfully. Without the help of others, many people will express their feelings of loss in inappropriate and misdirected ways.
The process of trauma recovery mirrors the grieving process. The first reaction to trauma is disbelief and shock. In some cases, when adults have only just realized they were abused as children, this initial phase can be delayed. What follows are feelings of “frozen fright,” a detached pseudo-calm during which the victim is compliant. It is this appearance of cooperation that’s confused with “consent” when the client looks back on their experience. The next phase of trauma recovery is a delayed but chronic depression combined with periods of apathy, anger, resignation, resentment, rage, insomnia, and the repeated mental replaying of events. The final recovery phase is characterized by resolving the trauma and integrating the experience after going through periods of bargaining and acceptance (Prigerson, et al., 2008).
The Stages of Grief
While grief is your internal reaction to loss, mourning is the active, shared expression of that loss in the outside world. When we mourn, we express our grief beyond the boundaries of our personal experience, and grief becomes expressed socially. This sharing of our sadness eventually helps us decrease the intensity of our grief and transform it into a feeling of resolution and understanding. Wolfelt (2016) describes six stages of mourning that will require attention intermittently over several months. Clients need to be patient and compassionate with themselves while you work through each stage.
Stage 1: Acknowledging Reality
In the first stage of mourning, clients confront the reality that their life has changed and acknowledge that they can never return to their past. It may take several weeks or months to acknowledge the reality of their loss fully.
Mental health issues complicate this stage of mourning because clients actively suppress and avoid intimate contact with the pain they are experiencing. Clients automatically push away thoughts of their mental health issues because they are uncomfortable, embarrassing, and they may be in denial. This makes it challenging for clients to begin processing what has happened to them. Support from a trained professional is an essential part of mental health recovery because clients can come to terms with their issues in a safe environment.
Clients have reached the end of this stage of mourning when they find themselves describing their loss as if it happened in the past.
Stage 2: Embracing Pain and Loss
The mourning process requires us to acknowledge and interact with our pain. We gradually accept the trauma, loss, and pain by confronting and expressing it in small, manageable pieces rather avoid overloading ourselves with all the hurt at once.
When PTSD survivors can access their traumatic memories, they replay both positive and negative scenarios in their minds. This mental replaying of events and experience is a vital part of mourning because each time you recall the events, you work through them a little bit more. Over time, these remembered events and experiences become consciously accepted. Sometimes you’ll need to distract yourself from the flashbacks and painful memories. At other times you’ll need to create a safe place inside yourself so you can move toward painful memories and process what’s happened. Shifting your internal dialogue to a friendly, compassionate, and loving “inner voice” will make it easier for you to pass through this stage of mourning.
You know you’ve reached the end of this stage of mourning when you feel acquainted with your trauma, pain, and loss. Survivors experience a feeling of compassion toward themselves and their experiences.
Stage 3: Shifting Your Perspective
Remembering and sharing the past makes hoping for the future possible. Looking to the future is possible when we open ourselves to new experiences, embrace what we’ve been through, and accept the past. Positive memories that you honor during this stage may include thoughts of former colleagues, the aspects of the job you enjoyed, and the structure of having a consistent daily routine. There may be painful aspects you must honor, such as the challenges workplace trauma brought to your relationships, the long hours you spent at the office, and the bravery it took to live through those experiences.
This stage of mourning is completed when you’ve embraced and accepted the past and find yourself being open to new experiences. You will move to the next stage of mourning when you begin to consider what you want to do with your life.
Stage 4: Developing a New Self-Identity
Our personal identity is invested in what we do for a living. Losing a job or experiencing workplace trauma changes how we perceive ourselves. Mourning can leave us feeling like we have lost who we are. In other words, the mourning process breaks down our self-identities and forces us to rebuild them in new ways.
The impact of trauma results in the loss of several self-identities, and this can be difficult to reconcile. Our view of the world is connected to our identities, especially when shaken by trauma or loss. Changes to self-identity profoundly impact the lens we use to interpret and filter the world around us. Before the trauma, we may have held the beliefs that the world is fair, had an optimistic perspective, been a happy person, or felt the world was predictable and safe. After trauma our beliefs about our world can leave us feeling negative, jaded, pessimistic, or unable to engage with people or activities in the ways we used to.
When we experience loss, we’re often focused on the tangible things we’ve lost, such as our career, the job, the income, or our former colleagues. Mourning forces us to examine the intangible aspects of what we’ve lost—our relational, professional, financial, and physical identities.
Relational Identity: Relational identity is the component of self-identity that comes from our relationships with others. Mourning transforms the way we see ourselves and the way society defines us. Mourning can rewrite our address book and social calendars; former colleagues no longer reply to our emails, and the distance grows between our friends or family. This shift leaves us feeling like we’ve lost our community and connection with others. For example, when we lose our job, we find ourselves asking questions like, “Who am I if I’m no longer employed?”
Professional Identity: Phrases we use to describe ourselves, such as “I’m a teacher" or “I’m a doctor,” make it clear that our profession is an essential aspect of who we are. Our career affirms that we have knowledge, skills, and expertise. When we lose or leave a job, even if it is our choice, our professional identity changes. Work gives us structure and purpose, and when we no longer have that job, our professional identity must adjust to that new reality.
Financial Identity: Our ability to financially provide for ourselves and our loved ones is another fundamental component of self-identity. Financial identity creates expectations about how much we should be earning and our standard of living. Trauma at work can have significant impacts on our financial identity through the fear of job loss or the threat of income loss. Workplace abuse and trauma can shatter our sense of financial security and independence.
Physical Identity: Our physical identity defines how we physically exist in the world; it is fundamental to our daily life. Having positive physical well-being gives us the ability to hold a job, play with our children, go for walks, go to the gym, and move freely without pain. If physical movement is a core part of your work, and you rely on physical abilities for income, your physical self will be even more strongly connected to your identity. An illness, injury, and aging can take a severe toll on our physical self. Workplace sexual and physical violence threatens our physical identity by taking away the control we have over our bodies. A loss of self-worth often accompanies the loss of physical identity.
Some people may discover positive aspects of their changed self-identity and develop a renewed confidence. Others may uncover a more compassionate, kind, and caring part of themselves. Still others may unearth an assertive and courageous new identity that empowers them to move forward with courage, strength, and tenacity.
This stage of mourning is complete when we discover our “new self.”
Stage 5: Searching for Meaning
A mourner’s understanding of the meaning of life is shaken by witnessing people dying, experiencing violence, being assaulted, being bullied, or by living through a destructive event. Our world no longer feels safe; we question the meaning of life and sometimes return to our spiritual beliefs.
In this phase of mourning, we make sense of our world by assigning meaning to what’s happened to us. Searching for meaning is a process of identifying what we’ve lost and then finding healthy and supportive meaning, so we again feel grounded and centered. Successfully navigating this phase of mourning challenges you to find your answers to complex life questions. The search for meaning and purpose following trauma is one of the most powerful ways of moving forward and transforming negative experiences into positive ones.
Stage 6: Receiving Ongoing Support
Processing feelings of trauma or loss takes time and can take place over a span of weeks, months, or even years. PTSD recovery is cyclical and takes the survivor on a journey where they must revisit their trauma and grief many times. This makes ongoing support critical to recovery, especially when mourners re-experience grief.
We can never return to who we used to be before the trauma or reclaim what we’ve lost. Mourning makes it possible for us to heal from the trauma and become a stronger, more creative, and resilient person.
Seeking Out Individuals That Honor Your Need to Mourn
It is unrealistic to expect that after we find closure, our grief suddenly ends. Wolfelt (2016) comments that Western culture supports an “it’s over and done with, so put it behind you” approach to grief.
Wolfelt (2016) identified three distinct approaches to grief:
- Group 1 is neutral: This group neither hurts you nor helps you.
- Group 2 tries to take your grief away: This group tries to cheer you up or tells you to carry on.
- Group 3 honors your need to mourn: This group helps you integrate your experience and loss into your life so you can move forward.
Recovery requires us to seek out individuals who honor our need to mourn. It is vital for us to honor that need by encouraging an internal dialogue of compassion, kindness, support, and understanding. We have a responsibility to create an environment, both internal and external, that respects the healing process and helps us find inner calm.
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Rando, T. (1991). How to go on living when someone you love dies. Lexington, MA: Bantham.