Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a lay off at work, or a divorce after a decade of marriage, there is no one right way to respond to the feelings of grief that wash over someone who is dealing with catastrophic change.
While some may turn to therapy or a group of best friends, there is another way to get help – grief coaching. Coaches can be trained and certified to help clients manage their grief and formulate a plan to set goals and move toward them.
Jill Smolowe became an unfortunate expert in grief when loss hit her own family hard.
After losing her husband, mother, sister, and mother-in-law in short succession, the former longtime journalist began examining the grieving process and, in her research, found grief coaching – what she calls her “post-career career.”
“Part of the thing with coaching is giving people permission to feel what they feel because they think they shouldn’t be feeling it,” she said.
Every client handles grief differently.
Smolowe, who authored the book “Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief” based on her own experiences, likes to say “loss is universal, grief is personal.”
“And that really speaks to why a coach can be useful. Because grief is just that – it’s your grief,” she said. “Helping people see that is really important.”
Losing a partner, she said, is the most “dislocating” of griefs and it is a common denominator among many of her clients.
“People are lost with the feeling of, ‘What is it I’m supposed to be doing now?’ Or they feel like ‘I don’t want to be doing it because my partner isn’t here,’” she said. “And then there’s also a loneliness that’s something separate.”
A grieving person can also become stuck in that grief because well-meaning friends and family consistently bring up their loss or inquire how they are feeling about their loss.
“It’s very hard – you’ve got to be strong to kind of remind people I’m more than that I’m a mother, I’m a writer, I’m a bike rider, I’m a movie goer,” she said.
Grief coaches are also rejecting the once-popular five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — made famous by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her work was based on the dying, not the bereaved.
Instead, Smolowe, who was trained by iPEC, categorizes grief into three parts – acute, lasting up to 18 months; chronic, lasting longer than 18 months; and resilient, meaning the person is able to experience small moments of pleasure or distraction.
“Most actually experience our grief in waves,” she said. “We are able to access emotions like pleasure and happiness even in the earliest days of grief.”
People should seek out a grief coach when they want to move forward, but are having a hard time managing their grief.
“If you are feeling stuck, if you are feeling uncertain where to go next,” she said. “If you’re feeling, ‘Oh I just don’t want to burden my friends anymore.’”
Grief coaches spend a lot of time on reassurance to remind clients that what they are feeling is normal.
“It’s okay to feel this way,” Smolowe tells her clients as many times as they need. “It’s like everything else in life. There is no one script.”
Together, grief coaches and clients set goals big and small. That could mean figuring out when to take off a wedding ring or where a person wants to move. Then, they work toward those goals, with the client leading the coach.
That is what makes coaching different from therapy, Smolowe said.
Rather than looking back for answers, a tenet of therapy, “coaching starts from the present moment.”
“I think of therapy as more of archaeology, and coaching is more like architecture,” she said. “You’re building something new.”