Grief is one of those things that can be understood only when we experience it first-hand. Yet, far from easy. Sometimes, unbearable. The weight of grief is crushing, sucking the air out of our lungs, making us forget how to breathe when the world seems to be exactly as it was around us. Countless books- biographies and psychology findings have been written to understand this emotion that seems to have a stranglehold on us. A little support helps.
Tamsen Taylor a certified grief recovery expert studied grief and its social dynamics after she went through an intense period of grief herself. Today, she helps scores of other people to swim through this difficult phase. Tamsen is also a contributor to the best selling parenting anthology ‘ The One Thing Every Mom Needs To Know.‘
We at Kidskintha had a brief chat with Tamsen. Read on to understand what grief really means, but more importantly, this interview helps people who want to reach out to other people in grief.
Hi Tamsen! You have a very unique area of expertise, dealing with grief recovery. Tell us how you got into this?
About 2 years ago I attended an information session about the Grief Recovery Method being hosted by a friend of mine. I figured that since my father and brother had died, I had experienced grief, so I was curious about the topic. During that session, I learned that grief is experienced during any sort of change, and grief isn’t really an emotion itself, but it is an emotional experience that can involve all emotions.
What I learned that evening helped me see my difficult motherhood journey with a new perspective, and I wished I had this level of emotional understanding when my son was born. I suffered badly from a postpartum mood disorder, and I think what made it worse was that I beat myself up for feeling anything other than grateful. It took me 3 years of fertility treatments and I lost 3 children to miscarriage before my son was born, and so I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t just happy to finally have a healthy baby.
Right away I decided that becoming certified as a Grief Recovery Specialist would be an amazing way to accomplish my mission to increase people’s emotional health. I’m particularly interested in helping children, and I think one of the best ways I can do that is by helping their mothers.
The Grief Recovery Method has continued to help me in my own life, and in all of my relationships, particularly with my son. I am proud and excited to be able to share this information with others to help them improve their own lives and relationships.
What do you think is the most difficult aspect of dealing with grief?
Dealing with grief is particularly difficult because we have a lot of misunderstandings about how to support someone who is suffering from a loss. A specific example is that when we’re grieving we have a deep need to connect with and be heard by other people. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught to avoid that and to try to keep our sadness and other uncomfortable feelings to ourselves. We’ve been taught that our sad feelings are a burden to others, and will make them uncomfortable. But, when people know how to help someone who is grieving, there is less confusion and fear about the process. We also learn how to deal with our own emotions in a healthy way, and not judge ourselves harshly for feeling things that are normal and natural.
There are a lot of other misunderstandings about grief, but to me, the one that we should hide our grief and deal with it alone is the most damaging.
What are some appropriate ways to talk to someone you know is suffering grief?
It’s really interesting that this is a question that comes up a lot, and this idea makes people afraid. We seek the exact right thing to say and feel really uncomfortable because we just don’t know the magic thing.
The key here is that it’s not about what you say – the important thing to understand is that it’s the person who is grieving who needs to talk, the important thing is to listen.
So, say just enough to let the griever know that you are comfortable listening to their emotions, and get them talking. Listen, give them all of your attention, and be aware they may need to talk at many different times as they heal from their loss.
Sometimes, we want to really reach out to a person grieving, but it’s really hard because we don’t want to rake up unpleasantness. What is a good way to communicate that we are looking out for them without seeming overreaching?
You have hit on something that is true for many of us – we’re afraid that if we bring up something negative, we’ll be hurting someone. It’s a sad thing that many people avoid grievers because they don’t know what to do, and grieving makes them uncomfortable.
One thing that is true for many grievers is that they want to talk about their grieving experience, as long as the person listening is accepting of the conversation, and won’t judge them.
Another thing to consider is just how important it is to show you care. Yvonne Heath is someone I’ve met through our mutual grief recovery work, and her approach to helping others grieve is the importance of just showing up. You don’t have to worry about doing the perfect thing. You just show you care, you help by walking the dog, you make a meal, you just do whatever you can see that needs to be done. If you want to find out more about her Just Show Up movement, she just released a TEDx talk.
What are some absolute no-nos while you are in the company of grieving people?
There are certain things that aren’t helpful. Here are two common things to avoid, and why.
One important thing to understand is that anything you do to try to do to push someone out of sadness or any other emotional state is likely to do more harm than good. Trying to get someone to stop feeling bad leaves a griever not only grieving but also feeling their pain has been dismissed.
It’s really hard to stop trying to “cheer someone up” because this is a major piece of misinformation that we’ve been taught. Bizarrely, trying to “make” someone happy is one of the few things that most of us know as a way to “help” someone, but it’s actually extremely unhelpful.
Most of us have been trained to take emotion and try to “fix it” by using logic. This happens in a lot of ways, but one way you might notice is that you’ll hear people saying “At least…” One common thing that happens with a miscarriage is people will say “Well, at least you know you can get pregnant.” or “At least you have other children.” Statements like that may be factually true, but they dismiss the emotional pain that the person is in, which facts can’t change.
Thinking positive doesn’t heal a broken heart.
Another common thing that people say that it’s best to avoid is “I know how you feel.” This is usually said by someone in an attempt to help someone feel understood, but it actually shuts down the conversation. You actually don’t know how the person feels until they tell you, but by saying you already know tells the griever they should stop talking about their feelings. It’s also unhelpful because the person trying to help often takes over the conversation by talking about their experience when it’s actually the griever who needs to talk.
Give us recommendations for 5-6 good conversation starters in the company of grieving people?
I have a few very simple suggestions but please always remember that it’s the griever that needs to talk. All you need to do is let them know that you’re open to hearing about their emotions and that you won’t criticize them for feeing whatever they feel.
In an intense grieving situation that you know about, like around the death of a very important person in someone’s life, simple things like asking “What happened?” or “How did you find out?” Are suggestions from the Grief Recovery Method. Keep in mind that you don’t ask these questions if you already know, or it shows you weren’t paying attention!
For other situations when someone seems upset but you might not know why it can be helpful to name the emotion and offer to talk about it. “You seem sad, is something going on?” Sometimes people are reluctant to name an emotion for fear of being wrong, but usually, the other person will either deny or confirm your guess and go on to talk without being offended if you guessed wrong.
After doing grief recovery work for a while, I usually find myself doing is just saying “Wow, that sucks” if a situation seems negative, or “Wow, that’s awesome! Is it a little scary though?” if the situation seems positive (because there’s always grief when there’s change). That’s enough to get people talking about what they’re experiencing. For something that seems positive (like someone finding out they’re having a baby after trying for a while) it gives people permission to talk about emotions other than happiness, which is really important for emotional health.
When I catch people trying to logic themselves out of their emotions (which we’ve been trained to do), I usually say “That’s true, but it still sucks (or that’s still scary, or sad, or whatever the primary emotion seems to be). We’ve been taught to “fix” our own emotions through logic, but it doesn’t actually help us feel better. I try to gently remind people that they’re allowed to feel what they feel, even if logically they “shouldn’t”.
If you’re really stuck, “I’m here, and I care about you” can be a good start!
What strategies do you recommend for making real friends (that help with grief recovery) from social media groups?
I think that social media can help with grief recovery primarily by showing us that we’re not alone in our experiences and emotions. By connecting with people going through similar situations, you can feel less alone and be more able to talk about your emotions and experiences, which is essential for grief recovery.
When connecting with people in similar situations though, it’s important to allow your own and everyone else’s emotional experiences to be unique, and not to compare.
Although social media, blogs, and other online resources can help get information and to initially connect with people, there is no real replacement for face to face communication and connection. If at all possible, try to connect with people already in your lives in a healthy way, or find local groups online that would enable you to have in-person meetings.
Certainly, if there is no one local that can help you, or you have difficulty in meeting people, online groups and other forms of connection are better than nothing!
How do you typically work with people? What is the best way to reach you?
For my grief recovery work, I either work with people in person groups or online in personal sessions to help improve their emotional health. I am focusing on women who are currently trying to expand their families and suffering fertility challenges and miscarriage.
My online programs focus on helping women get the emotional support they need from people already in their lives who want to support them but don’t know how. As we’ve been discussing, there is a lot of misinformation and unhelpful strategies that people use because it’s the best they know. There are simple tools and strategies that can be taught relatively quickly that greatly improve our ability to understand what we need emotionally, and how to ask for it.
If a woman suffering from fertility challenges or miscarriage needs emotional support but doesn’t feel that she has anyone in her life that can provide it, we can work on strategies to build those relationships. My online programs are constantly evolving depending on what I learn that people need.
The Grief Recovery Method official groups that I run have to be run in person, but obviously, if you don’t live in the Guelph, Ontario, Canada area it would be difficult to attend one of my groups! Anyone who is interested in attending a group can look up a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist in their area by going to the Grief Recovery Method website at www.griefrecoverymethod.com
Feel free to check my website for more information – www.griefrecoveryforfertility.ca or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I also host the Momtellectual podcast where I interview people about various aspects of emotional health, and you can find it on my website www.momtellectual.com or on iTunes.
Anything else you want to tell us?
Emotional health is important for itself, but also it has a huge impact on our physical health, our spiritual health, and our overall quality of life.
If you’re interested in improving your emotional health, please get in touch with me, or consider getting a copy of the Grief Recovery Handbook (it’s a purple book and widely available). It’s also available in many libraries. Emotional education has priceless benefits not only for yourself, but really for everyone you interact with, especially your children who are looking to you for how to deal with their emotions.
A word on what you like about Kidskintha?
You hit on 2 main points that I think are critical for being an emotionally healthy parent and raising emotionally healthy kids on your website.
The first is that we need to be aware that we are leaders in our family, and that we go first. As you say, our kids learn more from what we do than what we say. This is important when dealing with emotions – if we try to hide all of our uncomfortable emotions from our kids, they learn that they shouldn’t show them either – and may even be learning that they are wrong for feeling them. Of course we have to balance the level of fear, anger, and sadness we feel so that our children still feel safe, but they also have to feel safe showing those emotions.
The second thing is that parenting is a learning experience for us as parents as well as for our children. We can often learn a lot from children and how they are with their emotions, because they’re born emotionally healthy.