In the article Bereavement in Adult Life, the author Colin Parkes writes, “After a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or child, up to a third of the people most directly affected will suffer detrimental effects on their physical or mental health, or both.”
Grief is that response to such intense loss. And while there’s no right way to work through the stages and emotions that come after a death, you have options. We sat down with Nesreen Ahmed, MS, PCC founder of Harbor Light Coaching, to shed some light on what a grief coach is, how she found her path from loss to healing to helping others, and when you may want to consider working with one for yourself or loved ones.
What made you pursue working with people during some of the most challenging times of their life?
I never imagined going into grief work, but like most who do, it called to me. I lost my older sister suddenly in 2013 (hard to believe it’s been almost ten years), and my life immediately came to a screeching halt. Everything turned upside down, and I couldn’t believe she was gone.
When I finally felt ready to start looking for help with my grief, I first started in therapy and also attended support groups. Both were helpful but not what I felt I needed. It wasn’t until I was pursuing a new career in coaching that I learned about grief coaching.
I finally took the step to work with a grief coach, and I’m so thankful I did. She was incredibly supportive, kind, and patient. She coached me through the Grief Recovery Method, which was the best grief work I’ve ever done. That experience, that relief and peace I felt from working with her made me become a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and embark on the grief coaching path.
I’m always taking classes and new training, most recently with grief expert, David Kessler, to become a Certified Grief Educator. It’s incredibly difficult and rewarding work!
What is a grief coach?
I love this question because grief coaching is still a relatively new field, and many people confuse it with grief counseling or therapy. A professional, skilled grief coach can help you in two ways: after you’ve worked with a counselor or therapist but still feel like things are unfinished, or you’re not fully able to move forward.
I use the Grief Recovery Method to help clients address those feelings of guilt or should’ve, would’ve, could’ve so they can find peace and not carry the heavy weight of grief for the rest of their lives.
The other aspect of grief coaching is to bridge the life you were living before your loss and the new life you now have to inhabit. Coaching is about helping people move forward and achieve goals and outcomes, so often, grief coaches can help you reassess what you’re doing, how you’re spending your time, and if it’s in alignment with who you are and the life and experiences you want to have now.
People often start thinking about their lives differently after they’ve processed their grief and realize they are not satisfied with their grueling work schedule, or they want to be more adventurous, or it’s time to find that ideal relationship, etc. Grief coaching can help people step into their new lives with a more empowered focus and determination.
What does grief look like?
Grief is universal in that we will all experience it in our lifetimes. Still, it can look very different for people depending on their personality, mindset, gender, culture, and many other factors. Generally, people experience a wide range of emotions, including intense sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, regret, relief, love, hopelessness, injustice, shock, gratitude, depression, and deeply missing their person.
It’s also common to feel numb in the beginning. It’s important to note that feeling numb is a protective measure, not a signal that you’re cold or didn’t love your person.
Much of that is internal and may not always be visible to others. Many people struggle with getting the right kind of support because they feel so raw and vulnerable, and those around them may say or do things that feel insensitive or hurtful. It’s unfortunate that when we need kind, supportive people the most, we may feel we’re totally alone and isolated instead.
How does loss affect us?
Grief is a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual experience. It can be incredibly difficult and have us question every aspect of our lives.
On a physical level, grief can affect our appetites, sleep habits, exercise regimes, and overall life routines. You may find that you can barely eat a meal each day and are too exhausted to cook. Some find comfort in food and graze throughout the day. Many people cannot fall asleep or stay asleep through the night when they are grieving. Exercise can be a valuable outlet for some, while others don’t have the energy or motivation to try to work out while grieving.
In Chinese medicine, grief lives in our lungs, so it’s common to feel a heaviness or weight in our chest, and sometimes just breathing can suddenly feel like a task rather than an automatic bodily function.
Mentally, people often report their grief has made it hard for them to think straight, focus, and concentrate. People often say they feel like they’re in a fog, and it’s hard to remember why they walked into a room or picked up their phone. Being present in meetings or with friends can sometimes feel impossible because our brains are busy trying to process all that’s happened.
Grief makes us feel like we’re on a rollercoaster, and it’s impossible to stop our minds from thinking about every little thing that was said or done. That might be about our relationship with our lost loved one, the circumstances and the way our person died, the heartbreak we currently feel, and so on. And unfortunately, that brain fog can linger for quite a long time.
Motivation can also be a problem when we’re grieving. Even the basic day-to-day tasks that used to be easy can feel impossible and/or not worth doing anymore. Because we feel so depleted, taking care of and giving to others can be a tremendous chore.
Finally, we may also start questioning everything about our lives: how are we spending our time, are we with the right people/in the right relationships, are we surviving or truly living?
Emotionally, we may feel numb or overwhelmed by the myriad of emotions that come up. It’s also common to have waves of grief where you might be fine for a while, and then all of a sudden, your grief is activated, and it’s hard to handle. People liken it to a panic attack where they had to pull over and just focus on their breathing. The wave can also last for an extended period where it’s hard to level out, re-regulate and feel “normal” again.
On a spiritual level, grief can undoubtedly impact our religious beliefs, where we may lean toward or away from it. Many people struggle with religion and get angry with G*d/Spirit/Universe after losing a loved one. Others find comfort in their religion and traditions after death.
Many people feel hopeless for quite a while because their person has passed away. The world is less vibrant, less joyful, and less meaningful without their person. It can be challenging, but with time and doing our grief work, we can begin to find hope, meaning, and joy again.
We may also think more about our mortality and the legacy we want to leave. We start to ask ourselves, “how can I leave my mark?” or “how can I leave the world better?”
When might someone consider working with a grief coach?
Grief coaching is an excellent resource for people looking for support beyond traditional counseling, therapy, or support groups. Grief coaching is intended to be a more proactive process and help you move through your grief with information, tools, and resources. It’s worth looking into, especially if those traditional modalities have not been as helpful as you’d like.
It’s important to remember that grief is an incredibly unique and individual experience, so we can’t compare our loss or grief to anyone else’s. Acknowledging and honoring your process is so so important during grief and can ultimately make the difference between getting stuck and healing from grief.