How to Coach Others Through Grief (And Grieve the Lives You Won’t Live)

Grief comes in many forms beyond death & loss, such as mourning a life you won't live. Learn exercises you can use for coaching clients navigating through loss.

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Navigating Grief & Loss

Often when we think about grief, we associate it with the specific loss that occurs when someone dies. However, grief is complex and arises in response to many forms of loss. This can often include the loss of the person you used to be, or a hoped-for future that is unlikely to come to pass. 

As coaches, how can we grieve and help our clients process grief as well?

One of the most arduous and universal trials of human life is enduring our grief. The deep pain and suffering that characterizes grief can be life-changing. When faced with grief, we carry a heavy burden of sorrow with us as we attempt to make sense of life again.

While the inevitability and permanence of loss connects us all, the time it takes to accept loss is unique to every individual. Nevertheless, research suggests three common personal rituals that can help us adapt to loss: letting go, self-transformation, and honoring. 

What do we mean by “honoring”?

Honoring a person’s memory plays a significant role in developing emotional acceptance. A helpful approach to coping with grief is to not minimize our experience, but to instead cultivate and remember the good things related to the loss when possible. 

Rather than dwelling on stories of loss and despair, honoring and reflection offers a meaningful and tangible route to transiting through a hard chapter through the preservation of memories. 

What We Need to Know as Coaches

Recovery after bereavement takes time, and for some, the grieving process may take much longer than others. There is no set schedule for grieving, and there should be no pressure to ‘move on.” Grief work is not about getting over the loss. Quite the opposite, in fact. While caught in the grip of grief, it’s unlikely that one can even begin to imagine "accepting the loss." 

If acute grief is interfering with a client’s ability to function, it’s appropriate to refer out for support from a therapist. This doesn’t mean, however, that working with grief is necessarily beyond the scope of your role as a coach. Coaching is an ideal space for addressing personal transformation, acceptance, and the ritualistic aspects of moving through loss. 

Let's explore 2 exercises you can use with coaching clients to support them in processing through grief.

Exercise 1: Reconciling Loss

This exercise can be an effective tool for helping a client renegotiate their relationship with grief so that they can remember and solidify an enduring connection with what they have lost. This exercise is also extremely personal. While the sharing of stories can help give meaning to loss and remind the bereaved that they are not alone, clients do not have to share completed works with you or others if they choose not to or are not ready to do so.

If, at any point, a client becomes overwhelmed by this exercise, they should be encouraged to take a break and return to the activity when they feel ready to do so with no rush or time constraints. It is important that the questions are worked through without unnecessary pressure.

Taking the First Step: Identify the Loss

This could be the loss of a person or pet, a personal identity, a relationship, or anything that is meaningful to your client. This step is all about reflecting on and thinking about special memories, and the different ways in which this subject influenced their life.

The hope is that by thinking about all those unique characteristics and stories, it will help your client realize that their relationship with the subject encompasses more than the pain they are feeling right now. Grief is not easy to bear, and it can be difficult to remember the good times before the loss, but by looking back, we can also begin to look forward.

Have your client take as much time as they need to think about the following questions and write their responses. It can be helpful to share these questions with them as a handout that they can complete in writing.

Exercise Questions:

  • Name the loss.
  • What three words best describe your loved one/identity/relationship/life chapter?
  • What advice, quotes, or sayings do you remember or associate with them/it?
  • What do you love or appreciate most about this loved one/identity/relationship/life chapter?
  • Think back over the gifts this loved one/identity/relationship/life chapter gave to you (including skills or life lessons they/it taught you). Which of these gifts means the most? Why is this gift so meaningful?
  • In what ways has this relationship or chapter helped you become the person that you are today?

Exercise 2: Honoring Lost Possible Selves

In her book Creating Your Best Life, Caroline Miller talks about the importance of honoring lost possible selves. The idea is that when we lose someone or something, the space of loss opens up a new field for a different self identity to emerge.  

Miller recommends honoring this past version of you as it relates to your loss, and saying goodbye to that version of self through a narrative essay exercise. Once you are done writing your goodbye, it is appropriate to burn or wash away your note. Afterward, it may be comforting to approach this cleared space inside with curiosity for what new life will emerge.

Episode Resources

The concepts and exercises discussed in this episode are adapted from the work of Elaine Houston, Caroline Miller, and Kristen Neff.

Additional reading:

Coryell, D. M. (1998). Good grief: Healing through the shadow of loss. Shiva Foundation.

Neimeyer, R. (1999). Narrative strategies in grief therapy. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 12, 65-85.

Miller, Caroline Adams, Creating your best life. New York : Sterling, ©2009, (DLC) 2010275766

Sas, C., & Coman, A. (2016). Designing personal grief rituals: An analysis of symbolic objects and actions. Death Studies, 40, 558-569.

Walter, T. (1994). The revival of death. Routledge.

Castle, J., & Phillips, W.L. (2003). Grief rituals: Aspects that facilitate adjustment to bereavement. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 8, 41-71.

Fareez, M. (2015). The ‘Life Certificate’: A tool for grief work in Singapore. The International Journal of Narrative Therapy & Community Work, 2, 1-12.

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