Grief is the normal and often very painful response to loss. For many, this process is one of the most difficult life experiences that can be endured. Grief is messy, it is ugly, and at the same time, it can be one of the most beautiful and loving processes that a person can experience. Although people typically associate grief with death, there are a variety of losses that might elicit a grief response. These range from a change in life circumstances, to the diagnosis of disease. Many people look to a professional to help them with these intense feelings. A grief coach may be the best type of counselor to help clients with their grief.
It may be difficult for some people to learn to cope with grief, and even harder for them to find meaning in the experience. Many people turn to a licensed therapist for grief counseling, but often traditional therapy is not the best method to facilitate this process. Several studies have shown that grief-focused therapies are relatively ineffective at relieving grief. One meta-analytic study revealed that in as many as 38% of cases, grief actually intensified over the course of therapeutic treatment. For these people, grief coaching may be the answer. A Grief coach can help manage a client’s beliefs around the grief process. The grief coach can hold space for the client’s grief, however, it manifests and however long it endures. Grief coaches can help clients get in touch with their feelings through mindfulness, which can allow the body to release negative emotions, and create space for positive experiences. A grief coach can then use active coaching techniques such as goal setting and reframing to help clients navigate their lives after loss. This support can include coaching on adapting to new life roles, navigating the stages of grief, and finding greater meaning in the experience.
Somatic Responses to Grief
Young children do not innately know how to grieve. Through social processes, popular culture, and family examples individuals begin to learn the grief process. Over time the grief framework that will shape our lifelong grief response takes shape. This information is stored in the brain as well as the physical body. By paying attention to the body’s response to grief, people are better able to navigate this difficult state, and transition into a more healthy way of being.
When faced with loss, the body initiates the grief response that has been forming since childhood. This feedback loop begins with the physical response to the loss, which can trigger, as in other traumatic situations, parasympathetic activation. A person experiencing grief may experience a variety of somatic symptoms. These symptoms can be a side effect of parasympathetic activation or might be the body working to release negative emotions.
Tears may be one of the first physical reactions that many experience. They are one of humans most powerful built-in, somatic healing mechanisms. Unexpressed tears do not go away; their sadness resides within the body until this emotional energy can be released. For some, tears can seem overly dramatic, excessively emotional, or a sign of weakness. But in truth, they are an outward expression of inner pain.
Other physical symptoms of grief include changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, stomach aches and nausea, severe headaches, extreme fatigue, accelerated heart rate, shakiness, difficulty sleeping, sudden angry outbursts, prolonged crying that can lead to a sense of choking, confusion or absent-mindedness, and the inability to concentrate. These somatic responses point to an activated parasympathetic nervous system. The body has moved into the fight/flight/freeze response. This is such a common response to grief that the five stages of grief parallel the fight, flight, and freeze responses that are experienced during acute stress. The groundbreaking and often quoted grief work of Kübler-Ross and Kessler (2014) identified five main grief responses or stages of the grief experience. These are, in order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Denial, the first stage of grief a person may experience, is the body’s freeze response. The initial shock of the loss triggered a life saving physical reaction, freeze. In this stage, a person may feel they are in a state of limbo. They might feel a sense that things are not real. Although deep down the person understands that they will never see their loved one again, or that their life is completely changed, there may be a need to search for the thing they have lost. People in this stage can often become confused, overwhelmed, and find life meaningless. Daily life can become a struggle, and even the most mundane tasks may feel insurmountable. This response is an important mechanism that can help the individual get through the initial shock of the loss. The mental confusion experienced in this state will eventually give way to more concrete feelings of grief which can propel the grieving client towards acceptance.
The next stage that a grieving person may experience is anger. Anger represents the fight response. Now the initial shock is over, and the individual feels they will survive the ordeal, anger can often surface. This dense emotion can be an anchor, and give temporary structure to the nothingness experienced after a loss. Once anger subsides people often begin to move into flight type responses, which include bargaining and depression. In bargaining, the person is desperately trying to change the reality of the situation by making promises to the self or to God. The individual’s attention moves into the present after bargaining brings little relief. The loss becomes acutely real, and this may cause a person to move into depression. This can be one of the most difficult stages for everyone involved. This depression is not just a sadness but also a numbness. It is part in the feeling of grief, and part running away from it. This stage can last for a long time, but it is one that can be effectively treated with somatic mindfulness. Finally, once the depression begins to fade, a person will begin to accept the loss and new life situation (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2014).
Principles of Somatic Mindfulness
The first step in the grief coaching process is to help the client fully experience his or her grief. Because of social pressures, many people never allow themselves to fully experience emotional release during the grief cycle. As we will discuss later, this can lead to the somatic storage of these negative emotions. Through somatic mindfulness, the client can come into contact with the deepest emotions surrounding their grief.
To better understand how this process works in the body we can examine the human emotional experience and storage mechanisms. The philosopher William James (1890) understood that the body shifts after perceiving a provocative object, whether internal or external and this physical shift creates an embodied emotional reaction. These physical changes create the experience of feeling. Damasio (2000), a modern neuroscientist, noted that the body is not the only theater for emotions, and added that changes to the neural processing in the brain “constitute a substantial part of what is perceived as feeling”. The body is not simply taking and receiving orders from the brain, but instead, it is creating information in relation to the external stimuli, and modifying itself to fit the environment, all while relating this information to the brain.
The brain functions by taking the consciousness of the body, and translating it into information about the self and the external world. This self-organizing process stores the information of past experiences and emotions in the body, which creates habitual muscle contractions and movement patterns of which individuals may not even be aware. The exact mechanism for this emotional storage system is unclear, but Researcher Candace Pert (2010) believes that the neuropeptide ligands are involved. The author states that repressed emotions and memory could be stored in the body’s neuropeptide receptors, and perhaps through the release of these neuropeptide ligands, the body can also release the stored emotional memory.
Damasio (2000) has found that the chemical reactions and input from the five senses only tell part of this story. The author states that in addition to these sensory signals, the body needs data from the adjustment of the body in space to fully perceive. This kinesthetic memory holds information about how we adjusted our body to perceive the object and includes the emotional reaction that occured in that time and space. This kinesthetic and emotional information is passed along a feedback loop through the brain, spinal cord, and body. This is the case in the learned grief response. The body’s feedback loop has now stored this grief and in the absence of mindfulness, will then revert to this reaction in the future. Emotions can also affect the neocortex which is a large brain center that controls adaptation and learning. As we mature and learn, this brain structure gains more and more complex abilities and movements. Though sustained stress and traumatic accidents the voluntary cortex can become sidetracked from its normal control of the sensory-motor system. When that occurs, during stress, grief, and trauma, the lower, more primitive regions of the brain, take control. The brain moves into a state of regression, into involuntary reaction. In other words, the body becomes fixed, maintaining the state of the memory, embodying it until it can be released. Overtime, the body becomes a reflection of our mind and our mind in turn becomes a reflection of the body. This is also why predisposition to resilience or dysfunction will reflect the individual’s response to grief.
Pert’s (2010) work with neuropeptide receptors revealed that the unconscious process of neuropeptides can be shifted and brought into conscious awareness. The author believes that the use of intentionality and visualization are key to this process. The author goes on to state, “The unconscious mind of the body seems all-knowing and all-powerful and in some therapies can be harnessed for healing or change without the conscious mind ever figuring out what happened”. Varela, Thompson and Rosch (1991) discuss an enactive perspective where mindfulness is used to train the mind-body into certain states and behaviors. Rather than simply observing the self, mindfulness becomes an active process used to foster beneficial states that can bring harmony to the body and the mind. This embodied mindfulness often referred to as somatics, is not just a physical or mental approach, but is integral, taking into account both the internal and external components of the individual and culture.
Somatic mindfulness uses an embodied approach to help clients understand how their bodies are relating to the events in life. Through conscious employment, one becomes aware of the body as it relates to and shapes the self. There are many different somatic therapies being used today to enable this type of embodied mindfulness.
Peter Levine (1997) discovered that through mindful embodiment, patients with PTSD could complete the physical somatic experience of a traumatic event, and thereby release PTSD symptoms. The therapy, called Somatic Experiencing, encourages patients to feel the physical manifestation of their trauma, thereby allowing the body to complete the natural trauma cycle. This method also encourages the use of continuous mindful embodiment practices that will help individuals better process traumatic events as they occur. A modified version of this method can be utilized by grief coaches to help clients fully experience their grief and allow it to leave the body.
The role of a grief coach
As mentioned above, traditional therapy may not be the right choice for individuals in situations of normal grieving. The majority of people will have a normal reaction to grief, and will not need clinical intervention from a psychologist. These individuals may find greater benefit in grief coaching that focuses on releasing sadness from the body in a supported environment, and tools to help the client adjust to the new normal after the loss.
Often, unresolved issues make grief even more intense. Physically the body longs to reach homeostasis. When there is a loss the individual may feel that these issues may never be resolved. Through somatic mindfulness, the client can learn to identify the underlying cause of the emotions they feel and can use this information to heal the root of the discomfort. A grief coach can help the client dialogue with that part of the self or the deceased person, which may help resolve this inner conflict and allow the organism to heal. A grief coach can use the above mentioned somatic technique along with listening, reflecting, and allowing to use the body to release grief.
In addition to supporting a client to release the grief that is stored in the body, a grief coach can also help clients create new patterns. A grief coach helps clients adapt to new roles that the loss has created. After loss, many individuals will begin to have questions such as: Where is my place? Who am I now? Grief coaches can help their clients answer these questions and assist them in filling the new roles or assign them to someone else.
For many grief lasts for many years, and can even be lifelong. Often the pain of grief becomes tied to the love that was felt for the person. In cases of ambiguous loss, an individual may move through the cycle of grief many times. Many of these individuals can use grief coaching to continue to navigate this process. A grief coach can assist clients in many ways. Through the support of a grief coach, clients can begin to feel that the grief is part of the love they had for their lost loved one. “C. S. Lewis said, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” To deny that loss is to deny the love”
Although the help of a grief coach can be extremely useful to individuals that are experiencing normal grief, it is important for the coach to be able to identify pathological grief patterns. This can be extremely difficult because the healthy expression of grief can vary widely from person to person(Lindemann, 1963). Coaches must learn to use their own intuition and pay close attention to the client in order to determine if a referral to a clinical therapist is necessary.
Grief responses are not universal. Some people find they are relatively resilient to grief, and are able to process the loss relatively quickly and return to normal functioning, others find themselves consumed by acute distress, and are unable to recover despite their best efforts. Regardless of the individual expression of grief grief coaching can be a useful tool in helping people move through their grief, and find meaning in the experience. Grief coaches can help in a variety of ways, from facilitating the release of negative emotions, to helping clients cope with new life situations. For many this intervention can be more helpful than clinical counseling as it focuses on practical solutions for processing the experience and moving forward with life in a healthy grief response, rather than on the dysfunctional states of grief and working from a diagnostic space.
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