Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Unexpected Lessons From Grief Counseling

When my Mom died I went to see a grief counselor. It was a few months after her death and I just needed professional thoughts and opinion on what I was going through. So I made an appointment and showed up to an older looking home and followed the counselor up creaky wooden stairs to her office. We got through the preliminary information and awkwardness - small talk on the weather, followed by my name and my brief reason for being there. She probed for more information. As I stammered about for a few minutes, tears freely flowed down my face and I didn't have the energy to wipe them away. After I paused from my story detailing my Mom's death and what I had gone through emotionally since, I glanced up at her blurry face.

"So why are you here? What do you need from me?" she calmly asked.

I hesitated because I thought the answer was obvious. I was a mess. A complete and utter mess. I needed to be okay again. I needed her to fix me.

I answered with "I want to know if I'm crying too much. I feel like I shouldn't be crying this much anymore and I'm wondering if it's normal."

When you break down my need to the bare bones, I needed validation. Someone to let me know I was, and would be, okay. And space. I needed space to grieve, cry and yell. Permission if you will.

She questioned me on how long I was crying for at any given moment and how many times per day. She asked about my deepest feelings and how heavy they felt to me, as though trying to fit me onto a mental scale, 1 being a griever who is stuck and 10 being a griever who deserves an award for best ability to get over a loss. I felt like a 1. Her furrowed brows at my answers made me believe the same.

I remember nothing else from that hour long appointment. After I left her office, I knew I would never be back. She didn't give me what I had come for, which was permission to grieve. Instead, she gave me the laundry list of emotions that one processes during a loss which typically show up in some sort of neat, linear fashion. As if I hadn't read all of that stock pile bullshit already.

No. I didn't get what I needed. But on my way out the door to my car, I was struck with a realization that stirred my soul and I knew it to be my truth:

I could grieve however the fuck I wanted.

There isn't a researcher, educator or therapist in the world who was the same as me or who had a clue what I was going through. Because it was my experience from my perspective, built upon the ideas, thoughts and beliefs that have shaped me throughout my life. That cannot be replicated. While I get that us, as humans, like to label and pigeon hole everything under the sun...grief is different. I didn't want to hear that I would suffer from denial after the shock wore off. Nor did I want to be told that anger would come up next. I wanted someone to hold space for me, and let me know that whatever I felt was acceptable. But because I didn't follow this linear path that was laid out in clear steps, I felt like I was failing at the process altogether. When I was told from someone close to me that I needed to stop crying and move on, I knew that space was no longer available to me from others. I had to create my own space and hold myself there when I needed to.

I learned a lot through that experience, lessons that would grow over time. And I am grateful for the counselor's responses to my grief, because it has allowed me to shape not only my perspective but also the way I interact with my own clients.
Here's what I learned:

1. Toss the pigeon hole concept
I hate, hate, hate the "one solution for all" approach to ANYTHING in life. Ask my clients. The nutrition plans and fitness plans I create are all based on their own specific needs and desires and only after me asking a zillion probing questions. I will never create a diet plan and toss it out to a large population of people with the expectation that it is the best plan for all of them. We are all vastly different and I never assume one person's needs, challenges, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, ideas, goals, anatomy (etc. etc. etc) are the same as anyone elses. While I understand the grieving process model, I don't agree with it being used as a tool to determine if someone is falling outside of the norm to then require intervention. Just as even though I was a vegetarian for over 10 years, I would never push that type of diet onto all of my clients. They all have individual needs that require flexibility and space for growth and change.

2. Trust Yourself
I find there is a tendency to look outside of yourself to find validation and/or permission far more often than looking inwards. We want people to applaud us, compliment us, be proud of us, and tell us if what we're doing is right. Clients want me to tell them how to eat. They want to know how to move their body. They want me to tell them how they should or should not be feeling during and after a workout. They want me to tell them they're doing awesome. Just like me seeing this therapist. I wanted her to tell me how I should be grieving (or so I thought) and from that, I wanted the permission to do what I was already doing. I wanted her to tell me it was okay.

What if we just said "fuck this?" What if we stopped giving a shit what Tom, Dick and Harry were doing and instead, looked toward our own needs/wants/desires to figure it out? What if we could tune into our bodies, hearts and spirits so that we KNEW what was right for US. This is what I teach when I run my "Intuitive Eating" workshops - how to tune into what your own body needs at any given moment (because it changes constantly!). Instead of asking "what should I be doing?" we could trying asking "what would be best for me right now?" Wow, what a shift there would be. In relationships, in fitness, in nutrition, in social circles and career decisions. What if we stopped giving a shit what we think is expected of us and just did what felt is right for us?

3. Hold Space
This is a term I have become familiar with somewhat recently and I adore it. Ultimately what we desire in our relationships and in life in general is to have space held for us. Space to be who we are, to create what is in our hearts, to make mistakes, fall down, succeed, fall apart in....whatever. We all desire that space that is without help, judgement, question, anxiety, fear....it just IS. Within that space we are able to move and breathe in a way that feels like freedom. And it is in that space we are able to grow, learn, thrive and find joy and peace. I have learned (slowly as a recovering perfectionist) that what my clients want isn't for me to hover over everything they do or say, they want me to provide some tools and guidelines and allow them space to try. A space where they're allowed to make mistakes, fall off their plan or quit working out while they're in a slump and still know that I'm cheering them on without judgement. Holding space means walking alongside and allowing emotions, thoughts and feelings to come about without denying or changing them.

And do you know the best way to learn how to hold space for another? That's right - holding space for yourself first.

How are you doing on that one?

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