To the casual observer, the scene in my living room on that dreary day in early March wasn’t so unusual. I was lying on the couch, and my feline companion of almost 20 years, Big Jeans (aka Biggie), was resting peacefully on my chest. Her head, with its soft, white, bunny-like fur, was nestled against my neck.
But this wasn’t just any old day. Biggie had been on hospice for a couple weeks. We’d been administering subcutaneous fluids at night for hydration and kitty cannabis in the morning to stimulate her appetite and keep her comfy. It was intense.
The vet said we’d need to start thinking about euthanasia. Friends said we would know when it was time. Ultimately, we did, and we made that most strange and difficult of appointments to put her down. But in the sweetest, gentlest turn of events, Biggie died on my chest that day before we could ever make it to the vet. The way she passed could not have been more graceful. What a freaking gift it was.
What followed, however, was the most intense grief I’ve gone through in my life. I feel blessed that to date, the biggest losses I’ve endured have been grandparents. These passings were sad but expected, and somehow once removed for me in terms of how the loss hit home. Biggie’s death, on the other hand, was visceral and unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
It was the kind of grief that made it hard to breath. My heart hurt like hell. This was no cliché, but a literal ache in my chest. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. At times, it was impossible to sit still – it was like my finite body could not contain the intensity of the emotions. Tidal waves of anguish continued to crash through me in the ensuing days.
But there was a silver lining in the whole ordeal that I did not anticipate. Namely, it gave me the awesome opportunity to truly “live it to give it,” one of my core coaching principles. I was able to pull out my coaching tools and use them on myself. Damned if they didn’t perform beautifully, so much so that I wanted to share what worked well for me in hopes that it may work for you, too.
And you don’t have to lose your cat to try them. They’re applicable whether you are going through the loss of a friend, a marriage, a job, or something else entirely. Bottom line, a loss is a loss, and some form of grief will likely ensue. Try these strategies not simply to make it through, but to come out the other side stronger and more whole than before.
Breathe. And Allow the Mess.
Just several years ago, I was living from the neck up. I prided myself on operating from my rational brain while squelching all those pesky and supposedly negative emotions like sadness, anger or grief. They always seemed like a huge inconvenience, a sign of weakness, and a big ol’ waste of time.
Fast forward to my coach training, where we learned that our emotions are simply energy in motion, and our bodies are the container. If you don’t allow them to move through you as they are designed to, they get stored in the body.
The squelched intensity of repressed emotions such as despair, rage and worry can then cause all kinds of fun physiological problems (e.g., compulsions, psychosomatic illnesses, addictions, insomnia and neuroses, just to name a few).
In addition to the repercussions of repression, it’s also true that you can’t just pick and choose your emotions. In other words, closing yourself off from fear and sadness, for example, means you are also closing yourself off from real joy and happiness.
If you are like I was, you hide from the “scary” emotions and prevent them from surfacing by breathing shallowly and keeping a tight, heavy lid on them through muscular tension. There’s also the option of turning to the usual suspects for numbing and distraction (e.g., drinking, prescription or recreational drugs, shopping, gambling, or endless hours on social media and Netflix).
This time, however, I stayed clean and met the discomfort head on. I breathed deeply and threw off the tight, heavy lid. For grins and giggles, I invite you to try this, too: Consciously relax your whole body while keeping your awareness with your body (not your thoughts); try to avoid distractions; then focus on breathing deeply and restfully for about 5 minutes. That’s all there is to it.
When I first started coach training and did this exercise, inevitably I’d end up in tears in about 30 seconds. Over time, however, the crying jags subsided as I started to actually feel my emotions as they came up in my day-to-day life.
I also trusted the findings of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke in her mid-thirties that took her left-brain spin doctor completely offline for a period of months. Namely, an emotion, unimpeded by the narrative created by our left-brain (like whether the emotion should be happening, whether it is an inconvenient time to be experiencing the emotion, or whether we’re going crazy), will flow right through us in about 90 seconds.
Dr. Taylor said you could set your watch by these 90-second intervals, and I did. Every time I felt another wave of grief cresting, I allowed it to crash through, with big ugly sobs. Over the days that followed, those waves became fewer and farther in between, until I looked up about 5 days after Biggie’s death and realized that I could catch a glimpse of her little empty kitty house and smile instead of weeping.
So breathe deeply and allow the mess. Chances are, it will pass. If it doesn’t, and you’re still actively grieving, crying and spiraling into anxieties and depressions many months after the triggering event, I encourage you to seek out a trained professional who can help you get unstuck.
There Are No Rules. You Do You.
One of the primary reasons my suffering gave way to gratitude within just a few short days is because I gave myself space to grieve. I created a container for it by cancelling everything, and I mean everything, on my calendar. This included client sessions (a couple of which were with brand new clients!), a class I was scheduled to teach, and social engagements.
Lemme just tell you, for this former people-pleasing addict, my inner critic went ape shit. Thoughts like, “Your clients will think you’re flaky and weak for cancelling” and “Come on, just show up and push through” popped up.
About that same time, my awesome partner reminded me that this was a 20-year relationship I’d shared with Biggie. To expect myself to be done with the grief in 12 hours was ridiculous.
So instead of listening to my social self, I chose to listen to the wisdom of my essential self. It said, “Only you know what you need to make it through to the other side whole – you do you.” So I did my grief my way, and gave myself space and time.
Our bodies and our psyches have a natural inclination toward healing. In the same way our cuts heal without us having to think about it, our psyches want to heal, too. By giving myself room to process my sorrow, the natural resiliency of being human pulled me toward wholeness so much quicker than I ever expected.
The same force is working within you, too. Open yourself to it, and you may be surprised how quickly your grief moves on through.
Grief is Non-Linear. And Also Kinda Magical.
You’ve likely heard of the “5 Stages of Grief” as theorized by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. When Kübler-Ross’s theory first appeared in TIME Magazine in 1969, popular culture glommed on and ran with it, applying it to grief of all kinds. The problem is that Kübler-Ross specifically studied terminally ill and dying patients, and her findings were never meant to apply to all types of loss.
In recent years, there has been some wonderful research on grief, and new models have emerged. We now know that the stage-model theory described above with its tidy resolution is just a little too clean for the messiness of true grief. Sometimes there is no real resolution. And anyone who tells you there’s a specific time limit on sadness around a certain type of loss, or says “You should be over [that divorce…that death…that whatever] by now” can suck it. Grief is done when it’s done, whenever that is. And it’s different for everyone.
We also now know that often the best way to help someone hurting after a loss is to get them to tell a new story by finding a benefit in the experience and making meaning of the circumstances surrounding the ordeal. I found such meaning in Biggie’s death, and it happened during my most extreme sadness.
At some point, I unintentionally slipped into an observer position. It was kind-of like being an alien from another planet watching a human grieve for the first time with head-cocked curiosity. There was an odd moment when it occurred to me that the intensity of my heartache might actually be a bit magical.
I can’t quite find an eloquent way to describe what I mean, so I’m borrowing from the expert on emotions, Karla McLaren. She writes that, “when we sink down into the waters of grief, we’ll certainly feel the pain of loss, but we’ll also discover our sacred position in the dance of all souls.” At that moment, I felt what I can only describe as a deep gratitude for what seemed like the rawest, most visceral experience of being human.
Grief cleans us out, and the space it carves allows room for the new. Just like a broken bone heals stronger in the cracked place, we too have the opportunity to come out the other side more whole, more complete in our humanity. Again to borrow from Karla McLaren, “your heart will not be emptied; it will be expanded, and you’ll have more capacity to love.”
It also occurred to me that without the depths of despair in the valleys of life, it’s a helluva lot harder to see the exquisite joy of the peaks. We need such contrast to fully appreciate this life experience, just like we need darkness to fully appreciate the light.
Grief is hard, and I don’t particularly look forward to feeling that way again anytime soon. But I know that when I inevitably suffer another loss, all will be well eventually. It can be for you, too.
Just breathe. Be gentle with yourself. Feel what you feel. Make space and do your grief your way. Allow for the full spectrum of emotion and the possibility for magic and connection to the sacred. Welcome the grief, and you may just emerge from it a new person.
Written in memory of the prettiest little kitty there ever was who was the best companion a gal could ask for. Thanks, Biggie – rest in peace till I get there, little one!