Tested Advice from a Grief Coach
Rewriting the script about loss and healing takes intention and practice
Thought distortions, blame games, and external influences are all ways we inadvertently deepen our wounds in grief. While we would never intentionally make our feelings heavier, sometimes we may need a reminder to revisit the script we read each day.
What stories are we believing about ourselves, our lives, and our healing? Today I want to introduce you to a few simple concepts to help you take back your control, influence, and confidence when processing life or loss.
When we take an honest look at our lives and the grief we are carrying, it is really easy to lay blame or assign responsibility to someone else. And with grief, of course, there is often very little we can control. We can’t bring someone back from the dead, make someone love us, or wish for infinite wishes. I sound like the Genie… maybe he and Aladdin were on to something!
But truthfully, I have taken a hard look at grief and loss in my life and more than once opted to simply relinquish control. Whether I was leaning hard into coping mechanisms or simply ignoring my responsibilities, I felt such a lack of control in my life that the feeling of helplessness expanded and took over.
Now I know I’m not the only person to ever experience this. In fact, there’s a great chance that right now you’re thinking about the last time you decided self-control was no longer worth the effort. I want to empower you to decide that your process, your heart, and your life are worth the effort because the outcome you’re chasing is not as far off as you might think.
So speaking of what we think, let’s go back to the idea of thought distortions. Thought distortions are those little sentences we carry around to justify our behaviors or negative self-talk, or to kill our hope.
Kill hope? I’m sure you’re thinking, “I would never kill my hope on purpose!” Bad news: You would and you do. But you’re right — there’s a good chance it’s not intentional.
When we entertain thoughts like “I’ll never feel like myself again” or “I lost that job because I’m worthless,” we are unintentionally breaking our self-efficacy. Self–efficacy is the belief we carry in our own ability to succeed in a particular situation. When we are grieving a loss of any kind, our locus of control becomes more external and we feel more hopeless.
The locus of control is a psychological concept that considers where we place control over events and outcomes, and that is either internally or externally. A person with an internal locus of control will typically blame themselves for what happens, while the person with an external locus of control will tend to blame outside forces.
I’m not saying we need to learn how to control the events that cause our grief — we really can’t do that. But regardless of where we land with our sense of influence and control in the world, we are still giving in to thought distortions that steal our efficacy and influence over what is within our control. We have the ability to choose how we shape our story.
Our goal in grief is to recognize where we do carry influence and exert that influence with confidence and non-judgmental compassion. This part is going to be very personal to your story, so I’ll share a story of my own to help you start identifying the areas where you can confidently regain some control.
And before I begin, if the very idea of taking back your control sends goosebumps all over your skin, that’s okay. This is your chance to recognize that you are an active participant in your healing process. Today is the day you can choose to own your agency and move forward.
I was working in a very stressful work environment and struggling to find time to process a significant loss. At the end of the day, I would return home to my normal life and pour a strong drink to relax. After a few weeks, I had normalized drinking after work to the point where I was mixing drinks and then pouring them down the drain right after. My muscles were trained to make them, and on some fortunate occasions, my brain kicked in and helped my body rebel against my newly formed and harmful habit.
After I realized what I was doing, at first I blamed my job. I blamed my boss, my losses, my family for being needy right after work. I allowed my belief in my own agency to die because I felt like I was dying inside. I had not created any space to breathe or grieve—and was becoming a shell of myself because of it.
But before I could create any lasting change (beyond a three-day cleanse or taking a few days off of work) I needed to shift my mindset and my locus of control. I needed to believe I was one, worthy of the time and effort it would take to change and two, capable of growth. Of course, I was avoiding a greater pain in dealing with my loss, but that didn’t change the fact that I deserved space to handle my grief as well as my poor coping habits. Both needed attention, and fast.
Regaining an internal locus of control meant taking responsibility for my own choices. In grief, we feel so little choice. We usually don’t choose the loss or the pain — but even if the breakup was our idea, we still grieve what was, to some extent. My responsibility is in my response. The way I handle the loss and manifest my pain is a decision I get to make, to the extent that I’m capable.
In my case, that meant informing my loved ones that I needed to make a change. The pressure of my life and subsequent behaviors were not helping me heal, feel, or learn to live with my new reality of loss. I saw this coping behavior as an opportunity to internalize my control and make a change. In sharing with my loved ones, they reminded me of my worth and ability to grow. They affirmed my life and my pain, and they held space while I unfurled the opportunity to identify what obstacles were truly outside of my control or where I could exert my influence for a change.
With the help of just ONE brave person, I was able to make a plan. Rather than relying on my own mental strength each day and hoping for the best, I partnered with my person to connect daily. We created different mechanisms to support what I needed in that season and followed through. Rather than “giving me space,” my person “held space” for me. It cost them something. It wasn’t just avoidance, but the opposite. My person leaned in and reminded me of my worth by investing in my growth.
This was four years ago. Since then, I’ve maintained influence over my grief and my decisions by remaining honest. We talk about loss almost daily because as a coach, I’m always on the lookout for growth opportunities in both of our lives. When thought distortions or new grief sources arise, I lean into the reminders from this experience:
- I am worthy of the time it will take to heal.
- I do not need coping mechanisms to numb my pain, because I am safe to feel my pain and survive.
- I have what I need to heal, or I know what resources I can use when needed.
I am being slightly generic because this topic (and particularly my coping mechanism) is complex, but please hear my heart — this is my story, not yours. There will be things in this article that do not resonate with your experience, and that’s expected. Simply take what serves: Chew the meat, and spit out the bones.
I’m aware that this concept is loaded with landmines, so I want to leave you with a quick reminder. As you notice your grief or any pain points in your story, consider who that one person (from above) might be for you. Who is the person in your life willing to invest and hold space rather than avoid and give space? You are capable of growth and healing, but you’re not meant to walk through it alone.
So if you take nothing else from this, take this reminder that if you cannot believe in your own self-efficacy, it’s time to bring someone alongside your process who can believe in it on your behalf.
If you’re ready to address your locus of control, start by determining where you lean. Are you primarily an internal or external control person? Do I lean toward blaming others (external) or giving myself more “credit” for failures than I have power for (internal)?
We are all a little of both most of the time. This is just how you will know which thought distortions are more likely to interfere with your healing.
Once you’ve identified your primary locus of control, make a list of what stands in the way of your targets in healing. Haven’t set any? That’s okay. Maybe you could make a list of the people, places, or things you often complain about. This may seem counterintuitive, but these people, places, and things are where we can recognize that our complaints are the same thing as body aches — our insides are trying to express that something needs to change!
Now that you have a list of potential targets, what one thing can you do to move toward internalizing your confidence and believing you are able to succeed with this area of struggle? Which one “hurts” the most? Identify the biggest pain point and write out the thought distortions or external control statements connected to that pain.
These are your obstacles. And this is the list you’ll bring to your person to make a plan and rewrite your inner script. Let’s allow the internal dialogue to align with the affirmations that you are worthy of the time and effort it takes to pursue growth! Because now that you’ve identified the opportunities and acknowledged the obstacles in your way, it is time to take that plan of action and step onto the path toward healing.
But before you rush ahead, be prepared to miss the mark. Most clients experience missed targets right away and that is expected! You are growing; you are attempting to learn new systems of living and a framework for understanding loss. It might be a bumpy ride, but the beauty of the destination is worth the trip.
It’s one thing to read an article about action. It’s quite another to take it for yourself. When we are grieving, reading and comprehension fly out the window. The last thing you want is to add another list to your life that inevitably leaves you feeling incapable of healing or growth.
Once you have identified your obstacles and opportunities and made a plan, the idea is to follow through. And yet despite our hopeful intentions, the majority of clients will stumble at some point in the process. This is not a failure. This is resistance, which simply means we have another opportunity to soften, surrender, and experience grace for our process.
Regaining control over grief is not easy, quick, or simple. It requires consistency. Without discipline toward the habits we want, we will not become consistent or generate results. It can be easy to trip yourself along the path: Maybe your target is to wake up early and drink water, but you stayed up too late drinking wine and overslept. Maybe you want to spend more time with your family but can’t say no to work obligations or party invites.
Overcoming these self-sabotaging behaviors means we look at them as coping mechanisms. By leaning into these behaviors (despite their obvious opposition to our targets) can we identify what feeling we keep trying to avoid? Clients (and grievers) who fail to ask questions of themselves and their choices are the same clients who will remain unaware of the way they sabotage their own good intentions and desires. We must become curious and compassionate toward ourselves in the healing process. We’ve already lived “checked out,” and it didn’t serve. It’s time to check back in.
None of the following ideas will be applicable across the board, but I wanted to include a few of the ways my clients have found success in implementing their plans despite the busyness of life in the wake of loss (or the temptation of their coping mechanisms). Reframing our failures into adjustments of our plans means we are learning. We are literally changing our minds about the value of our coping mechanisms by identifying what we want and what we truly want to value.
- Fill multiple water glasses first thing in the morning
If your target is drinking more water, then use your first action of the day to prepare yourself for success.
- Purchase multiple greeting cards at a time
If your target is to be intentional with the family who are on Earth, then give yourself a gift of time by buying a handful of cards and assigning an hour to write a few at once. Stagger the mailing and rebuild those connections.
- Set the boundary before you are offended
If your target is to limit the conversations that include platitudes or directive behavior from your “support system” around your grief, then bring up the conversation of what you want and what you don’t want before the boundary has been crossed. Clear communication about your expectations and capacity is kind, and it can help you both to avoid future misunderstandings.
- Write your targets everywhere
Keeping your intention and targets front of mind is crucial. We all become distracted by life, so writing a note on your bathroom window, on a notecard by your bed, on a bookmark, or creating a cell phone wallpaper… There are endless options of where and how you can bring your target of self-compassion and healing back to mind throughout your day. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming you’ll remember what you thought about earlier in the day. We must cultivate intention.
Let’s be realistic for a moment. You will probably miss your target. Does that mean you should never take aim?
Setting a target (rather than a goal) invites course corrections. Any archer will tell you that while the goal is to hit the center, they must account for many variables as they take aim and still celebrate landing on the target. Even with the most intentional, well-sighted shot, a last-minute external influence can throw the arrow off its path.
Regardless of the variables, the most consistently successful archers never take their eyes from the target. As you are setting your thoughts and intentions toward healing, consider your capacity to remain focused. It may be smaller than you wish, and that is perfectly normal. Your capacity will grow with time — and with every small target that you hit.