Coping With Grief In A Healthy Way: A Conversation With Fran Solomon of Heal Grief
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you have likely struggled with grief. Fran Solomon, founder of Heal Grief — a center that provides tools and resources to guide one’s journey with grief into healthy post-bereavement growth — works with folks who are grieving every day.
Fran believes that once you’re bereaved, you’re forever bereaved. In fact, it’s one of the philosophies behind Heal Grief. Now, that may sound disheartening, but Fran hopes to assure the people she works with that it’s not. She’s helped spark a conversation and removed the taboo over life’s most inevitable cycle: death. Grief is universal and has no boundaries.
When I volunteered on a suicide crisis line, people shared that one of the main reasons they were experiencing suicidal thoughts was because, underneath them, there was unhealed grief and trauma. I wanted to explore this topic of grief on my podcast as I feel it could be beneficial not only to those with suicidal thoughts but anyone struggling with grief. When I experienced my own grief, I remember feeling so alone in it — even though people were there to support me.
There is an intangible isolating effect from grief, and I found my solace when I read about the entirety of it. My hope for this episode and article is that those who are experiencing grief may feel a little less alone.
I had an enlightening conversation with Fran, in which we spoke about how men and women deal with grief differently, the best ways to support someone you know who is grieving, how to deal with grief in a healthy way, and how to speak to children about death.
How men and women deal with grief differently
Fran says that our society doesn’t have a manual on grieving. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross did come up with the Five Stages of Grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — and yet, those of us who have lost a loved one know that there are no five specific stages. Grief is a chameleon of mixed emotions, and there is no set guide where emotions are involved.
Many people don’t realize that grief is a lifelong journey. Here is where Fran’s philosophy on being forever bereaved comes in. She affirms that years later, regardless of how much time has gone by, life’s triggers (a birth, wedding, marriage, or even a smell or a phrase) can bring you right back into that moment of grief as if the loss occurred just yesterday. Grief isn’t something that expires or simply “goes away.”
Men and women tend to deal with grief very differently. By nature, women generally express more emotion and are much more communicative with their feelings. They’re able to shed their tears and show their emotions because there’s less of a cliché of being strong. Men, on the other hand, have a tendency to be more private. There’s the stereotype that a man is supposed to be strong, and so they will push their grief aside.
While the expression of grief may be different, the level and depth of it are equal. Heal Grief encourages a lack of judgment and more understanding that everyone grieves very differently and individually.
How to cope with grief in a healthy way
Remember: whether you’re a man or a woman, grief is an experience that you don’t choose to have. It falls upon you and most of society believes that you must move forward immediately after the funeral or memorial services and that’s that.
While this may be true for some people — or, rather, they believe it to be true — as mentioned, others will continue to feel grief throughout their lives. If you have tried to stifle your feelings, it’s only a matter of time before they come back up.
This could result in addictive behaviors, which can spin into alcoholism, drug addiction, or even the possibility of suicidal thoughts and suicide itself. Grief is something very important to address and to learn the appropriate coping skills. Don’t try to tuck it away in a proverbial box, only to have it come up and hit you head-on years later.
The first step to dealing with grief in a healthy way is acceptance. You need to accept that things will never be the way they were. The learned model of the Five Stages of Grief places acceptance last. According to Fran, this couldn’t be more damaging. In Heal Grief’s post-bereavement growth program, acceptance is essential and the first step toward healing.
The best way to support someone who is grieving
If a friend or someone you care about is grieving, there are many ways that you can support them. Perhaps most importantly, don’t ask them how they’re doing. A more appropriate question is, “how are you coping?” Regardless of the response, make sure to tell them that they don’t need to talk about it, but that you are there for them no matter what. It’s welcoming, inviting, and a reminder that you are there to support them.
You don’t have to ask them every day but keep in mind important anniversaries and holidays are going to be difficult. Saying something like, “I know you lost your mom three years ago around this time. How are you coping?” can show someone that you’re paying attention and recognize that they may be struggling more than usual.
In many societies, death is a taboo subject. The reality is, it’s part of the natural cycle of life. Rather than encouraging someone to silence their grief, create a memorial to honor it and the person you’ve lost. It can be very healing and cathartic.
Along the same lines, grieving the death of a pet can be considered taboo. There’s a lot of shame in putting an animal on the same level as a human. But, the truth is, more and more people are choosing not to have human families. Instead, they consider their four-legged friends to be family.
This is even more relevant with elderly folks who no longer have children — their pet is their companion and lifeline. So, when that pet dies, the loss felt is just as deep as a human connection. It’s just as important to recognize and cope with the loss of a pet.
How to speak to children about death
If you’re a parent you may be wondering how to communicate about grief with your children. All children experience different developmental stages, and Fran says how you talk to them about death depends on which stage they are in.
When someone dies, children need closure just as much as adults do. Actually explaining the process of death in a real way is essential. That said, it’s also very important to choose your words carefully. Don’t tell the child that the person “went away” as this will only confuse them. If they went away, when will they come back?
Tell the child that the person died, and tell them why: that they were old, or ill, and their body stopped working. Be careful not to use the word “sick,” as this will only frighten kids as they most likely get sick with colds or the flu all the time. Ill is more specific and can refer to a terminal illness.
Depending on your cultural or religious beliefs, you can follow up, “their body stopped working,” with something like, “they still live with us.” If it aligns with your beliefs, affirm that the person who they lost is still in their mind and heart, and they can talk about them as much as they like. Most importantly, allow them to ask questions.
It’s all about patience
As you cope with grief, remember not to judge yourself. Be patient and kind to yourself, and accept that grief is a lifelong journey. Don’t be ashamed of it, and recognize that when certain triggers arise, it’s okay to speak about them, share them, and embrace them. It’s all a part of the healing process.
Fran believes that the number one taboo around grief is that it’s supposed to be silent. She encourages folks to talk about their loss and their feelings around it. In talking about it, the feelings you still hold for that person you have lost allow their legacy to live on. Take things a step further and do things in memory of your loved one. It can be really cathartic and empowering.