This interview is from an Instagram Live conversation by Brooke Small with friend and Certified Grief Therapist Jesie Steffes. It has been edited for brevity and clarity. Brooke and Jesie are leading a weekly COVID-19 support group this month called "Making Meaning out of Chaos." For more information click here.
Why don't you introduce yourself and tell us what your specialty is?
Jesie: My name's Jesie Steffes and I'm a Certified Grief Counselor through the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. I specialize in grief, mourning, loss, and traumatic loss. I currently work full-time at a university counseling students and I do my grief work on the side. I love grief and I have loved grief for a long time.
Can you talk a little bit about why you love grief and why you became interested in doing that kind of work?
Jesie: Absolutely. I was shocked when I was doing my fieldwork as a student to discover the prevalence of grief. Many clients would come to me in distress and when we really looked at what was happening it boiled down to feelings of loss and feelings of grief. Grief is so often the central point or the root of the things that are going on for people and we tend to overlook it in society. One of the things that is important to me is to be a person that shines light on grief and says “actually that is loss”, “that is grief”. Grief is also a really pure and clean emotion. It's palpable and it's hard to sit with, but it's part of being human. Grief is part of the richness of being human and I'm honored to witness people going through it.
Brooke: I agree. I call it sacred space when I get to be in that space with my clients. I tell clients when they come to see me for the first time that I look through a lens of grief, because I don't think that there is anyone that sits across from me that isn’t touched by grief. There is a reason they have come to see me and grief is usually underneath all of that.
How do I know that I'm grieving?
Jesie: I love this question because grief doesn't present itself by name. It doesn't walk up to us and introduce itself as grief. It often manifests as physical symptoms: aches and pains, feeling really really tired, fatigue. Sadness obviously can be part of grief. But most of the time grief looks like an impairment. It’s like we are running a race and grief knocks our legs out from underneath us and sometimes we keep trying to run but our legs have been knocked out. So grief can feel like anything. If you don’t have the language to describe or interpret grief it usually manifests itself in physical ways.
Brooke: I think that a lot of us are feeling that way now, especially fatigue. We want to do something but we just can't find the energy to do it. I think it's important to remember that grief isn't always associated with the loss of someone, it's also associated with major changes in our life, which we're all experiencing right now.
Jesie: I love that you're bringing up the idea of change and loss, because with every change there can be some great stuff happening if it's a positive change. But there is also a losing of the things that were, the loss of familiarity, and that's grief just as much as when we lose somebody.
Brooke: Someone just said they feel exhausted and I would agree. I've had days in the last couple weeks where I just felt so tired.
Jesie: I'm getting a lot of messages about the idea of this pandemic being a vacation time. Like this is a chance for you to build things and create things. While I believe that can be true, we wouldn't sit across from someone who is grieving and ask them “What kinds of things are you making right now?” or “What are you creating?” We have some compassion for that person, some empathy, and some understanding. Hopefully that compassion includes ourselves. Maybe now is not the time to reorganize the spice rack or paint a room.
Brooke: I think that it's fair to also say that sometimes when people grieve they do need to do those things to keep them busy.
Jesie: Yeah, and there's no right or wrong way to grieve and feel it. One of the things I tell clients who enter my office regarding grief is that everything in grief is normal. There's nothing abnormal in grief. So whatever response you have, it's okay and it's allowed.
Do you think grief is different from trauma?
Jesie: I think that they are twins, but not identical.