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A Conversation about Moving Through Grief in Uncertain Times

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.

Brooke: In trauma there is grief, but in grief, there isn't always trauma.

Jesie: Exactly. I think that's the perfect way to say it. Loss can often be traumatic and we have similar experiences in grief and trauma both cognitively and physiologically and also emotionally. Grief feels very similar to trauma in loss of control and inability to find equilibrium after something has happened. Some grief and loss we can move through without therapeutic intervention, and I guess some trauma we can too, but boy are therapists helpful for that.

Brooke: Yes, therapy helps you to see where your strengths are because even in grief, but especially in trauma, we feel our power has been taken away from us. So having a therapist help you see where you still have control and power can be really healing.

Do I even have the right to grieve when others have it so much worse than I do right now?

Jesie: This is such an interesting question right now. I find myself kind of oscillating between grief and guilt which I think is human. I posted something recently about how maybe we can make beautiful meaning out of this and then someone expressed that such a viewpoint can seem very privileged.

But one of the things I think about is that "A person's 10 is their 10".

I work with a lot of college students who are at a point in life where relational loss is really, really impactful. That is their 10 (meaning the hardest thing they’ve had to do even if other people have done harder things). So I think yes, you have a right to feel whatever you feel and you feeling that way doesn't mean that you are dismissing anybody else's experience or even believing that it is similar. No loss is the same. One of the things we definitely want to try to avoid when we're thinking about grief and loss is comparison. It's not helpful to anybody right?

Brooke: Absolutely. I remember someone once saying that their grief was just different. They were grieving the same loss as someone else and for a long time they had compared it. Like I'm doing this better or worse than this other person who has experienced the same thing. And then I remember her coming to this place where she said “Actually, it's just different.” and that was so powerful to me. Yes, we're all grieving something the same and different. We had the rug pulled out from underneath us. There isn't a comparison. It's just what we feel. It is absolutely okay to grieve your own loss.

Does my sadness make me ungrateful?

Jesie: No. I am experiencing working from home right now and having more free time theoretically than I have in a long time. I'm also sad. I'm still grateful for the time to maybe meditate in the morning, to cook a slow breakfast, to spend more time with my dog, but that doesn't mean I'm not also sad. One of the hardest things I think for us as humans is believing, understanding, and accepting that we can experience two feelings at once. Maybe even more than two feelings. We're not robotic.

So can I feel so sad and also grateful? Yep. Can you really be angry at somebody and love them with every ounce of who you are? Yep, we do that all the time. And so thinking about it is kind of moving through emotions as opposed to switching from them.

Brooke: That's right, rather than judgment about whether you should or shouldn't feel an emotion, being able to embrace joy when you feel it, and being able to express grief and loss when you feel it.

Jesie: Yeah, and that's the essence of mindfulness, right? Being grounded in your current moment. When our current moment sucks, that's hard.

Jesie: Can we talk about hope and loss for a moment? So hope and loss often go together. I hope that we stick to really cool things in this world after this is done and we find puzzles and family time again, and there is loss. People aren't getting to travel the way that they wanted to, or have graduations or proms or weddings. Hope and loss feel like they can't coexist together, but I think they're actually twins.

Brooke: Yeah, and they live in the same space, hope and loss, to lose something and to hope for something new. Sometimes all it is is just a hope for hope, right? But there's this little glimmer out there on the horizon. That is just a hope for hope. I can sit in this pain. I can sit in the sadness because somewhere out there I know hope is waiting for me.

Jesie: Yeah and isn't that powerful. To think of something microscopic and if you can hold on to that, it's more than nothing. That's gotten a lot of my clients through pretty dark spaces hoping for when hope would arrive. It always does.

After two years why is the grief still so raw?

Jesie: Grief is grief as long as it needs to be grief. I use imagery a lot in my work with clients around grief. Can you see grief as something less malicious than you have seen it? Can you look at grief as something needing love and attention instead of something you fight away?

I think of it as a big big blue dog who needs attention and feeding and brushing and a bath. That dog will stay around and keep scratching at us as long as it needs to to get its needs met. So sometimes just turning around and turning towards grief helps things feel less raw. But also it's really important to remember that there is no timeline for grief. If you're moving in some way you are working on your grief and movement can just look like hoping for hope.

Brooke: When my clients talk to me about a timeline or wishing that they felt something different I always try to remind them that grief is a direct reflection of the intensity of the love that we felt for someone.

Jesie: Yes, when we can reframe grief as something that's not malicious but something that is a reflection of a deep and profound love, then it can become this part of us that moves with us rather than something we reject or exile. We can even learn perhaps to love it. Maybe we learn to love our grief as that symbol.

How do we create ritual around grief? How do we make space for grief instead of pushing it away?

Jesie: So there's this concept I've been learning about a lot lately that I think explains so much about how we experience grief. It's simply the idea of oscillation or "moving between." We move between "keeping it together" (which is necessary if we have people who depend on us) and also feeling the feelings and actually processing our loss-oriented experiences.

On one side we make sandwiches for our kids and pay the bills and on the other side we make time and space to allow what we feel in our gut to come out. So get into the mess. Allow yourself to get into the mess knowing you can pull yourself out by moving back up to a cognitive task. Shift over to organize the spice shelf (if you have it in you), or take a walk. Going back to our dog analogy this allows you to pet that dog, love on that dog, brush that dog, get kisses and then to say, okay now I have to do some work for the day, so lay on your bed and I'll come back. The important part about the oscillations is that we must come back, if we promise our grief we will come back. Then it will start to believe us and it will become smaller.

Brooke: I think it was Cheryl Strayed who said “How do you create a sanctuary for your grief?”

Jesie: And that is that space that you allow yourself to go in knowing that a sanctuary isn't scary. It's safe and it's beautiful and there's something that can be created there and that is oscillation.

I can go into that sanctuary and then come back into this "getting on with my life"space where I have to organize a spice cupboard. But in grief I don't ever have to choose “either/or” like we were talking about. I can have both good and bad feelings. I feel the grief and then I can and do these other things as I move forward with the grief. Then we are more authentic in both of those places when we show up, right? Because it's by choice.

Brooke: I have this client that I dearly love and she has given me permission to share something that I have thought about a lot. She shared the idea that some of us will numb ourselves all the way through this crisis, from beginning to end. And if we do that we're going to be just as scared of the next thing that comes. Or she said we can become like butterflies. I love that so much, especially if we understand what really happens to a butterfly when it changes.

When a caterpillar is in chrysalis the experience breaks it down to its most essential elements. And that's what we are experiencing; a breaking down to our most essential elements and in that is grief because we're losing things. Being broken down to those most essential elements gives us permission to sometimes feel like mush. It's okay if there are days when the bones and the structure of your life feel like they’ve disintegrated, because they have. And it's okay to be in that space and to know that even in a broken space we can grow.

Jesie: Absolutely, there is healthy meaning-making, right? That's not inflated or idealized. That's real and raw and mushy and broken. When we find ourselves in one snapshot feeling like a smushed up caterpillar then, yes, it feels pretty hopeless. But understanding there's more film, you know more scenes in that film reel is really helpful. I love that. I want to choose to be a butterfly in this time. I definitely do.

Brooke: Yeah me too and there will be days when I am mushy and that's okay, too. I won't be a butterfly right now. It's pretty mushy right now.

Any final recommendation for people moving through grief?

Jesie: I don't think that grief work, when we're humans trying to move through the real world, has to be academic. Find a story that resonates with you. Find a podcast. It doesn't have to be about grief. It just has to be soothing balm to your heart. And I think we can find that in all kinds of places.

Brooke: Thank you so much Jesie!

Jesie: Thanks Brooke! I can't wait till I can actually spend time with you. I'm gonna hug you so tight you're going to be a mushy caterpillar again.


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