Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Conversations Without Words ~ Uncomfortable to talk about: coaching clients through grief and loss

We are pleased to share an article entitled Conversations Without Words ~ Uncomfortable to talk about: coaching clients through grief and losswritten by Carrie Hopkins-Doubts.

Perhaps you have clients who have suddenly experienced a significant loss in their life. Maybe their partner has died, or they are confronted with an unwanted divorce. Perhaps they have lost a child. What do you do when your executive client suddenly dissolves into a puddle of tears, and you don’t have a clue about what comes next?

This situation can be extremely challenging for coaches who have not been exposed to the raw emotions and sudden derailment caused by loss and grief. It can feel intimidating when we are unsure what to do when strong emotions like anger and sadness are brought forward in a coaching session. Avoidance is the usual approach.

Before you grab your calendar to reschedule (for when your client is feeling better), hear what I have to say about coaching people who are going through a very human experience of grief and loss.

It’s now been two years since my husband, Tom, died. At this point, I’m still adjusting to my life without him. I had someone ask me what surprised me about the last two years. I shared how resistant I was to talk about my situation with other people, especially those I didn’t know well. I would energetically brace myself and emit “stay out of there” vibes when people started with the usual noises people make when they are unsure what to do or say.

Most people’s response is to offer unhelpful advice, platitudes and rationalizations, and talk about how their cat died, so they “know how I feel.”


Coach: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could just bypass your pain based on what you know? It doesn’t work that way, does it?”

Me: “Just because I know about grief doesn’t mean I get to bypass the pain. Understanding it helps, but it doesn’t make the pain go away.”

Coach: “Right. But it’s also surprising because you’re an expert in this field, right? Like, this is your thing. This is what you’ve been doing for a long time. You get this and yet, even you don’t get to bypass the pain.”

Me: “I was having a meeting with some people yesterday. I just said, ‘By the way, something I’ve been dealing with is that my husband died seven months ago.’ And of course, everybody’s going, ‘Oh, you need to blah, blah, blah.’ And, ‘Have you heard about the blah, blah, blah.’ And here’s my response when that starts coming at me: ‘Well, actually I am a grief coach, so I know all this.’”

Coach: “So that’s your way of saying ‘back off.’”

Me: “Yeah. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to hear it. I know way more about this than you do. So shut the hell up.’ And that’s not cool. That’s not generous, but I just can’t sit there and take on people’s stuff around it. I know they’re well-meaning, and I usually shrug it off, but I don’t like feeling so angry about it.”

Coach: “So, let’s just put that aside for a minute. Because when you’re in front of those people, there’s something that wants to happen, that’s not quite emerging. What would you love to be able to say that would serve you and that would serve them?”

Me: “Something like, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got this.’”


Fundamental mistakes we make about the grieving:

➤ They are victims and need pity and sympathy.

➤ You need to fix them, rescue them, or say something to make them feel better.

The truth is that grief can’t be fixed. It’s not a problem to be solved. A grieving person is going through a metamorphosis.

Butterfly larvae are caterpillars. Mostly, in this stage, they eat. At the end of their growth period, they form themselves into the next stage – the chrysalis. It’s the end for them, as far as they know.

From the outside of the chrysalis, it may not look like anything is going on, but inside is where the action is. The caterpillar is rapidly transforming in this safe darkness. This is where the parts of the caterpillar rearrange themselves into the parts of the butterfly.

When the butterfly first emerges from the chrysalis, its wings are soft and folded against its body. When it comes out of the chrysalis, it will pump blood into its wings to get them working. It’s a struggle for them to get their new bodies ready to fly. Soon, the butterfly will master flying, and its transformation is complete.

If someone interferes with the process, like trying to help the butterfly out of the cocoon, it will stop the transformation, and the butterfly will die.

My “caterpillar life” ended with Tom’s death and I went into the cocoon. I emerged from it eventually. The struggle is real, but it was my struggle. That prickly part in my energy field was saying, “What I need is your presence. If you start giving advice and trying to fix me, you are not present and you’re getting in the way of my metamorphosis.”


Grief is a long journey. A grieving person must indeed do the walking themselves. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need or want companions to walk with them. People can be supportive if they take the time to be with a grieving person and feel their own discomfort about having no words for the unspeakable and then, letting go of trying to speak to them.

I was talking with a man two weeks after Tom died. After I told him about it, he launched into a monologue about how he had been there for his grandmother when her husband died. Lots of examples and advice-giving. At that point, my grief was so raw that I just sat there. He finally noticed that my eyes glazed over and asked, “Was that helpful?” Before I could censor myself, I said “No.” He burst into tears and asked if he could hug me. As he did, I told him, “This is what helps. Thank you.”

I could see that my honesty had activated his own pain in failing to be helpful. This story contains a key to a new way of supporting people who are hurting.


Mostly, people need to talk when they are grieving. We need to be listened to, felt, seen, and accepted in all our vulnerability.

Besides being allowed to just talk, we need you to NOT talk and just listen. This can feel risky on both sides of the conversation. Silence feels uncomfortable. A conversation without words begins by slowing down to the speed of presence. As a coach, you’ve been trained on how to do this.

When faced with a situation like a client dealing with grief and pain, start to pay attention to what’s happening inside of you. If you try to cover up any awkwardness you feel with talking, notice that the words you’re using to fill the space are more about you than they are about the client.

Instead, notice your discomfort with what’s happening, and breathe. Reach into that place where, although maybe you haven’t been through what they are going through, you can be present with all of it. In this way, you create safety, respect and connection at that human to human level.

By doing that, you are inviting them to do the same thing with their feelings. Your presence is saying, “I see you; I see all of you. I see that you are hurting. But I also see that you’re a strong, capable, resilient person who’s going through something unspeakably hard.”

This is a transformational presence space. It’s a space infused with love and respect. And the ironic thing is that this space is in service to both of you.

This can be a healing gift. Healing happens when we are in the presence of another who does not flinch from our pain, but holds steady as we experience it, express it, and let it go. On the other side, we emerge lighter and stronger, residing in wholeness – having been truly of service to another at a great time of need.

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