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Compassionate Coaching for Grieving and Mourning Clients: A Quick Guide

Compassionate Coaching for Grieving and Mourning Clients: A Quick Guide

Kevin William Grant
April 12, 2023

Grief is our natural response and private reaction to loss, and there is nothing unhealthy or problematic about the act of grieving.

Grief is wishing things would have ended differently, better, or less painfully. Mourning is the process we go through to adapt to our loss (Worden, 2008).

Emotional and physical experiences are clues that let us know we’re managing a loss that means something to us. Approximately 40 percent of grieving people will struggle with anxiety in the first year following their loss (American Psychiatric Association, 1980). Grieving people find themselves crying unexpectedly, waking up with headaches, feeling emotionally numb, having trouble sleeping, eating too much or too little, and carrying around a weight of sadness all day.

The following are clues that you’re grieving. These signs indicate that you’re grieving, even if you’re unaware of it.

Physical Reactions

  • Being short of breath
  • Feeling very tired
  • Experiencing restlessness

Emotional Reactions

  • Feelings of shock, fear, anxiety, guilt, and anger
  • Blaming yourself or others for the loss

Mental Reactions

  • Feeling confused
  • Experiencing difficulties making decisions

Social Reactions

  • Avoiding other people
  • Overreacting or reacting strongly to others

Spiritual Reactions

  • Contemplating why pain and suffering exist
  • Asking the universe why the loss had to happen to you

What will you experience when grieving? (Rando, 1991)

  • Your grief will take longer than you think to pass.
  • Your grief will take more energy than you imagined.
  • Your grief will depend on how you perceive your loss.
  • Your grief will entail mourning all the hopes, dreams, and unfulfilled expectations you had.
  • Your grief will resurrect old issues, emotions, and unresolved conflicts from the past.
  • Your grief will create some identity confusion and change how you perceive yourself.
  • Your grief will cause you to begin a search for meaning.
  • Your grief will lead you to question your faith or philosophy of life.
  • You will grieve the needs that were unmet because of the loss.
  • You will grieve what you have already lost.
  • You will grieve what will be lost in the future.
  • You will grieve the symbolic and intangible things you have lost.

Kübler-Ross’s five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are part of a popular framework that describes the process of learning to live with loss (Kübler-Ross, 1969; Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2005). Think of these stages of grief as a tool to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. The stages map the terrain of grief, and there is no typical response for any stage. Grieving must run its course; it’s over when we’ve done the work we need to do. Gr grieving has a general flow, but it isn’t always linear. People move between the different stages at different rates and can jump between phases.

Some grieving people may not experience every emotional stage, while others linger longer in one of the stages. One person may have intense feelings, and another may deny that any loss has occurred. Most people will find it difficult to recover from loss independently, and engaging with others is critical in successfully resolving grief. Without the help of others, many people will express their feelings of loss in inappropriate and misdirected ways.

The process of trauma recovery mirrors the grieving process. The first reaction to trauma is disbelief and shock. Sometimes, this initial phase can be delayed when adults have just realized they were abused as children. What follows are feelings of “frozen fright,” a detached pseudo-calm during which the victim complies. This appearance of cooperation is confused with “consent” when the client looks back on their experience. The next phase of trauma recovery is delayed but chronic depression combined with periods of apathy, anger, resignation, resentment, rage, insomnia, and the repeated mental replaying of events. The final recovery phase is characterized by resolving the trauma and integrating the experience after bargaining and acceptance periods (Prigerson et al., 2008).

The Stages of Grief



Denial and Shock

“Nothing happened.”


“Something happened, but….”

“Why me? Why did this have to happen to me?”


“Something happened, and I have healed from it.”


Source: Kübler-Ross (1969)


Depression and Detachment

“Something happened, and it cost me a lot.”


“Something bad happened, and I don’t like it!!”


While grief is your internal reaction to loss, mourning is the active, shared expression of that loss in the outside world. When we mourn, we express our grief beyond the boundaries of our personal experience, and grief becomes expressed socially. This sharing of our sadness eventually helps us decrease the intensity of our grief and transform it into a feeling of resolution and understanding. Wolfelt (2016) describes six stages of mourning that will require attention intermittently over several months. Clients need to be patient and compassionate with themselves while you work through each step.

Stage 1: Acknowledging Reality

In the first stage of mourning, clients confront the reality that their life has changed and acknowledge that they can never return to their past. It may take several weeks or months to recognize their loss's reality fully.

Mental health issues complicate this stage of mourning because clients actively suppress and avoid intimate contact with the pain they are experiencing. Clients automatically push away thoughts of their mental health issues because they are uncomfortable and embarrassed and may be in denial. This makes it challenging for clients to begin processing what has happened to them. Support from a trained professional is essential to mental health recovery because clients can face their issues in a safe environment.

Clients have reached the end of this stage of mourning when they find themselves describing their loss as if it happened in the past.

Stage 2: Embracing Pain and Loss

The mourning process requires us to acknowledge and interact with our pain. We gradually accept the trauma, loss, and pain by confronting and expressing it in small, manageable pieces rather than avoiding overloading ourselves with all the hurt at once.

When PTSD survivors can access their traumatic memories, they replay positive and negative scenarios. This mental replaying of events and experiences is vital to mourning because each time you recall the circumstances, you work through them more. Over time, these remembered events and experiences become consciously accepted. Sometimes you’ll need to distract yourself from the flashbacks and painful memories. At other times you’ll need to create a safe place inside yourself to move toward painful memories and process what’s happened. Shifting your internal dialogue to a friendly, compassionate, and loving “inner voice” will make it easier for you to pass through this stage of mourning.

You know you’ve reached the end of this stage of mourning when you feel acquainted with your trauma, pain, and loss. Survivors experience a feeling of compassion toward themselves and their experiences.

Stage 3: Shifting Your Perspective

Remembering and sharing the past makes hoping for the future possible. Looking to the future is possible when we open ourselves to new experiences, embrace what we’ve been through, and accept the past. Positive memories you honor during this stage may include thoughts of former colleagues, the aspects of the job you enjoyed, and the structure of a consistent daily routine. There may be painful aspects you must honor, such as the challenges workplace trauma brought to your relationships, the long hours you spent at the office, and the bravery it took to live through those experiences.

This stage of mourning is completed when you’ve embraced and accepted the past and find yourself open to new experiences. You will move to the next step of mourning when you consider what you want to do with your life.

Stage 4: Developing a New Self-Identity

Our identity is invested in what we do for a living. Losing a job or experiencing workplace trauma changes how we perceive ourselves. Mourning can leave us feeling like we have lost who we are. In other words, the mourning process breaks down our self-identities and forces us to rebuild them in new ways.

The impact of trauma results in the loss of several self-identities, which can be challenging to reconcile. Our view of the world is connected to our identities, especially when shaken by trauma or loss—changes to self-identity profoundly impact the lens we use to interpret and filter the world around us. Before the trauma, we may have believed that the world was fair, had an optimistic perspective, been happy, or felt the world was predictable and safe. After trauma, our beliefs about our world can leave us feeling negative, tired, pessimistic, or unable to engage with people or activities in the ways we used to.

When we experience loss, we often focus on the tangible things we’ve lost, such as our career, job, income, or former colleagues. Mourning forces us to examine the intangible aspects of our lost relational, professional, financial, and physical identities.

Relational Identity: Relational identity is the component of self-identity from our relationships with others. Mourning transforms the way we see ourselves and the way society defines us. Mourning can rewrite our address book and social calendars; former colleagues no longer reply to our emails, and the distance grows between our friends or family. This shift leaves us feeling like we’ve lost our community and connection with others. For example, when we lose our job, we ask questions like, “Who am I if I’m no longer employed?”

Professional Identity: Phrases we use to describe ourselves, such as “I’m a teacher" or “I’m a doctor,” clarify that our profession is essential to our identity. Our career affirms that we have knowledge, skills, and expertise. Our professional identity changes when we lose or leave a job, even if it is our choice. Work gives us structure and purpose; our professional identity must adjust to that new reality when we no longer have that job.

Financial Identity: Our ability to financially provide for ourselves and our loved ones is another fundamental component of self-identity. Financial identity creates expectations about how much we should earn and our living standards. Trauma at work can significantly impact our financial identity through the fear of job loss or the threat of income loss. Workplace abuse and trauma can shatter our sense of financial security and independence.

Physical Identity: Our physical identity defines how we physically exist in the world; it is fundamental to our daily life. Positive physical well-being allows us to hold a job, play with our children, go for walks, go to the gym, and move freely without pain. If physical movement is a core part of your work, and you rely on physical abilities for income, your physical self will be even more strongly connected to your identity. An illness, injury, and aging can take a severe toll on our physical self. Workplace sexual and physical violence threatens our physical identity by taking away our control over our bodies. A loss of self-worth often accompanies the loss of physical identity.

Some people may discover positive aspects of their changed self-identity and develop renewed confidence. Others may uncover a more compassionate, kind, and caring part of themselves. Still, others may unearth an assertive and courageous new identity that empowers them to move forward with courage, strength, and tenacity.

This stage of mourning is complete when we discover our “new self.”

Stage 5: Searching for Meaning

A mourner’s understanding of the meaning of life is shaken by witnessing people dying, experiencing violence, being assaulted, being bullied, or living through a destructive event. Our world no longer feels safe; we question the meaning of life and sometimes return to our spiritual beliefs.

In this mourning phase, we make sense of our world by assigning meaning to what’s happened to us. Searching for purpose is identifying what we’ve lost and finding healthy and supportive meaning. Hence, we again feel grounded and centered—successfully navigating this phase of mourning challenges you to find answers to complex life questions. The search for meaning and purpose following trauma is one of the most powerful ways of moving forward and transforming negative experiences into positive ones.

Stage 6: Receiving Ongoing Support

Processing feelings of trauma or loss takes time and can occur over weeks, months, or even years. PTSD recovery is cyclical and takes the survivor on a journey where they must revisit their trauma and grief many times. This makes ongoing support critical to recovery, especially when mourners re-experience grief.

We can never return to who we used to be before the trauma or reclaim what we’ve lost. Mourning makes it possible for us to heal from the trauma and become stronger, more creative, and more resilient.

Seeking Out Individuals That Honor Your Need to Mourn

It is unrealistic to expect that after we find closure, our grief suddenly ends. Wolfelt (2016) comments that Western culture supports an “it’s over and done with, so put it behind you” approach to grief.

Wolfelt (2016) identified three distinct approaches to grief:

  • Group 1 is neutral: This group neither hurts you nor helps you.
  • Group 2 tries to take your grief away: This group tries to cheer you up or tells you to continue.
  • Group 3 honors your need to mourn: This group helps you integrate your experience and loss into your life to move forward.

Recovery requires us to seek out individuals who honor our need to mourn. We must keep that need by encouraging an internal dialogue of compassion, kindness, support, and understanding. We are responsible for creating an internal and external environment that respects the healing process and helps us find inner calm.



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