Grief, Living Losses, and Shattered Dreams: Why doing the grief work will help sport heal

To be bereaved is to be torn apart. On this national Grief and Bereavement Day, it is fitting for us to pause, reflect on all the losses that we have accumulated over our lifespan and consider how we might re-imagine a holistic relationship with loss. 

As a grief coach, student of thanatology and passionate advocate for healthy, human sport, I am more committed than ever to champion holistic philosophies, ideas, and values. Over my 30 + years in sport, I have seen so many examples of people behaving beautifully … upholding shared values and ideals in the pursuit of flourishment. I have sadly also witnessed people behaving badly including having been subjected to bullish behaviors, psychological violence and other forms of maltreatment. Sport, as with many other sectors, is having to face our limitations and the real risks of not moving beyond our outdated policies, practices and programs. To do so, however, will require the Great Re-Imagining ... how might we design sport today with open minds, compassionate hearts and a deep understanding of the systemic inequities that are keeping us stuck. 

If we are to move through this divisive time, how might we converge around shared values and a modern structure to inspire cultures of belonging? For me, one of the answers lies in bereavement theory. Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a world-renowned bereavement expert and psychologist who has made it his life’s purpose to equip people with fundamental grief and loss literacy. I had the pleasure of studying with him in Colorado back in 2019. My experience of learning his companioning model led me to create my own program a year later to support an expanded way of accompanying the bereaved. Since then, I’ve held dozens of workshops, Grief Cafés and other training programs to help participants understand fundamental concepts like grief, mourning, rituals, coping styles, and so much more. Interestingly, some of my most powerful experiences have been bringing loss literacy to athletes, coaches and sport administrators. They understand the phenomena of ‘loss’ in a very tangible way but often feel shamed into silence for fear of being ridiculed.  

So instead, we ‘buckle up, move on, and focus on the future’. As I write about in my book Grief Unleashed: Moving from the Hole in our Hearts to Whole-Hearted, “we tend to reward the stoic and encourage people to work through their grief as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can get to the other side … a side where we don’t really speak about our grief, loss, death, or dying.”  

How’s that working for us? 

What we most need now, is a call to inspired action. Less about x’s and o’s and more about humility, vulnerability, compassion, and love. Unlike other ways of learning something new, this work is soul work. It requires a quality of presence that can’t be taught … it’s a way of being that is acquired when one lives into our values, speak our truth and act in alignment with our authentic selves. The world as we know it deeply needs more people to do ‘inner work’ as so much of what is ailing us is related to the early childhood traumas that have been left unaddressed. I’ve been saying it for years … we must become more grief and loss literate and I’m so pleased to see that the Government of Canada has just announced funding to the Canadian Grief Alliance and Canadian Virtual Hospice to support enhanced grief and loss education. It’s a very important first step in reclaiming a healthier vision for humanity. 

Bereavement theory teaches us that when someone that matters to us dies, we will grieve. That same theory also helps us to understand that not all life losses are finite ones. Some losses are triggered at the ending of a relationship, or the dream left unfulfilled. I have worked with too many athletes and coaches to know that the deep sorrow that sets in after the ‘big loss’ isn’t real. Using the right language to describe our lived experience is the first step in the healing process. But if we disavow our experience of loss, compete with each other in our moments of despair, reduce our pain to something less than it is, it increases the risk that we never reconcile our grief.  

The word reconcile means to make something whole again. To be whole again, without disavowing the hole that is left in our hearts when life goes sideways. My hope is that we grow through grief because of a system that nourishes and supports us, not in spite of it. To support you on this important day, I’m sharing one of the grief theories that invites us to consider our loss from a place of health and wholeness. Inspired by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, these fundamental needs of mourning allow us to work through our life losses trusting that our experience matters and that when we do the grief work, we learn to process, and overtime heal through loss. 

  1. Acknowledge the reality of the death/ loss: This first need of mourning involves gently confronting the reality that someone has died or that our dream will not come to pass or that the relationship is over. We might feel vulnerable, confused, disoriented, unsure, angry or other emotions as we allow the magnitude of the loss to become real. It might take weeks, months or even years to fully metabolize the pain of the loss. Trust yourself and if you need help, you might want to reach out to your family doctor or a grief informed therapist to help you make sense of what is unfolding for you. 
  1. Embrace the pain of your loss. This is often a difficult need to attend to as we naturally don’t want to accept and address the pain of our loss. Given our dominant way of mourning in our North American culture, we are encouraged to repress, avoid, and deny our pain. Feeling shamed into silence, mourners are often encouraged to mourn stoically. The concept of ‘dosing’ may help you balance the toggling between focusing on your loss and engaging in restoration activities. In what ways can you embrace the pain of your loss? See what arises and trust yourself.  
  1. Remember the person who died or find ways to honour the dreams that were shattered. Understanding Silverman, Nickman and Klass’ Continuing Bonds was a game changer for me. Being invited to stay connected to our deceased loved ones or create a healing ritual to make peace with the ending of a dream left unfulfilled allows us to continue the relationship with those that once mattered to us, who we still carry with us, albeit differently. In what ways might you remember the person who died? What might be a healing ritual that could support you as you learn to re-imagine the bonds that were once so important to you? 
  1. Develop a new self-identity. When someone we love dies, a part of our identity dies with them. It’s natural for us to form an identity around the people we love, our teammates, our friends, our colleagues … and when they die or leave, a part of the way we see ourselves dissolves as well. Losses can impact relationships and re-order our priorities, family systems and sense of self. Am I still a big sister if my litter sister died? Who am I now that I’ve retired as an athlete? As our identifies shift, we might find ourselves questioning our values. Our previous assumptions about what felt right and good about the world may now feel incongruent with what we now hold as our truth. Be gentle with yourself as you try on your new identity and ask for help from those you trust and are willing to support you. Who am I now? What do I stand for? 
  1. Search for meaning. When someone we love dies, we might question everything. How do we go on? What will life be like without them in it? What is the point of living anyhow if people we love are going to die? This search for meaning can lead us to affirm core values, identify what matters most to us now, re-organize our lives in alignment with our beliefs and make bold moves that feel authentic. Not everyone will understand or support you as you begin to explore this renewed sense of purpose. Removing our blinders can be both earth-shattering and life-giving. Consider what matters to you now? What values feel authentic?  
  1. Receive ongoing support from others. It takes a village to work through the pain of our losses. We might find that the people we thought would be there for us, aren’t. And those that are, hold on tight. Remember to be gentle with yourself throughout your lifespan as you will likely re-grieve during the days, months, and years ahead. Remember, we aren’t supposed to ‘get over’ the people we loved who have died. We are supposed to find a way to make peace with what happened, and when we do the grief work, we grow as a result.  

I hope that this blog provides some practical and inspiring ways to help you navigate your losses and as importantly, helps you companion others as they navigate a difficult path. As always, send me a note at if you have thoughts or questions about what is shared. 

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