The Risk Of Not Reconciling Grief - A Different Way For Sport Leaders To Integrate Loss

Published June 20, 2019

This blog was written to share what I’ve come to learn about grieving (internal response to loss) and mourning (shared experience of loss or grief gone public) . I’m currently travelling towards Canmore, Alberta to facilitate a workshop on risk management and I’ve always found something powerfully healing about the mountain air; it offers me a fresh perspective on topics that have me weighted down and almost always renews my hope for what might be possible.

Last week I completed a certificate in companioning the bereaved, from the Centre for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado (another mountain that had me connecting to some of my deeper longings). The four day training gave me another framework to companion others on their grief journey. As an Integral Master Coach, I have committed to a yearly learning plan across different realms and this last year has had me contemplate the effect of unexpressed grief on the performance of athletes, coaches, and sport leaders.

Grief is a topic I became personally affected by when my younger sister died of cancer at the age of 29. This loss completely changed my life. In my own journey through grief, I found myself questioning everything; fear and loneliness were my companions during those dark days following Tracy’s death. Since then, I have dedicated much of my life to learning about grief and mourning and I have committed to a more holistic path … a path that invites a grief to be observed … a path that acknowledges the pain of loss … a path that gives voice to the uniqueness of the loss experience … a path that does not offer a reward for speed … and a path that invites us to continue to honour those we have loved in unique and meaningful ways.

Sport’s way of navigating loss

I share this blog to offer a different way for sport leaders, athletes, and coaches to move through their loss experience. Inspired by the six central needs of mourning pioneered by international grief educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt, I invite readers to consider ‘loss’ in a more holistic sense. The death of a loved one is only one of many ways people can experience loss . Loss can include the death of a dream, the ending of relationships, career transitions, death of pets, and any and all endings that create suffering for an individual. Over time, these losses, if left unattended, can create a hardening that impact the way we experience, or fail to experience, life.  Far too often, I meet with people who are longing for something different, and part of what they are longing for has been shaped by unexpressed grief. Some of the risk factors to unreconciled grief including burnout, increased anxiety, depression, sleep disruptions, mood swings, and engaging in high risk behaviours. My hope is that the following tenets provide a healthy and more integrated way for sport leaders to relate to their own losses.

1. Acknowledge the reality of the loss

This dimension of grief invites the person (people) to acknowledge their pain. Full stop. For many athletes and coaches, sport, life, and loss are all intertwined. Imagine not fulfilling your full potential after putting in your life’s work. Imagine tripping off the starting blocks during the big race. Imagine the death of a loved one while you are away at a competition. Imagine getting hurt a few weeks before leaving for World Championships. Imagine you are world champions and you under-perform at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. The pain of not achieving your life’s goal needs to be acknowledged in order for it to be reconciled. However, for most of the clients I work with, the dominant mindset is one of “let’s move past this; buckle up buttercup; focus on the future; forget about the past …” Sound familiar? What appear to be helpful comments only serve to encourage a silencing of the pain that these accumulated losses can generate overtime. During these conversations, I invite my client to share their story of loss by asking ‘soul based’ questions. In what ways did this loss impact you? Where do you feel the loss in your body? What is one emotion that describes how you are feeling about this loss?  It is through our conversation that they feel like they have permission to share and the pain they are feeling becomes normalized as a result.

2. Feel the pain of the loss

As Dr. Wolfelt likes to say, ‘we must say hello before we can say goodbye’. By inviting the pain in, athletes and coaches (who often feel the loss intensely as they are witnessing the pain of someone they care deeply about) can learn to honour the grief they feel so they can begin to mourn the loss of what did not come to pass. I encourage clients to share their feelings and emotions about the loss and the impact it has had on them. We work through the experience and encourage the expressing of tears, anger, frustration, shame, uncertainty, and fears as we navigate the unknown terrain.

Washington Irving, prolific writer and author, wrote: “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief … and of unspeakable love.”

In grief literature, the term bereavement means ‘to be torn apart’. For some athlete and coaches, the pain of not performing can leave them feeling “torn up, less than, inadequate, ashamed, vulnerable, lonely.” By creating  a safe space for someone who is feeling bereaved after a failed performance, we are providing them with a safe haven to work through their losses in a more holistic way. Beyond the emotional realm, athletes and coaches may also need to work through the physical (impact of grief on their body), spiritual (impact of grief on their life’s purpose and worldview), cognitive (impact of grief on thought processes), social (impact of grief on relationships with others) that the loss creates. Acknowledging that grief work often feels like being lost in the wilderness, without food, shelter, or a map, with no clear sense of direction, can help people feel less ‘crazy’ than they are sometimes made to feel.

3. Remember (and find ways to honour) the loss

In today’s society, we are less likely to have experienced the death of someone we love until we are adults. Many of the rituals that once accompanied the death of those we loved are slowly disappearing … funerals are becoming life celebrations … in lieu of flowers we offer donations … wearing black is no longer reserved for mourners … and there has been a move to treat grief as one would treat a physical ailment. So in our death-avoidant culture, how might we encourage sport leaders, athletes and coaches to bravely speak about that which they have lost?

I have come to believe that our rituals – the practices and behaviours we follow to initiate, close-off, or celebrate – can help us make meaning of something important to us. For instance, with my own journey through grief, some of my early therapeutic practices (a.k.a coping mechanisms) included journaling, lighting candles on important dates, special pictures, nature runs, reading poetry, and sharing with my trusted circle of friends and family. Over time, some of my practices have become rituals which have created a solid foundation upon which my grief could be expressed holistically. In what ways could we encourage sport leaders to remember loss in a way that would allow for healthy transformation to occur? A few of my recent experiences in sport included sharing circles, peer-to-peer learning groups, and one-on-one coaching sessions that focused on working through their ‘loss story’. The more we give voice to what scares us, the less power it has over us. Writer and author Marcel Proust reminds us that “we are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

4. Develop a new sense of self

When we experience a loss, something in us shifts. This shift often occurs at the subconscious level, impacting our decisions and behaviours and, if left unattended, it can lead to unhealthy expressions such as anxiety and depressed states and/or unhealthy coping mechanism such as use of drugs and alcohol or poor life choices.

Sport leaders serve in a high performing sector where we are expected to strive, overcome, and be brave. Yet when we face a loss, our natural response is to retreat, pause, reflect … so that we can recover. This then allow a new version of ‘me’ to emerge from the shadows of grief. Being able make peace with my grief requires unlearning old habits that might be tied to my ‘story of loss’, making way for something new to emerge, and being a willing participant in the experience. This might mean that I need to face some important questions such as ‘what new skills do I need to be able to integrate this loss within my new identity?’ And ‘who might I rely on as I work through this?’ The space between my former self and my new emerging self is filled with the unknown and can be incredibly uncomfortable for those that are used to having everything known and secure. Simply acknowledging that we might need time and space to recover from the loss by stepping away, taking a self-imposed time out to reflect, and connecting with trusted family and friends can support us in gaining additional insight into ourselves. We must be compassionate towards our self during this period of transition.

5. Search for meaning in the loss

What was the biggest learning of this loss experience? Who am I now that I have gone through this?  Can I find the courage to face my teammates? Is it worth putting in another four years? How can I move on without having accomplished my big dream? Why did this happen to me? These types of questions are natural and vital in a holistic approach to experiencing loss and it is important to note that these dimensions are not linear. Too often it feels like we are stumbling along, trying to find our way in the dark. In his incredibly moving essay on grief, author C.S. Lewis wrote “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”. When we are in a place of deep reflection and questioning, it can be incredibly scary. It’s like being lost in the woods with no sense of where you are. The one quality that helped me work through my own grief was to trust in something greater than myself. In a sector like ours, where battling, fighting and overcoming challenges as efficiently as possible are rewarded, it’s no wonder that we keep our grief locked away. Inviting people to openly mourn their loss and creating shared language is an important step forward in acknowledging the significance of the loss and begins to address the real risk of not expanding our capacity to grieve holistically.

6. Be open to receive support from others

“The only way to the other side is through”. This quote from Helen Keller reminds us that on this journey we call life there will be many trials. There will be highs and lows; good times and bad times; deep joy and profound sadness. The journey through grief is a lifelong one. When we have loved others or devoted our life to being the very best we can be, we risk losing that which we so value. The alternative is that we experience life from a place of partiality … minimizing risk by never fully engaging in our lives.

In order to fully work through the grief that sets in when we lose something that we love or value, we need to feel supported by others. It also helps to know that there’s no defined timeline to our grieving process. We might experience a ‘grief burst’ unexpectedly … something someone says reminds us of our loved one … or a new experience brings us back to the starting line when we tripped and fell … years can pass and it can feel like yesterday when we are reminded of the moment we ‘lost’ someone or something that was significant to us.

As a grief companion, I have been trained to apply the following tenets when accompanying others on their grief journeys: No reward for speed. No attachment to outcome. Trust in divine momentum.

Being with someone in one of their darkest times is a deep honour and a calling. Grief is not pathology to be fixed or cured. At its core, “death and grief are spiritual journeys of the heart and soul,” as shared by Dr. Wolfelt. And, while death ends a life, it does not extinguish the love that one feels, nor ends the relationship.

As I continue to learn about grief and mourning, I am inspired by this anonymous quote that so beautifully reflects the role of companioning others “When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe one of two things will happen – there will be something solid for us to stand upon, or we will be taught to fly.”

I appreciate your ongoing feedback as I continue to share some of my learnings and beliefs on a range of topics. Please continue to send me your thoughts at DBL@sportlaw.ca as they inspire me to keep sharing.

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