Understanding the psychology of loss...why we must do better.

Published July 12, 2021

When we are bereaved, we feel ‘torn apart’. Words that often accompany our losses, both death and non-death related include ‘gutted, heartbroken, empty, dead inside, devastated, shocked.’ You won’t hear someone suffering through a loss speaking to the ‘gift of the experience’ or ‘grateful that this has happened because it’s made me a better person.’ While our capacity to make meaning out of our loss is possible over time, it is too soon to extract the gifts of grief when we are entering into the acute phase of working through loss.

My goal is to bring more grief and loss literacy to the world and in particular, to the world of sport. I’ve witnessed so much grief in sport over my 30 years of serving in the sector. Athletes who feel despair because their high-performance dreams did not come true.  Coaches who feel helpless because they are grieving alongside athletes but often don’t have the language to frame their inner turmoil as grief. Loss illiterate fans who don’t relate to their feelings of deep sorrow after their team loses the match and instead turn to blame to avoid facing their pain. One only has to witness the look of disbelief and horror on the faces of the devastated Team England players to understand that this experience is ‘more than just a game.’ 

I’ve had the time to cultivate a particular way of supporting people through their grief and loss journeys. Faced with my own gut-wrenching loss after the death of my younger sister Tracy 20 years ago, I vowed to keep her memory alive. This journey cultivated my capacity to meet the bereaved from a place of deep compassion and skill. Informed by bereavement theory and trained as an Integral Master Coach, I’ve honed my companioning skills to support those that are bereaved. This blog is one of several to support an enriched understanding of grief and loss and the others can be found on Sportlaw.ca. To better understand the risks of not reconciling grief, please read this blog.

The accumulation of loss after loss does something to a human being. While a positivist worldview will encourage us to find ‘meaning’ and to be ‘brave and strong’ in the face of adversity, I offer a more humanistic and informed perspective on understanding loss through bereavement theory. The study of death and loss or thanatology is what I turned to as I looked to deepen my understanding of my experience after Tracy’s death.  Grief is our natural response to a ‘severed attachment’. Attachment theory is well understood in the context of child development and serves as an underpinning to help deepen our compassion when faced with loss. I have written about some of the myths surrounding grief and loss and they serve as a helpful foundation to how we might offer a more supportive environment for athletes and coaches who fail to perform under staggering pressure.

In one of my last blogs, I wrote about a new way of being with our grief that invited compassion, curiosity and humility into our experience. I shared a Petals and Pebbles Practice to surface the accumulated losses over our lifespan. Can you imagine how many significant losses athletes and coaches would list on their loss line? Being able to acknowledge the number of losses we’ve accumulated allow us work through our pain from a different place. Remember, our natural response to loss is to grieve. Once we’ve been able to meet the pain of our loss, we can begin to do the hard work of mourning (grief gone public). While some losses cut deeper than others, what bereavement theory tells us is that both finite and nonfinite losses are deeply subjective experiences that are informed by the significance of the attachment one has to what has been lost.

How might we become more skillful and compassionate with our selves and others if we understood the pain we feel after watching our favorite team lose is a natural expression of the attachment we have cultivated over the years? Wrapped up in this narrative is our own identity and the sense of community pride and belonging that is forged on and off the pitch. Fans become deeply committed to their teams because it triggers a deep seeded need to belong and to be part of something greater. When they lose, it feels like a part of me has died and that sense of belonging is now at risk. It is easier to blame than to work through the pain of our loss, which is why we see people looking for a culprit to ease their inner turmoil.

Bereavement theory offers us a refreshing and hopeful way of reorienting the pain of working through our losses. Some of what I hope will happen in sport over the next decade includes the following wish list:

  • More grief and loss literacy: I have launched a virtual training program for sport leaders, coaches and athletes who want to become more informed about Grief and Loss. This one-day workshop is foundational for those seeking more knowledge to frame our experience differently. I am also launching Grief Unleashed this Fall to support those that want to companion others through their grief and loss journeys. To find out more, please connect at dina@griefunleashed.ca.
  • A more holistic coaching experience: I have seen firsthand the difference of having someone who is grief and loss literate support those that are bereaved. Coaches are almost always operating from a place of fear as they are rewarded for outcomes, not process. Until we measure what really matters (emotional intelligence, creating a quality training environment, humanistic traits) alongside the wins and losses, we will continue to force coaches to prioritize results over more holistic indicators. For more ideas, please read Pippa Grange’s wonderful book Fear Less to understand a new way of managing through pressure.
  • Rituals: I worked with a team of retired Olympians recently who after our work were encouraged to create a mourning ritual to say goodbye to their ‘inner athlete’. They acknowledged they had failed to transition from high performer to professional and were carrying unnecessary anxiety as a result.
  • Trauma Sensitive: I recently completed trauma training both from the CMHA and a Trauma and Grief Course through King’s College. This additional training allowed me to support a retired Olympian who was traumatized by a near death experience and was petrified of dying and not seeing her young child grow up. Working through this experience through a bereavement informed approach helped her regain confidence and empowered her to meet her experience through more skill and self-compassion.
  • Education and training: My hope is that fans who come to the game are encouraged to consider a few key grief and loss principles to keep top of mind as they work through the viewing experience. Helping fans plan and prepare for the loss will help them reduce the risk of having their emotions run havoc and create the space for a more tempered experience of loss.  In so doing, we might avoid the looting, harassment and abuse, and shameful acts of racism and violence that occur after heartbreaking losses.

For more information or to share your views on this blog, please reach out to DBL@sportlaw.ca.

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