In this year of collective grief, we mourn the people, the stability, and the life experiences we have lost. How do we cope with this grief and help each other through it? How do we talk about it with kids? I talked to Dr. Patti Ashley about going through grief to the grace on the other side.
As we get closer to the end of an unprecedented year, I’m reflecting back on experiences, losses, lessons, emotions … and one that really stands out to me is grief. We’ve recently covered grief on the show, but I think it’s worth revisiting because this is a very deep and complex topic. It’s difficult to break it down into “quick and dirty” tips.
But luckily, I got the chance to speak to someone who is an expert on grief both through professional and personal experience, and who will be able to help us understand how grief works, and how there is love and beauty in it.
Dr. Patti Ashley is a best-selling author, international speaker, and psychotherapist with over 35 years of experience. She works with individuals and families to break through ingrained barriers to personal freedom and authentic growth, and to excavate the truth of self-love, belonging, and connection. She is the author of Letters to Freedom (2019) and Shame-Informed Therapy: Treatment Strategies to Overcome Core Shame and Reconstruct the Authentic (2020).
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Dr. Jade Wu: In your work, you refer to moving from grief to grace. What does this mean? What experiences of moving from grief to grace have you had?
Dr. Patti Ashley: My fiancé died of a sudden heart attack four years ago. And he had lost his wife a few years prior to him and I being in a relationship. He was working on something he called “from fear to love to grace.” And so I'm continuing the legacy of that in my work. When you love somebody so deeply and you lose them, it breaks your heart open to a higher love. And there's a state of grace, which is the state of knowing that it's bigger than myself, and yet I have to accept what is.
When you love somebody so deeply and you lose them, it breaks your heart open to a higher love.
And the reason I became a therapist is that I lost my father to a sudden heart attack when I was eleven. And then my partner died the same way. So that's why I wrote my memoir Letters to Freedom. It was so profound for me to think that my whole life I've been studying grief and helping people get through grief and how it's different as an adult from a child. And then having this experience as an adult, I really wanted to allow myself to experience what I was feeling. So I developed my work through the years to give people a place to talk about grief.
JW: Are there stages of grief? What are they, and how do people move through them?
PA: There are stages, but they're not linear, if that makes any sense. But Elizabeth Kubler Ross defined five stages that she saw in her work with people who are grieving and they include: bargaining, denial, anger, depression, and acceptance.
We humans like our linear ABCs. But I always want people to know that it's not necessarily that simple because you can move in and out of those stages of grief for however long it takes. And it takes however long it takes. Everybody's different.
JW: One of the stages you mentioned is anger. Is it okay to feel like that during grief?
All feelings are okay, but all behavior isn't.
PA: People don't think that it's okay to be angry at people for dying, but it's an important emotion. Anger actually energizes us and helps us move through things. So all feelings are okay, but all behavior isn't. Anger itself is okay, but that doesn't mean you have to take it out on yourself or other people and hurt yourself or anyone. It simply means you acknowledge that you're angry—maybe write about it, scream in the shower ... there are lots of ways to express anger that are safe and don’t hurt.
JW: So, instead of shutting down our emotions, what can we do instead?
PA: It actually is better to feel everything you're feeling when you're in it. And have supportive people and lots of chicken soup and warm blankets and cozy songs and things that you enjoy doing. Jigsaw puzzles were something I found. But even with these small distractions, you don't want to try and get out of the bad feeling. You want to hold yourself through it, and that's going to help you get to the other side.
JW: You’ve talked about getting to the other side. Do people ever get over a loss?
PA: I don't think we ever really get over a loss, especially if it's a significant other or a tragic loss. There's always something in our heart, but it's not as heavy and it doesn't weigh us down and we are able to hold it. I call it grace. You know, we move into a state of grace knowing that loss is part of life. And you know, even though we'll always miss our loved ones, that doesn't have as much of the deep emotional pain when we get to the acceptance part.
JW: If we have a loved one going through their own grief, what should and shouldn’t we do to support them?
PA: Don't make suggestions of what they can do to feel better. Listen, have a lot of empathy, and just reflect back what they're saying. The one thing that I learned that I really wanted and needed was to tell the story. I wanted to talk about my partner, but people get really uncomfortable about that. You know, even sometimes people say, 'Well, I don't want to make you uncomfortable,' or 'I don't want to remind you.' But I'm already uncomfortable and I'm not going to forget. I just need to tell the story.
And I think it's the hardest thing too, is to listen to the stories. You have to tell the story at least a hundred times. And so to have an enlightened witness to hear our stories is the most important thing, but that feels counterintuitive for people because if I'm with you in your grief and you're telling me stories, I'm going to feel it as if it's my own grief and I'm not going to feel comfortable. So I'm going to go to my bag of tricks and say, 'Well, maybe you could try this or that.'
Instead, we have to also be able to tolerate our own discomfort when we are listening. I had very few people in my life who could do that. And it's such a gift.
JW: You alluded to your experience with grief as a child. How should we help children with grief? How do we explain loss and death to them?
PA: The most important thing with kids is to avoid euphemisms. You know, a lot of times we say, 'So and so is in heaven now' instead of saying 'he died.' Between the ages of zero and seven, we know that kids don't think like adults. And so that's why they believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. And it's really a magical time. They don't understand the permanence of death. So it's a whole different world, especially for kids seven and under. So if you use euphemisms, they're most likely going to have a similar experience to what I did— 'He’s in heaven? Why can't I go there?'
I had a roommate in college who had a similar experience and she tried to suicide on several occasions. And the reason I didn't was that I was raised Catholic and I was told I'd go to hell. So I knew I wouldn't see my dad if I killed myself, but that was the longing—I wanted to be with my dad. So we have to be really careful about how we talk to kids about death.
Don't be afraid to cry with them and be with them—it's all about relationships. We all are wired for that connection and that's what kids need. And they also need to know that they're safe, that they're loved and they're cared for.
Don't be afraid to cry with them and be with them—it's all about relationships.
JW: Right now, there is a sense of collective grief in the world. What are your thoughts on this experience?
PA: We are definitely in collective grief. The song that came to mind this week was the REM song 'It's the end of the world as we know it,' because everything that we're familiar with is changed in some way.
And it's not just in the United States. The world is experiencing the coronavirus, which then has led us to losing jobs, losing time with our friends, losing our social outlets, going to the gym. Outdoor concerts are my favorite thing in the summer here in Colorado, and that was lost. Lots of things that we're familiar with are gone. And of course the tragic number of people who have actually died from the virus.
JW: Is there any grace that can come out of this collective grief?
I'm hoping that all of this will lead to more compassion and empathy because that's really what we need right now in the world.
PA: I hope if nothing else comes out of this, that there will at least be more compassion and empathy. And that's the other thing I've noticed about grief—we ask the bigger questions. Why am I here? Why did I get to stay? What's my purpose in life?
Studies of resiliency have shown people who are able to give back are the most resilient. And so I'm hoping that all of this will lead to more compassion and empathy because that's really what we need right now in the world.
JW: That is definitely some optimism that I needed to hear. Thank you so much for that and for all your wisdom. I really appreciate you being with us today.
PA: Thanks so much for having me. It was a pleasure.