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Why I decided to become a grief coach

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(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)
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Oct. 31, 2021, would be the last time my father would celebrate his birthday.

He was in a St. Louis-area rehabilitation facility after his second stint in an intensive care unit, holding court in the lobby. Sitting in a wheelchair beside an anti-COVID plastic barrier, Dad listened while his sisters, brother (who was rehabbing there too) and other relatives were chatting.

At 78, Howard Jamison Jr. — once a fit, brash, proud and powerful Black man — had withered down to a shell of himself. The Alzheimer’s disease plus other physical illnesses (one of which I can barely pronounce) had made it nearly impossible for him to breathe, walk and eat on his own.

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It broke my heart to see him look so frail. But I wanted to give him something sweet on his birthday before I flew back to Los Angeles, so I snuck in some Halloween-themed chocolate cupcakes. After we all sang “Happy Birthday,” I fed him a cupcake by hand, as if tending to a wounded bird. And I gave him his gifts: Dallas Cowboys gloves, socks and scarf.

I then doused Dad with hugs and kisses and drove to the airport, feeling deep sorrow — and gratitude. If that was the last time I saw Dad, I told myself, I showed him love.

Hi, I’m Angela Jamison, a copy editor at The Times. I usually am one of the many journalists working behind the scenes to edit the stories you read on our website and in the newspaper. Today I’m filling in for Laura Newberry, who will be back next week.

Today I’d like to tell you how, after losing my father, I began a journey that awakened in me a new purpose: to become a grief coach. It was an unexpected path to profound healing that I’m eager to share with you.

My grief walk

After that birthday visit, the writing was on the wall: Dad was not long for this world. So, I began looking for grief resources online and talking to other life coaches like me to make sense of what I would face ahead.

I became a certified life coach in 2017 after training through iPEC, a program accredited by the International Coaching Federation. I was attracted to coaching because I had always been the person my four younger brothers and friends confided in or sought advice from. I seemed to have a knack for being a safe person to open up to without dishing out judgment or shame. Over time, I realized that becoming a licensed therapist or social worker would stretch financial resources and time I didn’t have. But life coaching? With some training (within my budget) and a shorter timeline, that I could do.

As a life coach, I’ve helped my clients learn how to define what they want; build their confidence; summon compassion for their own feelings and experiences; and trust their inner wisdom to achieve their goals.

A quick note: Though I learned ethics, coaching skills and tools to facilitate my clients’ growth, I am not a licensed therapist or social worker — I don’t have the advanced degrees and counseling proficiency to provide mental health services. But in all my training, I’d never explored or had any type of grief-specific courses.

I was most familiar with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ concept of the “five stages of dying” that was later applied to grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Without giving them much thought, I assumed the stages were progressive but learned from the life coaches I spoke to that the stages are not linear.

“Everyone’s grief process is different and is completely unique,” Christina Stiverson, a Denver grief coach, told me. “I don’t believe the steps go in order, but I believe people can transform the grief, release some of the pain so they can have gratitude and move forward.”

Was I in denial about Dad’s Alzheimer’s? No, I had fully accepted his diagnosis, given all of his symptoms. Anger? Some. I did ask God a few times, “Why him?” It seemed to be an exceptionally cruel fate for a man who was twice a widower — and whose second wife died after battling Alzheimer’s. Bargaining? Naw. Depression? Mild.

However, I was obsessed with mending the last few cracks in our relationship because I didn’t want to have any regrets.

For each visit I made to St. Louis, I set an intention to resolve unfinished business. My love and respect for Dad was great, but so was my anger and resentment from painful memories of his unpredictable rages and need for absolute control. I wanted our earthly relationship to end with peace and healing.

On the suggestion of a friend, I made sure to tell Dad the following five statements meant to comfort the dying (and me in return):

  1. Thank you — for sacrificing your dreams to give me a stable life to pursue my own.
  2. Please forgive me — for the times I was unkind and unforgiving, sometimes willfully.
  3. I forgive you — for your shortcomings that left me with deep scars.
  4. I love you — for being the father I needed in this life.
  5. Goodbye — for now, until our souls meet again.

By the end of my final trip home during Father’s Day week, I had accomplished my mission: I said everything I needed to say to Dad, and him to me. We were complete, healed and whole. He passed a few weeks later, on July 14, 2022.

A new purpose

In the months following Dad’s death, I took a timeout, of sorts. No planning. No setting goals. Just being. Instead, I cried, journaled and focused on gratitude for the small things — decking my apartment with Black Santas for Christmas — and the big things — being able to send Dad off in peace.

But I did begin grappling with what David Kessler calls the sixth stage of grief: meaning. Once people experience acceptance, he said in a 2021 TED interview, “we want more. ... I think we want meaning.”

“There’s no meaning in a horrible death, or a pandemic … or a job being lost,” said the grief expert and author. “The meaning isn’t in the horrible event. The meaning is in us. It’s what we find afterwards.”

This stage conjured new questions for me: Who am I without Dad here? What strengths of his will I rely upon to carry me now? Which values of his will I keep and which beliefs of his that no longer serve me will I discard?

Turns out my life coach practice will be a tool to answer some of those questions. Like the other coaches I talked to, my grief has left me transformed and willing to serve.

Stiverson lost her daughter Adelaide to a rare pediatric liver cancer in 2016 and is now a certified coach and trainer in the From Grief to Gratitude program, working with mothers who have lost a child and are still parenting other children. “I don’t want their kids to say, ‘My mom gave up on me when my brother or sister died.’ Or that they miss precious moments in their living children’s lives that they can’t get back,” the mother of three said. Her coaching practice helps mothers discover their strengths and build confidence for their journey ahead.

For Kristen Jawad, a Kirkland, Wash.-based licensed massage therapist and midlife, motherhood, relationships and grief coach, the loss of a friend to cancer prompted her to seek additional expertise, including training based on the book “A Year to Live” by Stephen Levine.

Now, she uses grief walks through nature with her clients to promote forward movement and soothe anxiety. “There’s a feeling of companionship and communion from being with the trees and the sense that there’s life before us and life after us,” Jawad said. “Nature helps us with the bigger perspective.”

For Steven Reeder, the cumulative effects of losing his father, a job layoff and a car accident led him to rediscover “The Grief Recovery Handbook” by John W. James and Russell Friedman. Reeder, a certified professional coach in Kenosha, Wis., received the grief recovery facilitator training, which gave him “the perfect tool in my toolbox.” “Because Westerners are brought up to not deal with our emotions, we think that our head is broken,” he said. “But grief is a broken heart.”

Stumbling upon From Grief to Gratitude online was the sign that let me know I was ready to move forward. I enrolled last month and plan to start the program later this month. It is self-paced, so I have up to a year to complete the coursework, take the exam and become certified. I am so excited — not only to process the sixth stage of grief for myself, but to walk beside new clients, likely middle-aged women, who are struggling to find gratitude and meaning through their bereavement.

Until then, I also may participate in a support group like GriefShare, but keep in mind to find mourners like me who’ve lost both parents. My friend Rosemary Guzman Hook, an Austin, Texas-based writer-producer, gave me some good advice based on her experience when her husband of four years, Allan Hook, died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.

“Engage a group whose loss is similar in nature to yours,” Hook said. She chose a group through hospice that was specific to her age (younger than 60), the type of loss (spouse) and the way the loved one died (long-term illness). “I did try to attend a grief group made up of [various] types of deaths, and that was how I learned quickly that I needed to connect with like-minded widows. ... The journeys and recoveries are different.”

For added comfort, I’ll reach out to my family more — to share memories with my brothers, listen to my father’s favorite jazz musicians (Miles Davis, when I’m feeling sentimental) and deepen the bonds with my aunts and uncles.

But one thing I know for sure: I am crafting a new narrative about the life I shared with my father, one of love, conflict, perseverance, healing — and gratitude. That’s the story I hope will inspire others as I step into my new purpose as a grief coach.

Thanks for joining me,

Angela

If what you learned today from these experts spoke to you or you’d like to tell us about your own experiences, please email us and let us know if it is OK to share your thoughts with the larger Group Therapy community. The email GroupTherapy@latimes.com gets right to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.

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More perspectives on today’s topic & other resources

In Session 31 of the “Therapy for Black Girls” podcast, Atlanta-based licensed psychologist Joy Harden Bradford chats with grief and trauma therapist Ajita Robinson about how therapy can help mourning women work through their grief and the multiple ways it manifests.

The documentary “Speaking Grief” is part of an initiative designed to start a national conversation about the topic in a death- and grief-avoidant society.

For resources on bereavement in Los Angeles County, the county Department of Mental Health provides an around-the-clock help line at (800) 854-7771, a list of grief support groups and a “COVID-19: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One” guide sheet in several languages.

“Men & Grief” by Carol Staudacher examines men’s reactions to the death of a loved one and ways to enhance the healing process.

For a poet’s perspective, the opening line of Fred Davis Chappell’s poem “Difference” says it all: “How powerful a presence is her absence.”

Other interesting stuff

I love me some advice columns, and Carolyn Hax at the Washington Post is one of my favorites. Sticking to the topic of grief, I suggest reading Hax’s advice to “Just Sad,” whose heart is broken after losing two pets and just wants “someone to tell me, ‘Oh my goodness, you poor thing, how unfair to lose them both!’”

Arthur C. Brooks writes the “How to Build a Life” column for the Atlantic. This month, Brooks examines the resiliency of communities after a traumatic event and how COVID-19 appears to be resistant to this phenomenon. “Instead of coming together, emerging evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a long-term crisis of habitual loneliness,” he wrote, and it’s a habit we need to break.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been left with little space to process one tragedy before absorbing another. My colleague Jonah Valdez spoke to therapists about how to cope with secondary trauma from all the coverage of mass shootings.

Group Therapy is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your mental health.


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