AS THE TEARS DRY

Most of us will experience bereavement of someone close to us at some point. How can we coach people effectively through such an experience, ask Maggie Jõao and Julia Menaul

Bereavement is universal. The loss of a loved one comes to pretty much everyone at some time.

Pain, grief and suffering can show up in coaching due to other forms of loss too. We are living through difficult times, and for many, it is more comfortable to bring these emotions to coaching rather than visit a counsellor, where there may be perceived stigma attached to this type of intervention for clients.

As experienced coaches and supervisors (and fellow human beings touched by bereavement), we share here a case study from our work, which illustrates how as coaches we can support clients in this oft-grey area.

Our belief is that we don’t coach and supervise on bereavement (therapy may be more appropriate) but we can certainly coach and supervise through bereavement.

Case study

The client’s story

It is a grey afternoon on a sad autumn day. It has already been seven months since my husband died and I still feel lost. I am very sad and would like to pause things for a moment and take stock, but my four-year-old daughter needs me, and my support.

I know I am not depressed, as I still have energy to play with her and to go to work. But I can see the sparkle in my eyes is not there any more, my smile is not as wide as before and the moments of joy are difficult to find. Or it is just me who cannot see them?

I am walking towards my coaching appointment. I feel I can trust my coach, but not sure I can talk to her about this topic. After all, this is a programme that has started last year sponsored by the company, when my life was so different to how it is now.

The fact that he passed away so suddenly hurts me even more. No one was expecting it and the not knowing part scares me. Yesterday was him; tomorrow can be me, and I worry for my daughter.

Some of my colleagues have noticed my silence and lack of joy. Some have the courage to talk to me; others I know avoid me. My boss talks to me, like this is now in the past, and that life moves on. And it does, I know it… but not just right now. I need time to process and to learn who did I become with this major incident in my life? Am I a different person? How different? In what sense? Do I want this incident to redefine me?

I feel I need more time to mourn and grieve, but the number of days off work are so few that is not enough to react to life after an event like this.

How can my coach help me? What can I share with her that will trigger a new perspective for me? How can I get more energy to move on with my life? Do I want to move on? I need to move on…

I would like to talk about so many things: how he died, how I got to know it, what did I think in the immediate second of knowing it, the first feeling I had, the following feelings that inundated me, my behaviour change at work and with my daughter, myself and the fact I feel I am forgetting about myself and what makes me happy, my job and how it is so much difficult to go back to work, feeling unsupported by my boss.

So many things. So many doubts. The only thing certain I know is that there my life became black and white when before it was a beautiful colourful canvas. Will I ever see those colours again?

The coach’s story

As I sit in a traffic jam contemplating my day, I feel exhausted. I was not prepared for my client to turn up for her session in floods of tears. Only now has she felt able to tell me that her husband died last year…

I feel myriad emotions, as her story comes tumbling out. I notice my empathy, sadness and admiration for her bravery, but I also catch myself returning to my own different bereavements from over the years; grandparents, my father and some dear friends.

As she talks, I sit in silence and hope she doesn’t see me wince when she uses the phrase “passed away”, which is not a phrase that sits well with me. Do I do the right thing to continue the session? Where is that fine line with counselling? I mustn’t panic!

I am pleased that I check after 20 minutes and she says talking freely is really helping. She says she is now realising that she has actually been moving through her grief over the last few months, but that occasionally something would spark a memory for her and bring intense emotion to the surface again. I mentally make a note to look at the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief curve (Kübler-Ross, 1999), to refresh myself on the stages of grief.

However, I notice how cross I feel that her company is not appreciating how long the adjustment will take for her. This is not just about the funeral and the immediate aftermath. There is the emotional and practical upheaval of suddenly becoming a single parent in such tragic circumstances. She mentions the word ‘identity’ and how she feels a different person now…understandable.

Just as I am wondering how this is going, my client tells me she had weekly therapy afterwards alongside compassionate leave from work in the months immediately after her husband’s death; I feel relieved.

Remembering my own discussion about self-compassion and self-care with my supervisor during my own bereavement, I gently explain that within some boundaries, she can use the coaching to explore some of this. She shares with me some of the techniques she learnt in counselling and how she might revisit them and incorporate them more into her daily life.

As the tears dry, she starts to look forward and remember some of the positive upcoming events at home and work. We do some future visualisation together of her and her daughter, then she pulls out her phone and shows me the gratitude app she is using, and we start to map out who her supporters are and how she might use them more frequently.

By the end of the session, she is smiling and laughing about her ruined mascara!

She makes the decision to continue with the coaching as planned although we have promised together that we will revisit her objectives in light of her bereavement and changed circumstances, to ensure she is kind to herself. She goes away to make a list of things that nourish her so she can draw on some of those during days when she is feeling more depleted than usual.

I leave her with a quote to look at as a reminder: “Be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering and it will change”.

The traffic hasn’t moved, so I decide to ring my supervisor to book in an extra session; I certainly have a lot I want to reflect on with him.

  • Maggie Jõao is an executive coach, qualified medical coach and coach supervisor working mainly with multinational companies, focusing on the development of leaders. She holds the PCC credential by the ICF and the EIA by the EMCC and has published 13 books about coaching in Portuguese, English and Spanish. She’s a member of the ICF RAC (Regional Advisory Council) for EMEA giving support to 41 chapters.Prior to this she worked for more than ten years in industry in Process Improvement in companies such as Volvo Cars, Nestlé and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which led her to live in 12 countries. She is based in Lisbon, Portugal.
  • Julia Menaul has been running her own practice, Spark Coaching and Training, since 2001. She is an accredited professional executive coach
    (Association for Coaching), member of the British Psychological Society and board member for the Association of Coaching Supervisors.

She is chartered fellow of the CIPD and was training and development manager within areas as diverse as retail, a charity, electronics and the criminal justice system.

Coach supervising since 2006 and supervising other supervisors since 2010, she supervises many independent coaches (one-to-one and group), as well as internal coaches in larger organisations.

She is a published author and her latest ebook, published by BookBoon, is The Coach’s Guide to the Drama Triangle (2019). Menaul is based in the West Midlands, UK.

Top tips

  • Remember every bereavement is unique
  • Disclose your own bereavement but don’t over sympathise
  • Don’t use the expression, “I know how you feel”
  • Use their language
  • Decline to coach or supervise if you are too recently bereaved
  • Give time and space for sorrow
  • Recontract new needs and encourage self-care
  • Explore personal themes of death, dying and endings with your own supervisor

FURTHER INFO

Take part in further research on coaching through bereavement by completing our ongoing survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/KCH8XDH

References

  • Collaborative Conversations with Masters: Coaching Through Bereavement, Association for Coaching members webinar recording, 4 October 2019
  • P Hobbs, ‘Working in the shadows: Pain and suffering in coaching and supervision’, in J Birch and P Welch, eds., Coaching Supervision: Advancing Practice, Changing Landscapes, Routledge EMCC Masters in Coaching and Mentoring, 2019 l M Jõao and J Menaul, ‘Coaching and supervising through bereavement’, in Coaching Perspectives, 23 October 2019
  • E Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying, New York: Scribner, 1999

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