How To Talk About Grief, According To Women Who've Made It Their Jobs
You’re not alone.
Grief is something that is an unfortunate harsh reality for many (nay, most) at some point in life. And everyone processes said grieving differently; one person may bottle up their feelings, others may seek out a support system. Even mainstream media is starting to showcase the topic more. Shows like After Life, The Kominsky Method, Somebody Somewhere, and Sorry For Your Loss all have characters who are grieving. And, offscreen, if you are mourning the death of a loved one, you can join communities like Death Cafe, wherein you meet up. with someone in person — not only to discuss death, but also eat and socialize. And some people, like the women featured below, are even making it their life’s mission to encourage conversations and dialogue around grief.
The way people commemorate their late loved ones also varies — one person may have part of their home dedicated to the deceased as a shrine while another may celebrate their loved one’s birthday and special occasions. Some people even get tattoos wherein the deceased’s ashes are mixed in with the ink so they will always have the person close — literally.
In fact, Tattoo Artist Stenvik Mostrom tells TZR he has done several tattoos that have included the ashes of loved ones that have passed. “Only a very small amount of ashes is needed to add to the inkwell before tattooing begins,” he says. “Typically, the imagery is something that also reminds that person of the loved one that the tattoo is dedicated to. I feel that it is a great way to deal with the loss, by actually carrying a part of that person with you always, however trace amount it may be.” (Although you can check out his work on Instagram, he says he does not typically post these tattoos due to their personal nature.)
Like Mostrom, the women below are also investing time, energy, and resources to the topic of grief, too.
Shelby Forsythia: Intuitive Grief Guide
“I devoured grief books after my mom died and began posting what I learned on Facebook,” says Shelby Forsythia, intuitive grief guide, podcast host, and author of Your Grief, Your Way, to TZR in an email. “Posts led to live videos. Live videos led to a podcast. A podcast led to my first book, and now, in the six years since I started reading about loss, I've hosted three podcasts and published two books — with a third on the way.”
Forsythia says she feels driven to deeply understand grief and loss — and then transmits what she’s learning to wider and wider circles. “With each new resource — and each new wisdom-keeper I find — I get to go ‘back down the well,’ so to speak, and emerge with new, interesting water to drink and add to my own bucket of wisdom,” she says. “I never stop thinking about how everything we do is connected to the deaths of people who've gone before — and how we'll eventually die, too.”
As far as the grieving process goes, Forsythia says keeping pain locked away inside can be detrimental to mental, as well as physical, health. “Books like The Body Keeps the Score demonstrate how being unable to express, or process, grief can lead to anxiety, depression, substance use, PTSD, withdrawal from life, and even suicidal ideation,” she says. “Grief is a very isolating experience and it's made even more isolating when we insist it stays trapped within us. Personally, I found an immense amount of relief and release by screaming.” After her mother’s death, in the evenings, Forsythia would climb into the passenger seat of her dad's pickup truck and belt out her feelings, she explains, hammering on the dashboard and the seat. “I felt so much anger and agony in my mom's dying that it was the best, and most intuitive, way I could think of to let it out.”
And while screaming into the abyss is certainly an effective coping method, she also encourages grievers to join a community of some sort. “I personally leaned on a group called The Dinner Party, an organization that coordinates meet-ups for people who lost a loved one in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s,” she says. “There's definitely a misconception that it's possible to ‘get over’ grief. The death of someone significant isn't something you ‘get over’ — like you would a cold. It's an experience that becomes a part of you.”
Rebecca Soffer: Co-Founder & CEO Of Modern Loss
When Rebecca Soffer was in her early 30s, she lost both of her parents a few years apart. Together with her friend, Gabrielle Birkner, who was also grieving the death of her parents, the two women formed a monthly dinner party called WWDP (Women With Dead Parents), the theme being, “I get it.” That led them to eventually form Modern Loss, an online community that hosts other events, too, such as storytelling sessions. “I got really tired of feeling so lonely in my grief — and I wanted a place to go full of storytelling instead of clinical advice, with stories of resilience and feeling like I was being seen,” Soffer tells TZR. The community only continues to grow — and is coming up on its 10-year anniversary.
Soffer’s latest book, The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience, just came out, too, in May 2022. She notes that grief is a nonlinear experience — and what works for one person may not work for another. “There is no ‘right’ way to grieve,” she says. “See what works and what doesn’t — and what didn’t work now might work later on.” With a fresh loss, for instance, Soffer suggests focusing on micro-steps. “It’s easy to be overwhelmed in the early stages, so figure out what you need in any given moment, not forever,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘How am I going to get through today, the next hour?’”
She also suggests having daily check-ins with yourself and assessing what you need — this could be a lighter work schedule, taking some time off, or getting help around the house. “I don’t think grief is something you ‘get over’ — it’s something you ‘move through,” Soffer says. “Now, you need to navigate life without this relationship that had been really impactful in your life. Grief’s like living with a companion. It ebbs and flows, but there is no timeline.”
Marisa Lee: Author Of The Bestseller, Grief Is Love
“I'm 14 years out from my mom's death, and at this point, I'm pretty confident that grief is something that you just have to live with for the rest of your life,” Marisa Renee Lee, author of the bestseller Grief Is Love, tells TZR. “And so, for me, it’s not about redefining grief as something that just happens in one moment of time right after someone dies — but as the repeated experience of learning to live in the midst of your significant loss. This has made it easier for me to live with it.”
She adds that talking about grief really does help to normalize it. To that end, she says one of the pieces of research that she highlighted in her book is focused on the idea that the only thing that makes more challenging emotions — like anger and sadness — easier to bear is acknowledging them. “The second you say either out loud to yourself, or to someone else, or write what you're feeling and kind of give voice to it … it’s the only thing that reduces the feelings’ power over us. Naming them, and acknowledging them, is what makes it easier to deal with them.”
So, when grieving, Lee says the first step is giving yourself permission to grieve. “I found that in our society, in our culture, people don't want to give you permission to be sad, but it's a normal part of life,” she says. “So if your friend is struggling, I would just encourage you to encourage them to be sad or angry or whatever it is they’re feeling, to really be okay with it.” Because when people add judgment on top of grief, it becomes even harder for the person who’s grieving. “And what you want more than anything else is for this person to be able to learn how to live with the loss,” she continues. “By creating space and places where people feel like they have the permission to grieve — to be sad, to be frustrated, angry, disappointed, what have you — we then create more opportunities for people to heal.”
Theresa A. Shubeck: CEO Of Good Grief
“Good Grief helps children and families navigate their grief, and develop a sense of hopefulness for the future,” Theresa A. Shubeck, CEO of Good Grief, tells TZR in an email. The organization’s mission is to help people become more resilient and grow from their loss. While there are many grief groups out there tailored for adults, there are not as many for children. Shubeck says this is an important distinction, because the way children cope varies from the way adults do. “Generally, younger groups spend more time expressing themselves through activities and play, while older groups engage in conversations,” she explains. Good Grief’s volunteers help steer the play and conversations.
Before becoming Good Grief’s CEO, Shubeck says she found its mission incredibly compelling — and also had personal reasons for wanting to become involved. “I came to it from a personal perspective of awareness of effective grief support that I received following my mother’s brief illness and death,” she says.
Acknowledging the painful and complex emotions someone is experiencing is an important step to coping with grief and sadness in a healthy way, she explains. “Support is crucial to helping people navigate their grief,” she says. “For children, we see that unresolved grief can lead to anxiety, depression, bullying, eating disorders, and poor school performance. Family, friends, your house of worship, or grief support organizations (like Good Grief) can provide a safe space to share and express feelings, where grief and loss are normalized. The grief experience is not a linear one — and it is also different for everyone.”
As far as creating grief rituals to remember your loved one, she says some simple ways to do this include writing to the person you lost, keeping photos around, talking about them with people who knew them (or perhaps never got to know them), creating new rituals at holidays or other important life events, making a scrapbook to share with friends or family, and wearing a special piece of jewelry or article of clothing that reminds you of them.
Dr. Candi Cann: Death Scholar & Advocate Of Eterneva
If you’re looking for a sparkling way to remember a lost loved one, Eterneva creates lab-grown diamonds made from human ashes or hair. Dr. Candi Cann, a death scholar and Baylor University professor, tells TZR her department partnered with Eterneva in a research study. The aim was to examine the grief journey, and whether or not cremation diamonds helped customers in their journey. “Eterneva is built on the belief that when a loved one is lost, we should not have to ‘move on’ — we should be able to ‘move forward’ with them,” Cann says. “By reframing the grief experience, Eterneva honors our loved ones and pets, ensuring their stories live on in a beautiful and remarkable diamond.”
Among the customers they spoke to, Cann says they found that many people appreciated Eterneva’s support network, as they were able to talk about their losses with others. “We also discovered that many customers found making diamonds out of cremains allowed them to carry the deceased in a way that was both palatable and portable — and, more socially acceptable in ways that cremains would not be.”
Cann says that when someone dies, we don’t just lose the person, but we lose the way the world looked around them — the future plans, the daily habits, the shared memories. “One’s identity can be changed overnight as a result,” she says. “The most important thing is to live in the present moment, one day at a time. It sounds cliché, but it’s true.” She also thinks that continuing bonds with the dead can really help people, whatever that might look like. “My great uncle put together a family cookbook of all of the family recipes with photos after my great grandmother (his mother) died, and sent everyone in the family a bound copy,” she says. “I love that little cookbook. It was his way of honoring her memory and legacy, and the fact that it was huge family meals that always brought us together.”