Research Paper By Vanessa R Mazurek
(Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES)
With the worldwide rise of terrorism and mass shootings, and as a resident of a city which has fallen victim to tragedy, I found myself asking the question “What can I do as a coach in this time of crisis? As I watched tragedy unfold in my backyard, all around me, individuals were offering up their professional services to victims, and the victim’s loved ones: legal services, counseling, funeral services, floral arrangements, and even the gift of music, offered so generously by local musicians. I felt strongly compelled to find ways in which I too, might offer up my professional services in such a time of need.
Enter coaching. Coaching by definition is forward facing and action and goal oriented, “a form of development in which a person called a coach supports a learner or client in achieving a specific personal or professional goal” (Wikipedia). While we may not traditionally think of coaching in a time of mourning – “are individuals in the grieving process really looking to take action and achieve a goal?” – what if there were ways that we as coaches COULD meaningfully contribute in times of crisis? Perhaps in the form of Grief Coaching..?
Around the world, we’re seeing mass tragedy, whether it be acts of terrorism such as the March 2016 bombings in Belgium, the November 2015 attack in Paris, school shootings, or even the most recent mass shooting in Orlando, FL (June 2016), which has been named the ‘deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history”. With these catastrophic events on the rise, in 2016 alone, there were 154 mass shooting incidents (reported and verified) in the U.S., and 11,774 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2015, we all, as citizens of the world, are impacted in some way, whether direct or indirect. How can we best use our skill sets to give back in times of need?
This paper will explore the niche of Grief Coaching and how we as coaches, no matter what one’s niche may be, can use the fundamental tools and techniques germane to the field of coaching, to offer up our services to those in need during difficult times. The hope is that by just exploring some of the basics, we may be better prepared going forward.
What is Grief?
Oxford Dictionaries defines grief as “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death”. Taken a step further, grief can be defined as a multifaceted response to any loss, not necessarily that which was caused by a death. Grief, while largely an emotional response, can be tied to “physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions” and can be categorized as either physical (something that can be touched or measured) or abstract (Wikepedia). Much research has been done on the complexities of grief, with models such as the Kubler-Ross “5 Stages of Loss and Grief” (denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) attempting to define a universal process. However, the experience and manifestation of grief from one person to the next is as unique as the individual themselves. There is no “right order” for experiencing stages of grief, no right way to carry one’s grief, nor is there a right or wrong for how much time an individual will take to move through their grief.
While grief is not considered a ‘mental disorder” by the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, Fourth Edition, (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and as such does not require “treatment” by a mental health professional, there has been recent significant debate around the classification of grief with the APA’s update to the DSM-5, released in May 2013. Specifically, the DSM-IV included a clause called the “bereavement exclusion” which specified adjustment disorders or depression shouldn’t be diagnosed immediately following a significant death. In working to move to the DSM-5, clinicians and practitioners proposed including diagnoses such as “prolonged or complicated grief disorder” to acknowledge those 10-15 percent of grievers who have severe grief reactions and may require treatment in the form of medication (prescription-based) and/or counseling. While the DSM-5 committee reached agreement that at current there was no consensus for the addition of a disorder, they did remove the “bereavement clause” which had been part of the DSM-IV. As of May 2013, with the release of the DSM-5, individuals who are grieving a loss, may potentially be diagnosed with an adjustment disorder or depression (this is key for coaches to understand as they look to enter the realm of Grief Coaching).
So with grief by its nature being incredibly complex, and NOT currently classified as a disorder in and of itself, by the APA, what can we as coaches do to help?
What is Grief Coaching?
Grief Coaching, a specialty of Life Coaching, is a relatively new segment in the field of coaching. Similar to coaching as a collective, the intent is to transform. Grief Coaching creates a supportive, safe, and trusting space for those individuals experiencing grief, to work through the transitioning process, adjusting to and planning for their changed life. Grief Coaches may work with individual’s experiencing grief over any type of loss, whether it be death of a loved one, loss of a relationship (spouse, child, friend, etc.), loss of a home, or even loss of a job. In fact, some may argue that in almost any difficulty in life, there is an element of grief and loss.
As such, a Grief coach will work with clients to provide a safe space to discuss their loss and explore what the loss means to them, working through root causes (vice symptoms) and impacts to the individual’s identity and lifestyle. Grief coaches use fundamental tools of coaching to work the transformational process around these sensitive topics; powerful questioning, tools such as uncovering barriers, support systems, and discovering and developing strategies to transcend the grief. For most (those outside of the 10-15% mentioned above), grief is a normal transition, and partnering with a grief coach can support the individual in overcoming the challenge of looking ahead while facing the pain of their loss.
The Coaches Training Blog outlines six ways in which Grief Coaching helps individuals:
In addition to the above list, other ways in which a grief coach can provide support include:
Most importantly, a grief coach can provide an ear; someone who will just listen, free of judgement and suggestion or advice. At times of extreme sorrow, confusion, and loss, lending an ear may be what is needed most.
With a better understanding of Grief Coaching, how might we as coaches apply coaching in times of crisis?
Coaching vs. Counseling in Grief and Crisis
With the differences between coaching and counseling so often discussed, and words of warning to coaches to ensure understanding that coaching is NOT counseling, it is useful to explore the distinction between the two as it relates to a time of crisis, and understand the circumstances in which one approach may be more beneficial than the other; especially when we as coaches may be looking to volunteer our services immediately following a tragic event.
The below table serves as a reminder of the differences between coaching and counseling, in support of identifying considerations for providing coaching services following mass tragedy:
Based on the above, counseling may be best suited for those in need immediately following times of mass tragedy, given the large-scale impacts and extreme emotion commonly involved. However, that isn’t to say there is no place for coaching during these times. Coaches, knowing their limitations, may very well be able to provide their services. Let’s explore some of the considerations, and what this might look like.
Coaching Application and Considerations during Crisis
As outlined above, coaching and consulting have very different purposes, foci, and goals. However, the case for coaching exists when supporting individuals through the grieving process. Coaching as it pertains to mass-scale tragedies may take the shape of various forms, as a function of multiple factors:
1. Immediately Following an Event:
Coaches who are compelled to do so, may offer their services alongside other professions during times of mass tragedy. A coach’s role may be to simply provide a listening ear, assist the individual with identifying what their immediate needs are, and use fundamental coaching techniques such as creating a safe and trusting space, active listening, powerful questioning, structures/strategies, barriers, and acknowledgement, to walk alongside the individual as they process emotion, facilitating discovery of next steps, from the short-term “what’s next” planning, to even just the most simplistic action(s) the individual can take, to put the next foot forward.
2. Weeks, Months, Years Following an Event:
In the long-term, those weeks, months, or even years following a tragic loss, coaching can be of benefit to the client as they look to assess the impact this loss has had on their identity and life, and re-define their life in response to their loss.
Considerations when looking to provide coaching services in support of mass tragedy include:
If every life challenge has some form of grief and loss associated with it, and if eventually, we as individuals need to do the work of grief, coaching can be considerably advantageous in moving forward. As citizens of the world, experiencing what seems to be more and more mass tragedy, coaching CAN also support those directly or indirectly impacted.
While Grief Coaching is not my coaching niche, I’ve recognized a theme of loss across a few case studies within my coaching practice. I’ve worked with a client who was grieving the loss of a job as well as her home (as a function of the job loss). On more than one occasion she indicated she would often wake in the middle of the night and find herself crying. Her grief was such that she would cry in her sleep. I’ve also worked with a client who was grieving the loss of a beloved family member, and experiencing difficulty sleeping. In each of these cases, the common thread was in ensuring the meeting of basic needs, whether it be sleep, health, or well-being such as a level of income to support one’s self. It was imperative to explore the short-term “what’s next” plan and simple/immediate action (“small wins”) prior to moving into the more traditional way in which we define coaching: “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (ICF).
As such, had I previously explored the realm of Grief Coaching and understood how I might best apply the fundamentals of coaching as they pertain to grief and loss-centered topics, I may have been better situated to serve both my existing clients as well as my community, in its time of crisis.
The take-away is that grief and loss can surface in whatever niche you may be working in, and being prepared is key. If the coach has an awareness of this and can be mindful of the sensitivities at play, offering coaching services during these tragic times can be a beautiful thing.
So I challenge you, fellow coaches, to ask yourself “How might I use my coaching skills in times of crisis?”
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