Research Paper By Gabrielle Gilliland
(Grief & Growth Coach, USA)
When I was little, my favorite piece of furniture in our house was a small table that my mother had acquired many years before I was born. The top of the table was a mosaic – a striking radial pattern made up of hundreds of pieces of marble and glass, no two alike. I would run my fingers over the uneven edges of the pieces and marvel at the intricate details. My mother explained that each piece had once been a part of another object that had been broken apart. The artist had strategically chosen and arranged the shards to create the stunning table – a work of art – that I carry as a crystal-clear memory to this day.
The glorious mosaic existed because something else – a plate, a vase – had been shattered to produce the pieces. That relationship made a permanent impression on me. Drawn to grief coaching, I have chosen a niche that I like to call “involuntary change”. I want to support clients who are experiencing grief in the midst, or facing the possibility, of a life event that they did not choose. The death of a loved one is not a pre-requisite for grief. Change – even the welcome kind – can signify the end of one or more facets of our lives, as we have grown accustomed to them. That transition can bring about feelings of loss, like something has been shattered. My prospective clients, whether they’ve lost a spouse, moved to an unfamiliar city, or are on the brink of retirement, are all experiencing the end of the world as they know it. As their coach, I want to support them, not only in adjusting to their new circumstances, but also in using the transition as an opportunity for growth and transformation. I want to walk beside them as they sort through the pieces of their lives and build their personal mosaics.
My own “mosaic” experience – supported by a coach – is what inspired me. Having witnessed the power of the transformation, I want to understand the process so that I might support others through it. This research paper is intended to be an exploration of the role of coaching through grief and growth, using the mosaic as a motif.
The Significance of the Mosaic
The idea of the mosaic imagery came to me after reading about Elizabeth Lesser’s “Phoenix Process” in her astounding book Broken Open, wherein she shares stories of people who, as they navigated incredible challenges and loss, “discovered a clearer sense of purpose and a new passion for life.” Lesser’s “Phoenix Process” is named after the mythical bird that, once every five hundred years, would burn to death only to be reborn out of the ashes as a new and truer version of itself. Lesser draws our attention to our inner Phoenix as we face change:
Our lives ask us to die and be reborn every time we confront change – change within ourselves and change in our world. When we descend all the way down to the bottom of a loss, and dwell patiently, with an open heart, in the darkness and pain, we can bring back up with us the sweetness of life and the exhilaration of inner growth.
While similar to the “Phoenix Process”, the image of the mosaic resonates more with me. Up close, the individual pieces of even the most complex mosaics are still visible. It’s a reminder that the process of creating a mosaic involves the releasing of underlying beliefs and the reframing of perspectives. If my life, as I know it, has been shattered like a glass vase, the only way I can rearrange the pieces into a beautiful mosaic is if I release myself from the belief that the vase could only ever be a vase. Transformation requires that I see everything differently.
A Two-Part Process
As I have come to understand it, the process of coaching a client through grief and involuntary change is made up of two parts. The first part is acceptance. The coach supports the client in accepting not only his current circumstances, but also in accepting his unique way and pace of grieving. Acceptance is all about letting go of the beliefs that keep us from residing in the present, and so it lays the foundation for the second part of the process: transformation. This is where the coach helps the client to find meaning in the change that he is experiencing, and develop a plan of action based on this new knowledge and clarity.
PART ONE: Acceptance
Accepting the Way We Grieve
What does grief look like? While the stages of grief are helpful for understanding the dynamic nature of the grieving process, they might also give the impression that the grief experience is wrapped in a tidy box, and getting through it is just a matter of following steps, like a recipe. We might also have pre-conceived notions of what grief is supposed to look like based on other grief experiences that we’ve seen or read. Coaches might encounter clients who are judging their own grief against outside standards. Our grief experiences are as unique as we are, and while it can be helpful to read inspirational stories about others, comparing experiences gets in the way of our acceptance of our own. No two objects will shatter in the exact same way, which is why the individual pieces of a mosaic are unique.
I did not connect perfectionism and grief until I read Brené Brown’s chapter on self-compassion in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown makes a clear distinction between perfection and self-improvement:
Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think?
Understanding this distinction can aid coaches in helping clients to replace perfectionism with self-compassion in order to accept their unique way of grieving. The most important way that coaches do this is by releasing judgment. Coaches accept clients exactly as they are, whatever their state. An effective coach does not question the client’s motives for grieving as the client’s friends and family might. In the safe coaching space, the client is free to express emotions and explore all the facets of his situation. The coach regards the client as the best judge of his own needs. In this safe space, the coach can use powerful questions to help turn the client’s attention away from outside standards of grief: What is grief supposed to look like? What is getting in the way of you trusting your intuition about your own grief?
Accepting What Is
It takes creativity to turn a pile of broken glass into a mosaic. But what does that creativity entail? As I mentioned earlier, I understand this stage of the process as an exercise in the release of underlying beliefs. Creativity is unleashed when the mosaic artist relinquishes the belief that those pieces of broken glass could only ever form the object that has since been shattered. Releasing underlying beliefs allows us to accept what is, because we let go of what we think should be.
In her book Loving What Is, Byron Katie describes underlying beliefs as “fundamental judgments of life…like religions that we unconsciously live.” We can carry certain beliefs around for so much of our lives that they seem inseparable from our identities. Katie offers four questions that are intended to help shed light on limiting beliefs. If a client is struggling to accept a new situation and expresses what appears to be an underlying belief, a coach might pose these four questions:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Underlying beliefs might sound like rules or guidelines that clients will state as though they are facts. My sister was too young to die of cancer. I don’t deserve anything that I did not work hard and earn for myself. I should never allow myself to cry in front of strangers. These beliefs feel like facts because they have gone unquestioned for so long.
Clients who are grieving an involuntary change might be holding onto the belief that, after a certain amount of time, everything should go back to “normal”. In so doing, they are judging the present against the past, and finding the past more favorable. How can we build a mosaic if we are so committed to what the glass object was before it broke apart? In Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser shares the story of Judi, who faced major life changes when her daughter was born with serious health issues, and she herself was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Judi describes making the conscious decision to accept her new circumstances:
I realized that my only hope was to give up the life that had been, in order to make room for the life that is. I call it my “choiceless choice”…It took me so long to abandon my desperate desire to continue my life “as usual”…Eventually, having MS gave me permission to ask for help. Even though it was an uncomfortable stance at first, I came to realize how powerful it is when I and, I would imagine, every human being admits to our weaknesses, admits to needing help.
By letting go of her underlying belief about her life going back to the way it was, Judi found herself finally free to ask for the help that she needed. Acceptance does not mean that we bind ourselves to suffering. Rather, it means that we free ourselves from the patterns of thinking that keep us there.
PART TWO: Transformation
The Freedom to Find Meaning in Difficult Circumstances
Like Elizabeth Lesser’s “Phoenix Process”, creating a mosaic is a re-birth of sorts. Pieces of broken glass are rearranged, strategically laid out, and some might be discarded if they are deemed unnecessary or detracting. Perhaps it’s through being shattered that previously overlooked details of the object are noticed. What’s key is that, in a finished mosaic, the original glass object still exists, but in a new – and more beautiful – context.
Transformation begins to take place when, in facing an involuntary change, we sort through and rearrange the pieces of our lives in a mindful and strategic way. Involuntary change becomes the catalyst for self-examination, and the ensuing discoveries are what give these events meaning.
I received Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning as a gift when I was a new university graduate – unemployed and lost. Frankl’s story of survival in the Nazi concentration camps was a source of great comfort to me during some of the darkest moments of my life, because it reminded me of the power of the human spirit to endure unspeakable tragedy. That Elizabeth Lesser makes special mention of Frankl in Broken Open is no wonder. The heart of Frankl’s message is that, no matter how terrible or uncertain the circumstances, human beings are always free to choose how to respond:
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
When a client is facing a difficult involuntary change, “freedom” might be the furthest thing from his mind. A coach can nurture the client’s freedom to find the meaning in the difficult circumstances by helping the client to see himself as a protagonist – the hero of his unique story. If this were a chapter in your life story, what would you want the reader to remember about you? The client might not be able to control what is happening, but he can direct his attention towards the meaning that the event holds for his life. What lessons are you learning as you go through this? Which of your qualities are supporting you? How do you want to show up? Turning the client’s attention toward this freedom can restore an invaluable sense of autonomy in the face of an event that is beyond the client’s control.
For the client who is facing grief and involuntary change, the process of acceptance and finding meaning in his circumstances has been an exercise in great discovery and learning. But how do these discoveries translate into observable transformation in the client? How does the mosaic move from the planning stage to completion? Action, which reflects the client’s newfound knowledge and self-awareness, puts everything into context. Action is commitment – the way in which we follow through on an intention.
An action step can be one of thought or deed. In Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser shares the story of Yedudah Fine, a rabbi and family therapist whose life, as he knew it, was turned upside down by a sudden car accident that left him severely injured, in terrible pain, and in need of a great deal of physical therapy. Yedudah’s experience brought him to a place of reevaluation, not only of his goals, but also of his idea of who he was. He describes how this reevaluation translated into action:
In my case, I made a conscious decision to stay with my core, to let its inner light be my beacon. And most of all, I was motivated by my children. I wanted them to see what was possible in a time of crisis. I wanted them to know that their father deemed in worthwhile, even in the middle of hell, to be a person who does not let go of what is precious in life. My daily practice now is to continually clean the chambers of my heart – to give and receive love, to stay present to myself and to others, to no longer flee, or worry, or procrastinate. I may act imperfectly, but I try to act boldly from my core values.
Yedudah’s example illustrates that “action” is not necessarily synonymous with “more” or “forward”. Coaches can support their clients by pointing out action steps where they might be overlooked. Making the decision to turn down an invitation or spend less time checking email every day are indeed action steps if they are in line with a client’s transformational process.
A coach can help a client gain clarity on what actions would be in line with his values and new self-knowledge – What values does this action support? Questions like What would you like to do more of? Or less of? can call the client’s attention to how he spends his time, and what factors are in his control. A question like What is step one? can assist a client in breaking down a seemingly insurmountable task into much smaller steps. Coaches aid clients in action simply by being coaches – available for “checking in” to help a client stay on track with new endeavors.
There is a quotation by the late writer Flannery O’Connor that I always keep close at hand. It reads, “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.” It serves as my reminder that, even in what seems like the worst of situations, there is something to be gained. It might be one small lesson that is buried deep, or perhaps a moment when I discover strength that I didn’t know I possessed. As I have come to understand it, coaching clients through grief and involuntary change is based on this very idea. Difficult circumstances offer us an opportunity to grow and transform into purer, stronger versions of ourselves. We build personal mosaics by taking the pieces of our shattered lives and rearranging them into something that is new and beautiful, but still consists of us. Coaches support clients in accepting their own grief, accepting their circumstances, finding meaning in those circumstances, and translating that newfound meaning into action. Having experienced this transformation in my own life, I want nothing more than to support others in experiencing it, too.
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
Villard Books (New York), 2005
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Hazelden (Minnesota), 2010
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life
Three Rivers Press (New York), 2002
Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor E. Frankl
Beacon Press (Boston), 2006
The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York), 1979
 Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow (New York: Villard Books, 2005), xxii.
 Lesser, Broken Open, 55-56.
 Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010), 56.
 Byron Katie, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002), 163.
 Katie, Loving What Is, 19.
 Lesser, Broken Open, 68-69.
 Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 65-66.
 Lesser, Broken Open, 91.
 Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 57.