Coaching Loss and Grief

Sometimes clients come to our sessions with heavy hearts: they have just lost something or someone important to them: a job, a client or even an important person in their life. Maybe they did not lose something but a hope was disappointed: they did not get the promotion, the university they wanted to attend did not accept them or the date that they had been looking forward to was horrible.

How can we support our clients in these type of situations?

Here are some thoughts that are heavily inspired by Michael White’s article: “Saying hullo again” which you can access at Dulwich Centre.

  1. Listen for what is important about what was lost or did not materialize

This is a bit counterintuitive — do we really want to encourage people to talk about what was lost? Yes, we do. Picture an Irish wake for a person who passed away: People are relishing in the memory of who was lost. They tell stories, laugh and cry and remember. It is a very human and healing way to come to terms with loss: remembering what was important about this.

I hear you say: “Fine, but how do you do that with a lost job?”. Maybe like this: “What did you appreciate most about the old job?”, “What are some things that you really want to make sure to have in the next job?”, “Are there things that you did not like and want different in the next one?”

In any case, leave room for the melancholy, the grief, the reminiscing without digging yourself and the client into a hole: Listen for “what was wonderful and important about this” rather than “how sad I am that it is no longer there” without judging the client for feeling sad. That’s normal and will fade as time goes by.

2. Slowly move from what the person valued about what was lost to a future orientation incorporating what was valuable

In working with grief, we can ask about what the person we lost would love to see our clients take forward, what they valued in the relationship, how that can live on. The same goes for many of these situations: “If you found a job that incorporated all the good bits of the old and you did not have to deal with the bits that you did not care for — what would that look like?”

Get a detailed description of what this will look like, what the client would be noticing and what other people would be noticing about the client if they can keep the important bits of what was lost alive. Here are some sample questions:

  • So nice that you connected with uncle Thomas around his strange sense of humor. If you kept that alive — what would tell you that this piece of your relationship was continuing onwards?
  • Ah — what you valued in your old job was the fun, the supportive atmosphere, the challenges — what else are you looking to keep? What would you like to change in a new job?

3. Start developing a coaching agreement from there

“Figuring out how to keeping important things alive” is a much better coaching agreement than “Coming to terms with a loss”. It allows for much more exploration and forward movement.

If you want to learn more about narrative techniques, consider enrolling in our bi-annual training “Narrative Coaching”. Registration and a description is here:

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