Everyone undergoes a grieving process at some point in their lives. It is usually associated with losing a loved one and can come in the most unusual and unexpected forms. For some people, they experience major breakdowns because of a failing career or a pet passing away. Therefore, one must know how to break away from the typical ways grief is supposed to be addressed. Joining Whitney Lauritsen is Victoria Volk of The Unleashed Heart, LLC, who shares how she guides others in doing grief differently. She explains how to navigate the ripples of sorrow, embrace the feeling of being misunderstood, and be comfortable with the topic of death. Victoria also discusses how to open a conversation and express support to a grieving person, as every word leaves a profound impact on a devastated heart.t.
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Unburden Your Heart And Live Unleashed With Victoria Volk
Learning To Do Grief Differently
I’m speaking with Victoria. On Victoria’s website, there is a lovely quote, which is, “There is no grief like the grief that does not speak,” from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. That reminds me of something Victoria and I were talking about right before we started, which was, at a party, it’s unlikely that you will talk about grief. This is something Victoria said that if the two of us were meeting at a party, she suspects it’s unlikely we would talk about grief. Victoria, I’m curious why you say that. Do you truly never find yourself talking about grief even though that’s your work? Does that not come up in a party setting? Why not?
A lot of that has to do with where I live, which is Germans from Russia, where the heritage and the background are very much stoic. People that settled here were hardcore people that had to survive harsh winters. Quit your bitching, get on with it. It is what it is. That pull yourself up from your bootstraps type of mentality. We don’t talk about our feelings like, “What are those?” It’s because of what I know about grief, and we resort to what we know. As parents, we resort to what we know, especially when it comes to grief. If I was never taught how to grieve or what that process looks like in a healthy way, I’m going to probably pass on the lessons I learned from my parents.
That’s why the cycle of misinformation and how we as a society have gotten away from talking about death and dying, and even the dying process. We leave the end-of-life care to other people, and we leave funeral arrangements. Yes, you have to be involved but we give someone else that job to handle it. We don’t want any part of that. No one wants to have to make all those decisions at the end of life. I’m not sure how I’ve got to that point. They call this area the Iron Curtain. It’s this triangular area where Germans from Russia came. You don’t talk about your feelings. You stuff them down, drink and eat comfort food. That’s what a lot of people I grew up with.
That’s fascinating. It’s got my wheels turning because I wonder how I became someone who is open because my parents seem somewhere in between. I also have German heritage. When I think about my grandfathers, for example, one of my grandfathers was Ukrainian, the other German, Irish, a mix from what I remember. They both had that traditional demeanor about them. Especially my Ukrainian grandfather felt less talking about his feelings.
I don’t even remember him feeling warm as a grandfather. My other grandfather with the German side felt warmer but even so, I don’t recall feelings being a big thing with him unless we were talking about something related to his religion, Christianity, and maybe a God-related feeling type of discussion there. He was loving. My parents are both loving but they too didn’t like to talk about it in the way that I am.
The reason I started off the conversation this way with you, Victoria, is because I would be someone who would talk about grief at a party. That would interest me because I love exploring maybe the taboo or the deeper things. I detest small talk. I also don’t like feeling restricted from my feelings. I feel like the more I am encouraged to button up and not share, the more I want to. It’s like I’m bursting at the seams. If someone like you were to start a conversation about grief, I would be enthralled.
I would want to know every detail, even if you were a complete stranger. I don’t know how I became that way but that’s somehow became part of my life. I did grow up in Massachusetts in a town that felt Liberal and anything kind of when, and you were allowed to explore things. Maybe it is based on the area that you are in is not so much about the heritage and your parents. What do you think about that, given that you grew up in North Dakota? Do you feel like everyone is like that? Do you feel more in touch about your feelings? Do you feel like you are on the outskirts with the work that you do?
I have been reflecting more on that in the last few years, specifically since I have been doing this work. Before I was doing this work, I felt alone in a lot of ways. That’s why we tend to grieve alone, especially if our environment isn’t one of openness in conversation. It does take someone to initiate that. What I’m finding is that there are people that are curious and more so about the energy work that I do, not necessarily the grief, because people don’t want to talk about their grief in that environment probably. Unless they maybe had a few. It’s not that I don’t think there aren’t people who don’t want to talk about it.We tend to grieve alone, especially if our environment isn't one of openness and conversation. Click To Tweet
As a kid, I would be the kid that would order the book on palm reading. I was like you, I felt like an odd duck. I felt like I was born in the wrong place or at the wrong time because I was into the mystical. I was into the strange stuff. I felt misunderstood most of my childhood. It’s because of my personal grief experience I did have a difficult time connecting with people because no one I knew had ever lost a parent when they were a child. I had also experienced sexual abuse after my dad passed away when I was a kid. I had a lot of grief and trauma. I kept people at a distance because talking about what I felt wasn’t safe. I didn’t feel safe to do so.
I internalized much of my grief and my trauma. There are some kids who are deemed problem children because they are outwardly expressing through anger, behavior, and outbursts. Maybe they start drinking at a young age. Maybe they start using drugs. Maybe they are getting into fights at school. They are considered problem children but people don’t look at, “What is their situation?” They are just learning how to cope. They don’t know how to cope. That’s how they are coping with what they are feeling. There were kids who were like me, who then developed self-worth and issues and were people pleasers and had to be the strong ones emotionally because it wasn’t safe for me to fall apart. You feel like you want to be the best that you can be in whatever you are doing.
You might have these perfectionist tendencies. There are these two camps of grievers for kids. I was the wallflower that didn’t want to rock any boats that didn’t feel worthy. We carry that with us into adulthood. It is my belief that adulthood is childhood reenactments. We are a lot of adults when it comes to grief that are wearing diapers. We just don’t know. As children, when we come out of the womb, we know how to express ourselves. We know how to express when we are crying, hungry, tired, and in pain. When we do not feel safe, we probably cry like a baby.
As you get older, by the age of three, you have learned 75% from your environment on how you will cope with certain situations. By fifteen, we have learned the remainder of how we will address big problems in our lives. Even though our frontal lobes are developed over 25, 15 to 25, that is a monumental time. Not only being a teenager but if you don’t have support, you don’t have that education or communication about how to address your feelings or emotions. That’s where we see a lot of the issues we do in society with young adults, the divorce rate, the addiction rate, suicide rate, all of it, it’s all grief. We take ourselves everywhere we go. You can’t outrun it. I know there was a lot of stuff in there.
I feel mesmerized by what you are sharing. It breaks my heart a bit. There are times where I wish I could even go back. In the movies, I could go back and see my life and what happened when I was three years old. What are the things that occurred that I don’t remember? Going back to my parents, sometimes I will ask them questions to try to better understand what’s happening but I don’t think they were super in touch. They were looking maybe at raising me from a more practical level, not this as you were saying. You and I are similar in the spiritual, mystical side of it, which has appealed to me over time. In fact, a little side note, a few years ago, I asked my dad what my birth time was. He looked it up and told me, “Why do you ask?”
I was like, “I wanted to look up my numerological chart, what are my signs and all those things.” I was curious. My dad was laughing at me also in a mocking way like, “Do you believe in that stuff?” I was like, “I don’t know. I’m curious about it.” My dad is an open person but for things like that, he thinks it’s weird. He thinks it’s silly and impractical. How could I trust him to share details about me when I was three that would help me better understand myself. It would probably be like, “You are a normal three-year-old.”
I do think that it’s important. I wish that more parents were aware of the developments and documented them in these ways that give us these clues because, to your point with adulthood being so deeply connected to our childhoods, it’s important. Many of us brush through those stages of our life to almost get it over with, we are focused on having fun or setting ourselves up for success later in life. For me, success is tied to who I am as a person and how I’ve got that way. If I don’t understand why and who I am, how can I be successful? To your point, my heart breaks for all the people that I was growing up with that were probably going through different types of traumas. Some of them may be the more classic experiences but I didn’t even know they were happening because, to your point, most kids either act out, and we see them as trouble.
How awful for them to grow up feeling like the bad kid. I can’t imagine. I was similar to you, Victoria, where I wanted to be the good kid. I was either quiet or the teacher’s pet or trying to be friends with everybody. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to feel good, a good person, all those people pleasing things. That was me. I’m going to view a kid that acts out as a bad kid but I had no knowledge at that time of why they might be acting that way. It’s so sad from a societal level that we have put people in these boxes as if there’s something inherently wrong with them versus examining how they’ve got to that point.
What came to my mind is thinking about, and I didn’t expect to go here but our medical system, even a PhD. You go see your doctor. They never ask you what happened to you. Here’s the deal, everything is connected. Our emotions and thoughts have energy. Where your focus goes, your energy flows. Wherever your focus is. If you are downward spiraling and feeling depressed and down, you had a traumatic loss, trauma or whatever the case was, and you are in this emotional stuckness, and then you start having physical manifestations of that.
When I was sixteen, I was told I had IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I was emotionally constipated. I didn’t have an outlet to express. I started to journal, and then my mom read my journal. I’m like, “I can journal.” I slept a lot as a kid. As adults, that doesn’t change. We have these physical manifestations. We either implode or we explode.
It could mean fibromyalgia, rosacea, hair loss or this physical pain that has no explanation. Oftentimes it is things that have no explanation. They don’t know what’s causing it. You go to the doctor. They don’t ask what happened to you. That’s not in the equation. Your emotional wellbeing is not in the equation of your physical wellbeing. There’s one in the same. They are connected to each other. If we don’t implode, then we are exploding. We are like that child that is acting out, that’s getting into fights, that’s pushing people away before they get too close. We are probably struggling in our relationships. These patterns repeat in our lives over and over. We just don’t connect the dots that it’s grief.
That is profound and fascinating. Similar to what you are saying here is, I also feel sad that we are not taught a lot of these things but how could we be taught them if our parents don’t know it or our parents aren’t interested in them. Our medical system, which is based on generally older generations, if their generation wasn’t encouraged, allowed or interested in these things, it’s not going to show up. I’m also deeply fascinated by a lot of the gender elements of our medical system, the racial elements. There are many factors of what we are taught about our bodies that are based on outdated information and limited information about the population where a lot of women are left out of these studies.
People that aren’t White are left out, people that are growing up in different economic situations, different parts of the country. There are many variables. A lot of people, I feel like are walking around completely unaware of what’s going on with their body or their minds. We have a major mental health issue in this country, at least if not the world. I feel like, in the US, it’s so rampant but yet who’s talking about these things that you are bringing up, which sound obvious to me now. I’m grateful for people like you that are doing this work because we need more awareness around it.
Medically, I was catching something. I saw, not on the news, it was some special or a program or something. They were talking about basically the brain and how this isolation through COVID and headaches, migraines, all of this stuff is we are changing our brains. There’s atrophy of the brain. We are literally changing our brains by not connecting with people. All of this stuff on TV and the news, watching this stuff, what we are putting in our bodies, the stress that we are under, all of these things, I don’t think we will understand the consequences and the implications of what COVID-19 has caused us. I don’t think at least for another 5, 6, 7 years.
What boggles my mind is that this I did see on the news, then I was like, this is on the news now, “Where were you 30 years ago?” Now they are talking about children and grief and how they are losing their parents and loved ones. Due to COVID-19, I’m thinking children were always losing their parents. They were always losing loved ones. They were always in poverty. They were always in broken homes. They were always living with a parent that maybe had an addiction. All of these circumstances didn’t just come about because of COVID. It’s not all because of COVID. This stuff existed long before. For me, one thing I always say is grief has been our pandemic long before COVID-19 was. It will continue to be until we come to the understanding that we are our own worst enemies, that until we learn new knowledge, apply that knowledge, and integrate it into our lives, the cycle will repeat.
That is also well-articulated and interesting. I don’t think I’ve heard it phrase that way. Grief has been talked about in some, I don’t know if new is quite the right term but from a cultural perspective, it feels new because grief, in general, seems to be something, as you started off talking about, that we put under the rug. We see everything going on in the Ukraine now. I almost feel like that’s being looked at a bit differently because we have new media outlets and different connections. We are able to see information about what’s happening in real time differently.Adulthood is childhood reenactment. We're just a lot of adults wearing diapers when it comes to grief. Click To Tweet
What I don’t know is, are we more sensitive and aware of grief or are we becoming more numb to grief because it has been so in our face for the past two plus years? What have you observed about that? Are people learning to cope with grief better or are they getting worse because there’s so much of it that they don’t feel like they can handle it?
It’s because of COVID, it’s all in our face at once. All of these other issues due to COVID that keep inflicting, it’s more cuts. Like inflation, gas prices, food prices, and interrelationships. You are confined to one space now. You are not getting out as much. Maybe you lost your job. Maybe you had to move because you lost your job. All of these changes that happen it’s all ripples. The ripples of this it’s not just one loss. Are we desensitized to grief? I don’t know. We try to turn a blind eye to it. As we’ve gotten away from the dying process, we are as hands-off as we possibly can be. I don’t know the exact years or timeframe but I know you could look at older pictures, black and whites, the 1800s, maybe even early 1900s. Families would keep their loved ones with them and take pictures with their dead loved ones as if they were living. Mothers would have their deceased babies, and they would take a family portrait with the deceased baby.
I talked to someone in my podcast, Grieving Voices. She’s like, “I was three years old, and my older sister died. She was seven. I wasn’t at the funeral.” My mom kept her and her sister with someone else. They were not at the funeral. She didn’t take him to the funeral. As an eight-year-old child, I was at my dad’s funeral but because there was no communication about what happens or what death means or what now, I made up my own stories. I saw him go to the ground and I thought, “That’s what happens when you die. You go into the ground, and that’s it.” This was the thing where beliefs can either be a hindrance or they can be a positive thing because we do pass on our beliefs too.
My mom and her own devastation of her grief, there was no talking about what we were going to do now but we didn’t go to church anymore. I didn’t feel like there was this continuation of the relationship with my dad. I didn’t feel like I could talk to him. I didn’t feel like he was still present in any way, shape or form. That shaped my beliefs moving forward and got me away from any belief whatsoever. I, in my heart, rejected God, I was angry. I was an angry child and became an angry adult but that anger was internalized. I was self-critical of myself, shameful, guilt, and all of those things.
I used alcohol to soothe. To your point, when we don’t know what to do or what to say, we either do nothing or we resort to what we know. That will be dependent on what your beliefs are. I always find it curious how they will show the abuse of animals and pets. They actually show the animals in their abused environment. Imagine if they showed children but they don’t. First of all, it’s probably privacy. I get that, reasons and stuff but you can talk about this stuff all day long, the hard stuff. You can just talk about it but until you have experienced it or until you know someone who’s experienced it, or unless you are working in that area, it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.
It seems like many people believe the best way to handle trauma is to pretend it didn’t happen to you or someone else. It’s like, “We are going to move on. This is how we cope.”
I can’t imagine that happening but I don’t want to imagine it happening to me.
Maybe that’s why you are saying like at a party, people don’t talk about grief. It’s awkward. This has become a newer passion of mine. I have had a few guests on the show discussing things like how do you talk to somebody who’s gone through grief. This is a topic on the show. I’m interested in that because I don’t want to sweep things under the rug because everything that I have learned about well-being to your point says that we should address it but we should also check in with people and see, “Do they really want to pretend it’s not happening? Do they want to have a small talk about their loss? Do they want somebody to show that they deeply care and that there’s someone there for them?”
You had mentioned earlier, Victoria, that it can feel so lonely and you can feel misunderstood. One of the hardest things for people to go through is that they are alone and misunderstood. “Nobody is going to understand what I’m going through. I’m going to either act out or get quiet to hide it so that I can be further disconnected from people because I’m afraid if I connect with them, they are not going to understand me. That’s going to be more painful.”
Here’s a thing or when you do, and then that person says something hurtful or harmful unintentionally, then it’s like, “I learned my lesson now. Shut down, put the armor up.” That’s why with my podcast, through the story, you are also learning how to communicate with people. I will ask questions like, “What are some helpful tips that people shared with you? What are some things that you heard that were unhelpful or hurtful?” It’s very much an education podcast as well. I want people to understand that grief isn’t about death. No one has to die for you to be a griever. You could’ve lost a dream. You could have had a college scholarship, and then you’ve got injured or something, and you had to kiss that goodbye.
There are many ways in which we grieve. It’s like, “That happened. I swept it under the rug. I’m good to go. I dealt with that. I don’t have to bring that up.” It’s going to come up again eventually in your life. I guarantee it. I will put money down on it. Eventually, those same feelings will come up differently, shape or form as grief. The patterns repeat. That’s what happens. This is the thing, we are in a relationship with our coworkers, parents, siblings, friends, boss, the cashier down the street, the postmaster, all these people we see daily.
You ask anyone, “How are you doing?” “I’m fine.” It stops there. That’s what they will say. I will give you a clue. When people say, “I’m fine,” that’s really feelings inside not expressed. You can tell when someone is bullshitting you. You can tell a genuine like, “I’m really good. What about this?” Let’s say you do ask but you are not in a time or space to hear the answer. People can sense that too. People can sense if it’s pleasantries or if you genuinely do have the time and space to hear the answer. Sometimes this is where grievers can become cynical and feel like you are just another person that’s digging and wanting information, wanting to know what happened, how I’m doing, if I’m falling apart or if I’m keeping it all together.
That’s why grief is like this. You ride the wave? It’s the ups and the downs. You feel crazy in the midst of that. You have people that don’t know what to say or what to do. Because of that, they don’t say anything. You feel like that indifference means they don’t care. That’s why it’s so difficult to maintain relationships when you are in grief because you are all bringing your own stuff. Even the person asking the question is projecting their own stuff. I want to ask you how you are doing but I’m afraid when is going to bring up for me. Let’s keep it to small talk because I’m more comfortable with that. Many people are afraid to go deep. I’m like you. “Let’s skip the small talk. Tell me your dreams. Tell me what makes you tick. Tell me where’s one place you would love to visit. What keeps you up at night?”
There’s this memory that’s come up for me a number of times when I’ve reflected on grief. It’s interesting how poignant things can be. If you don’t think about it that often, they seem insignificant. For me, I have this vivid memory of being in the high school cafeteria with one of my classmates whose brother died very tragically. He died right before the summer break.
I didn’t know her brother well but I remember feeling the sadness of the situation. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts in a small school system. Anything tragic that happened, especially in the school that I was in, you would feel it. There were only a few instances of that. Previous to her brother, one kid that was a year or two older than me died also tragically from a brain aneurysm or something. I remember being curious about it but no one would talk about it. I’m young and trying to figure out what this means. I didn’t realize kids my age could die, all of that processing. This girl in the cafeteria, it was after summer break. I went up to her and said, “How was your summer?”
She was with a few friends. They all looked at me as she responded, “It wasn’t that great,” or something like that. It hit me at this moment. I felt embarrassed because I don’t know if I either had forgotten that her brother had passed away a few months before or I was trying to connect with her by asking her how she was doing. She responded in a way like, “Obviously, not good because my brother died.” I remember feeling awful like, “I said the wrong thing.” I also have this memory of it probably being so evident on my face of I don’t know what else to say. I walked away or something and sat with that embarrassment or even shame.Wherever your focus goes, your energy flows. Click To Tweet
That felt like such a deep memory that it’s come up to me all these years later and reminded me of how uncomfortable it is when you do feel like you’ve said the wrong thing, even when you are trying so hard to connect with somebody. Maybe I carried that through with me of like, “You better not say the wrong thing, Whitney. You either shouldn’t talk to somebody in grief or you need to be fully prepared and know how to talk to them. Otherwise, you are going to put your foot in your mouth again.”
Even to your point, there’s trauma on the opposite side of not being able to handle grief properly for somebody else and feeling the responsibility of like, “I don’t want to make this person feel worse. I have all this weight to handle it well.” Sometimes I’m recognizing that there’s no perfect way to address grief. Would you say the same thing, Victoria? There’s no guidebook of like, “When you talk to somebody who’s going through grief, this is what you say. Once they say that, then you are going to say this next thing. This is how you structure a perfect conversation.” I don’t think that exists.
You can’t orchestrate that. I do think it is meeting the person where they are at, not where you are at. If you are genuinely approaching that person in the space of compassion and love, it has nothing to do with you and how awkward you feel. You can see it. If you are uncomfortable, you reek of it. It’s learning to understand grief itself. Why it’s so hard, especially if you’ve not experienced it yourself or if you are denying it for yourself. What I say too is you can only sit with someone in their grief to the capacity that you’ve sat in your own. There is a handbook on grief. It’s called The Grief Recovery Handbook.
This is me trying to go through a program or learning the grief recovery method. I have sticky notes all the way around it. It’s full of highlighting. This is my deep desire to help other people and to figure my own self out. We don’t heal on an island. We need community and support. That’s what I’ve learned when I tried to go through this book myself and apply the knowledge and implement it myself, you can’t. You need a guide. You need somebody that can be a true heart with yours, that’s not going to analyze, criticize or judge your experience. There is a handbook for that.
I’m glad that you brought that up because I love handbooks and guides. There’s something at least to steer you in the right direction. It feels similar to why therapy is helpful. A lot of us feel like we can handle it on our own. I can read enough about something that I can figure it out but a lot of times, especially when it comes to complexities like grief, it is deeply helpful to have somebody who is skilled in guiding and having a podcast like yours, for example, where you are hearing from people and learning.
It’s like an education that we don’t get in school but we have to seek out on our own. It has only been in probably 2021 or so that I became even interested in talking to people about grief. I love what you said about how you can only sit with somebody in their grief to the capacity that you’ve sat with it on your own. Part of that leads me to think, “I have had the privilege of not experiencing a lot of grief,” but then you said something else earlier about how grief comes in all different forms. I’ve experienced grief.
I’ve lost all my grandparents. That was sad from a death standpoint. I’ve had the privilege of not losing that many other people to death aside from that. I’ve lost a lot of animals growing up. That was something else I was thinking about as you were talking. I grew up on a small farm and all sorts of tragic deaths with animals. Sometimes when I think about it, it is hard, some of the ways that we’ve lost cats and dogs and various pets that we had, horrible things. They get hit by cars or wild animals. Those are generally the two ways that it would happen. I grew up with that being coming commonplace.
I don’t know if I’ve actually ever spent that much time processing it because it was like, “This is sad but we moved on.” I almost felt like I was numb to it because it was so frequent. I became a bit concerned about like, “How do I protect this animal? I want them to live their life and enjoy it.” I also want to watch their every move because I don’t want anything tragic to happen to them because I don’t want to have to go through that again. It’s not something that I have given much thought to because I think our society, in a lot of ways, glosses over animal death or doesn’t value it.
You brought it up too. We have seen a lot of animal abuse. We almost see animals a little bit more disposable. Even your point about we don’t see child abuse in the way that we see animal abuse because of privacy. That’s interesting. We don’t give another species the respect of privacy but there is a ton of trauma in losing an animal that you are close to. It’s tough. For some people, they feel like it’s as tough as loosing another human being. Is this something that comes up a lot in your work?
I have a client that had lost their dog. What can happen, especially for adults is if we have trouble connecting with other adults, a pet can be that barrier that you put there in place to protect you from other people. You give all the love you have to give to that animal. You don’t need another person. Animals give unconditional love. They don’t criticize, analyze or judge. They don’t talk back. They don’t complicate your life. They are emotionally there for you. There was a lot of missed opportunity for you as a child in talking about death and the natural processes of life and dying and things like that. For children, the death of an animal is often the first death that a child may experience.
What do parents say, “That’s all right, Whitney. We will go to the pet shop next week. We will get you another dog. Let’s replace the loss.” We learned that as children to replace the loss, and we replace the loss as adults. That’s 1 of the 6 myths of grief. Let’s say then that you replaced that loss and you don’t have an outlet to express. If you said, “Mom, I loved that dog like it was my best friend.” For some children, that might be their best friend if they have trouble connecting with other children. They didn’t just lose a dog. They lost their best friend. If they can’t talk about that and there’s no communication, they learn to grieve alone. That’s another myth of grief, grieve alone. You become an adult that grieves alone.
I was a child that grieved alone. I would hide to cry, and then I would fall asleep under the bed, crying myself to sleep. I would fall asleep in the linen closet. I could not express myself openly and cry openly, so I hid to cry. I grieved alone. I did that well into my adulthood. When I went through grief recovery, this is the book that we used that I facilitated in the program. It’s The Grief Recovery Method. It’s in my program, to do grief differently because we do need to learn how to do grief differently. If I said to you, time heals, what’s the rest of it? What’s the rest of that phrase?
Everybody knows it, and it’s bullshit. Time does nothing but pass. It’s the action you take in time that matters. We are also taught to keep busy. If you have parents, let’s say you lost a grandparent, your parent lost their parent. You don’t sit down and talk about the loss. Your parent goes into overdrive and starts doing all the funeral planning and doing all the things, and then they bury themselves in work. You see that as a child. “I don’t talk about it. I grieve alone, and I keep busy. You’ve got to keep yourself busy. Pour yourself into your work.” You will find adults telling other adults that, “I’m struggling.” A griever might say, “I’m struggling. I don’t know what to do.”
Keep yourself busy, so you don’t think about it. Dismiss your feelings. Even as kids too back to the dog story, “Don’t feel bad. You are a child who’s being bullied, don’t feel bad. Here, have a cookie. Do you want to go for ice cream? That will make you feel better.” Now, as a child, you are learning to self-soothe with food. You are replacing that loss and grieving alone. We learn, all of us. These are the six myths. We all learn them by the behaviors that are emulated for us because our parents don’t know any different because they haven’t been taught.
This is why I say the cycles repeat over and over. Another one, be strong. Other adults would say that to other adults, “You are so strong. I can’t believe you are so strong. You are holding it together” If I were the person that was falling apart, you would say how much I’m falling apart. I can’t let that happen. What does it mean to be strong? It’s not human if you let yourself cry and feel. That’s what being human is. You can be strong or you can be human.No one has to die for you to be a griever. Click To Tweet
Much is coming up as you are talking about this, which is making me feel even more compelled to dig deeper in learning about grief because it’s fascinating where your brain goes as you hear all these examples that you are giving. First of all, I also somehow got messages about the insignificance. I learned to hide the grief around animal death because I figured people would think, “Why are you so upset about it?” I remember calling into school after I thought one of my cats had died, and I was embarrassed to say I wasn’t going to go to school that day because my cat had died. They are not going to understand that I’m upset about this death. At least once, this is how frequently the animals growing up would pass away.
It happened before school. Other times it would happen after school. I have all these little memories. Even at this moment, I’m like, “I haven’t thought about that in a long time. I probably should do some processing as an adult around that.” Luckily my parents were helpful because their sensitivity and care for animals were demonstrated. We had all these rituals and burials of animals. It wasn’t glossed over by them in any major way but I’m sure in some subtle ways, there was some energy of like maybe they thought it was best if we got another cat. When I was little, my first cat that I was bonded to, his name was E.T, after the movie E.T because I loved that as a kid. We had two cats with the same name.
At this moment, I’m like, “Did we get a second cat and name it the same name? Did I choose that as a kid because it felt like a replacement? Did my parents give that name as a way of like, ‘Maybe she’s too young to realize a second cat?’” I have to ask. I’m going to have a lot of questions from my parents after this episode but I wanted to go back to some of the points you are making, how my parents handled the grief of their pets as well. My parents each had animals before I was born. I grew up with some animals that were their first children virtually. I remember the significance of them losing those animals.
That grief was evident but when their parents passed, it was interesting because for my mom, she had different reactions to when her mother passed versus her dad based on her relationship. There was so much intensity to her grief for her father. My sister and I didn’t know how to handle it. It was uncomfortable for us to witness our mother grieving because my mother was outward. Even to this day, this was 2007 that might her dad had passed. It’s another one of those myths of the time healing.
My mom, if you bring up her dad, it’s still raw for her after all this time. It did not fade away after a year or so. It lessened in intensity. I wonder if she learned to hide it more. There’s probably a lot more grief there than I ever even witnessed. With my father, he had a slightly different reaction to his parents’ deaths but he was close to each of them. I distinctly remember, though, after his dad died, who I was close to as well. The last day of my grandfather’s life, my dad went to see him. I wanted to go with him, and he wouldn’t let me.
It was emotional for me because it was processing my feelings around my grandfather. I remember that debate of like, “Do I insist that I go with my dad?” I am confused to this day. I don’t know why he wouldn’t let me go. He was so distraught over losing his father that he didn’t know how to hold space for him and me at the same time. He was panicked. I remember him even pausing. I was with my dad, and I remember him driving away.
I haven’t thought about this for so long. I remember my dad hesitating but I could tell that he didn’t want me to go because he didn’t know what to do. He knew that this was the last time he was going to see his dad, and he could not handle me being there for it. It was interesting but I wanted to be strong for him. I was like, “I’m going to be strong, and I’m going to let my dad go on his own because that’s what he wants.” I almost felt like I had to step aside for my dad to grieve. What was also really interesting is after his dad passed, my dad was completely different. He swung in the opposite direction, where he seemed relieved and happier like lighter.
His whole personality shifted after his dad died. It was witnessing the weight that it took off. I was unprepared for that. I was building up expectations, “He’s going to come home from seeing his dad the last time. I’ve got to be strong.” I was so scared of how my dad was going to react to that but he reacted in a way I could never have prepared for. I don’t know if this is in the guidebook but I had no preparation for my dad’s grief. It was unpredictable to me. It taught me so much about grief because I was like, “There’s so much happened that I never saw coming.” I am curious. Are you surprised by grief regularly with your clients? What does this bring up for you when you hear that?
First of all, I want to honor what you shared. Thank you for sharing what you did because that’s the thing with grief. It comes up when we least expect it. Without knowing the relationship, I will give an example. Let’s say, and here’s an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered, is with aging parents. I will use that as an example. If it is their mind that is going, it’s difficult for the family but it’s not as difficult for them because they don’t understand. They are not in their right frame of mind to know what’s happening to them. It’s not as hard on them as it is on the family.
I know that’s not always the case because you can have a slow progression of early onset Alzheimer’s, and they do have an understanding of what’s happening that cognitive decline. That’s not what I’m speaking to but whereas if you have a parent that has a terminal illness, that’s much harder on the person who’s dying because they know what’s happening and what’s coming. It’s hard for the family to watch that slow decline and that suffering but right there, the one that’s suffering and they know they are suffering and what’s coming. Unless we have reconciled our grief and what’s happened to us throughout our life, we can have a different end-of-life experience. I say that as an end-of-life doula because I’m a trained end-of-life doula, we can have a beautiful dining experience.
That one that includes the family, that there isn’t a separation of the truth of what’s happening because we tend to medicalize dying. There’s this denial on the family’s part like denial of what’s happening. “Let’s try everything. Let’s throw everything at the kitchen sink at it.” The doctors in the hospitals, that’s what they do because they are there to keep the person alive. What they often do is prolong the inevitable. They are not honest with the family and with the patient. I have an episode on that, Chris Kerr, who is an end-of-life researcher. He used to be an ER physician. Now he has dedicated the rest of his career now to the end of life. He’s a hospice physician. He’s documented end-of-life experiences. It was a Netflix docuseries you might be interested in called Surviving Death.
He’s featured in that docuseries. Back to what you had said with the pets and things. Two of the most minimized losses are pet loss but also miscarriage. If you think of how common miscarriages are like 1 in 5 babies are miscarried, that’s a lot. It’s become commonplace. It’s common for dogs, cats, and pets to die too. We have as a society become desensitized to that. Interestingly too, the suicide rate of veterinarians is high because they get into the profession because they love animals. Here they are having to put animals down and seeing animals suffer. My youngest wants to be a veterinarian. She’s the first one that sees an injured bird, and she’s trying to nurse it.
We actually had that happen, a baby pheasant. She found a baby pheasant, and it died. It needed more heat. She needed the heat lamps and all of this stuff that she couldn’t. She was crushing wheat and trying to make it food and stuff or oats. She’s this natural nurturer of nature. That’s what a lot of veterinarians are. I wanted to bring that up because we don’t think about that stuff. You get into the profession to heal, save and help. There’s another side of it too.
It’s interesting in this conversation with you because it’s so complex and nuanced. It’s all around us. It’s interesting how we try to hide something that’s inevitable. We try to hide something that’s constantly happening. Now I can look out my window where I am in the city, and I can see other housing units, where other people live in. If I think like, “That person might be experiencing death in their life today or yesterday, or maybe it’s quickly approaching. What if somebody died across the street? The chances of death happening now to somebody on my block is probably pretty likely. It’s there. It’s happening, and yet brush it aside all of the time and talk about it in these superficial ways.
Maybe we reserve the periods of grief for only certain people or certain things. One of my takeaways is it’s around us in these big ways and small ways, and in a way, maybe grief is something that we experienced multiple times a day in all different forms. There’s almost something like comforting around that as a coping mechanism if I am drawn to grief because I want to be prepared. I’m grateful for that experience I shared about my dad and his dad because it did teach me that you can’t really be that prepared because there are also so many unknowns.
Even if you know it’s coming, it’s the finality of it. It’s final. You can’t prepare for the finality of it. If you are a caregiver, every day of your life is devoted to caring for that person. All of a sudden, they are gone. You are going to feel that for a long time to come because grief is a change in a familiar pattern of behavior. We also define grief as a loss of hopes, dreams, expectations, and anything you wish would have been different, better or more. It’s reaching for someone one last time, and they are not there. It could be someone living too. We can have emotional estrangement from people in our lives. You want that person to be something they are never going to be. That’s grief too.You can only sit with someone in their grief to the capacity you've sat in your own. Click To Tweet
That is not discussed. All of these examples are there frequently. I’m grateful for the work that you do and the conversations that you have on your podcast because it raises that awareness for ourselves but also for others, thinking about how we can hold space for other people and give them grace. We go around so much of life feeling disconnected and misunderstood. I have this yearning to connect with people on deeper levels. To do that, I need to understand or I want to understand grief more. That, to me, is the ultimate way to connect. That brings me back to the beginning of this conversation, where I said maybe I’m drawn to talking about grief because it feels like the ultimate form of vulnerability. Vulnerability to me leads to connection.
Many of us are walking around with our armor up. There are few people that feel safe to talk to that stuff about because, out of fear of being criticized, analyzed or judged, it’s how do you open that window. It might be just asking a simple question or maybe a direct question. It’s such a taboo. If someone who is dealing with depression asks them, “Are you having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else?” “I would never ask somebody that.”
Most people would never ask somebody that who is feeling depressed. “Are you having suicidal thoughts? Are you thinking about harming yourself or someone else?” Are you willing to handle the answer? You really don’t want the answer because if it is yes, what are you going to do? “I would never ask that question,” most people would say. I have had to ask a loved one that. It’s not easy but it opens the door to conversation. Sometimes people just need someone to open the door for them so they feel safe to share.
I would want that. You are right. It’s not easy but I also feel like I would rather try and know that I gave it my best shot versus not asking somebody something that could potentially shift things. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to prevent anything. Just because somebody talks about their struggles doesn’t mean that they are going to change their actions.
Here’s the thing, personal space is personal space. If you see someone struggling with something, say, “Can I give you a hug?” You go hug them. Here’s a tip. Do not be the first person to release the hug. Let the other person but the person you are hugging released the hug because you are deciding for them when you are done with the hug. That’s completely contradictory to why you wanted to give them a hug in the first place. They might start crying and emotionally vomiting. Let that be okay.
Don’t hand them a tissue and say, “Stop your crying,” because that’s what you are saying. If you are crying and when you’ve got upset and sad, if I would have handed you a tissue, you would have used it, and you would have stopped crying. What that’s doing is it’s stopping the emotion. Let them get their own tissue. Let them use their sleeve. Let them make a mess of their face, whatever. Don’t hand them the tissue. These are things that we learn in grief recovery. It’s how to handle those situations but honoring the person where they are at.
I can see why you have so many bookmarks in that book. I want to get a copy of that. Do you feel like that book is equally helpful, even if you are not looking to get into the grief recovery profession but is it centered on people that are like me who are curious and want to be better at understanding grief?
It is for grievers to understand. It’s the action program for moving beyond death, divorce, and other losses, including health, career, and faith. It talks about how grief recovery addresses trauma and PTSD. John James was the co-author. He founded the Grief Recovery Institute. He created a program that he wished would have been there for him. He was a Vietnam veteran, but also, he and his wife had lost an infant child. Their marriage fell apart, and they ended up getting a divorce as a result. He was a griever. He wasn’t finding the resources for him, especially as a man. There’s that other aspect of men that don’t need to talk about their feelings. That’s a whole other topic that it’s weak for men to talk about their feelings.
That’s where we can get into the whole masculine versus feminine and all of that, and the energy, which I’m an energy worker too. There’s a whole other topic there. It’s very much for anyone who wants to understand grief in a way that is not shared anywhere else. The first ten episodes of my podcast, Grieving Voices, is the foundation of the Cliff’s notes of the book. The book is on Audible as well but if you are not much of a reader or don’t want to listen to it in audiobook, the first ten episodes are a great foundation of education for grief too.
I’m grateful for your show. I can’t wait to dive into it. I have an upcoming road trip, as we talked about before we started. That’s when I will binge listen to audiobooks and podcasts. It’s such a gift to the world that you give to talk about this to help people better understand and approach it. I love the energy elements. Your work feels so healing. In fact, speaking with you over this time, I feel open and tender but in a lovely way.
You brought up memories and thoughts and gave me opportunities to process things. I imagine that you have done that for the reader as well. Thank you for spending the time with me and with the reader. Also, thank you for the work that you do for your community. It’s so needed and much appreciated.
You almost wish you didn’t have to go through my own hell to get here but it’s built me. It’s made me who I am. I denied this aspect of me, this healer in me, for many years up until I went through grief recovery, to be honest. I tried all sorts of other things. I had a photography business and all sorts of things. In a lot of grief experiences throughout my life, it wasn’t just my childhood. It took me going through and processing my grief to get back to what delights me. What delighted me as a child? What was I into? What lit me up? What did I find myself doing?
I read the back of some of the pictures. When I graduated high school, one of the things to do back then was to sign the back of the picture of who he gave it to. One of my friends had written, “I love that you care so damn much and that you were like a second mom to me. I was telling me right from wrong.” She was the kid that had been going through a challenging time but she was the one that was drinking at a young age.
She was the one going down a different path than me. I was trying to steer her away. “Don’t go that way. Come my way.” There was another picture too where it’s like, “I don’t know about you. You are pretty strange.” That’s where that feeling of not belonging. I didn’t know where I belonged but I feel like I found my way back to myself. That’s what seeing my grief has helped me do.
Being able to come back to yourself, I feel like a lot of people want to do that and just don’t know how. Knowing that there are resources and people like you that are modeling that is beautiful. Again, thank you so much. I’m going to go queue up my digital library because I’m so excited to read that. I’m curious to see. I bet you I will have a lot of bookmarks on that too and highlights. I look forward to hearing how you talk about it on your show as well, Victoria. I wish you all the very best with the work that you do. I hope that the readers connect with you after this.
Let’s talk about grief like we talk about the weather. That’s in the intro of my podcast.
Just like at the parties. Maybe the next party I go to is going to be like, “What is going on? Why is she asking me about my grief?” Somebody will say, “It’s a nice day out.” I’m like, “It is but can we talk about grief instead?”
I wonder what would happen if I said to somebody, “Has anyone died in your life lately?” I can lighten the situation but people will be stunned. I bet you people would be stunned. “Did you just say that?” That could go either way.
Could we sit there in the discomfort of that reaction and just see where it goes? It could go either way but if somebody cannot handle a question like that, then who knows if our connection would be there versus somebody that I feel like who would lean into that question would create the deep connection that I’m really yearning for anyways. I’m not sure I would feel comfortable asking that but what’s your better question?
Maybe a better question would be, “Are you self-soothing with booze now?”
Another person that was on the show, James Swanwick, came on and talked about alcohol. We talked about parties and self-soothing. That episode got to me. It completely shifted my relationship with alcohol, which has always been minimal. It opened my eyes to the self-soothing side in a new light. I’ve barely had anything to drink since because I have realized that’s getting in the way of the connection that I yearn for with myself and with others. That’s a whole another discussion but Victoria, I could go on and on with you. Part two is to go over to your podcast and dive into everything that you are doing there. I’m grateful that anyone else who’s enjoyed this conversation has somewhere else to go now.
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about grief because I can talk about it all the livelong day. Thank you so much.
- Victora Volk
- Grieving Voices
- The Grief Recovery Handbook
- Surviving Death
- Audible – The Grief Recovery Handbook
- James Swanwick – Past Episode
About Victoria Volk
Victoria is a self-published author, Advanced Cert. Grief Recovery Specialist®, Creator & Podcast Host of Grieving Voices, Reiki Master, Cert. YouMap® Coach and End-of-Life Doula. She aims to use her strengths and skills through a variety of offerings to help those whose lives have been upended by grief and loss go from surviving to thriving. When she’s not helping hurting hearts, you can find Victoria enjoying quiet living with her husband, 3 teens, and pooch in rural ND.
Links to all the things: Services, Free Energy Quiz, Bi-Weekly Newsletter Sign-Up, My Book, & Podcast Grieving Voices all found on my…
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