As a culture, we aren’t good with grief.
We aren’t good with sitting with people who are devastated and heartbroken, letting them feel their feelings rather than trying to fix it.
When you are that grieving person, it can feel like no one wants to be there in the trenches with you.
They want you to be okay again and return to being the person you were before…
Which adds another layer of guilt on top of what you’re already feeling.
Now you have to hide how you feel. You have to pretend to be okay for their sake.
Author Michelle Ann Collins wants to help.
Michelle is a wellness coach and yoga therapist with a certificate in grief education.
She knows how hard it is to rebuild your life after the death of a spouse or partner, because she did it herself.
When her husband Glen died as a result of suicide, she found herself in a dark place. Friends stepped in to help, but ultimately moving through that grief was a path that she had to follow alone.
In this week’s YBTV interview, Michelle shares what helped her most in those dark days.
You can find out more about Michelle’s journey through grief in her books Surviving Spouse or Partner Suicide Loss and Supporting a Survivor of Spouse or Partner Suicide Loss.
What You’ll Learn
David Kessler, the co-author of On Grief and Grieving with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, defines healing as the point at which “you can remember your loved one with more love than pain.”
And Michelle Ann Collins remembers her husband Glen with so much love.
She remembers the way he ordered his sandwiches. She remembers the travel and skiing. She did more in her short marriage to him that she did in the previous 20 years.
She hasn’t forgotten the terrible times, the pain and his death and what happened after his death, but those aren’t the memories that dominate.
I can remember Glen with a heart full of love, because there was so much love. And why wipe that off the planet when that was one of the best parts of our time together?”
It has taken time for Michelle to get to this place.
As a wellness coach and yoga therapist, she had more tools than most when it came to processing the shock and grief and loss of Glen’s death.
But she still had to navigate through what she calls the “Grief Cave.”
The Dark Place
The Grief Cave is that dark place you go when you’re grieving.
“You can’t drag somebody out of their Grief Cave,” Michelle explains.
“People need to spend time in that dark, miserable place. Because that’s part of grief, it doesn’t mean you’re sick. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.”
She wishes that someone could have told her back then that it was okay if she needed to stay in bed all day and cry. She didn’t have to be strong or put on a stoic face for others. When you’re in the Grief Cave, it’s okay to let people help you and look after you.
She also needed the reassurance that she wasn’t going to feel this way forever.
“When you’re in those early stages, you really feel like your life is over,” she says. “You feel like everything is bad, everything hurts, I’ll never love again, I’ll never feel good again. And that’s just not true. But you feel like it’s true at the time.”
When a tragedy happens, people tend to be good at rallying together to provide support.
But three months later, six months later, most people have moved on, while the survivor may still be stuck in the Grief Cave with no one to talk to.
“As the grieving widow, you feel like bringing it up is bringing people down,” Michelle says.
It would have helped her if someone would have said, for example, “I realize it’s a six-month anniversary. It must be a hard day for you. What can I do for you? How can I support you?”
Not pushing her through her grief, but noticing when she’s ready for that next step.
For example, “Do you think you might be able to drive today? If not, I’ll take you to the grocery store, or I’ll go for you. But maybe tomorrow, you could actually go to the grocery store by yourself, or maybe not.”
She needed “full acceptance and support for the place” she was in that moment, even if that wasn’t where others thought she should be.
It can be hard to understand why a survivor would feel so much guilt over their partner’s death when it wasn’t their fault.
But “there’s often guilt in every kind of death, not just suicide,” Michelle explains.
Survivors might think to themselves, “If only I had gotten my mom’s nails done again, she would have lived longer,” or, “If only I wouldn’t have opened the door when my grandmother left and got in her car and then got in that accident, she wouldn’t be dead.”
This kind of fantastical thinking is normal, “but with suicide, there’s just that extra layer. What did I miss? What else could I have done?”
Survivors may hold the belief that they could have prevented the suicide.
“There is a very robust community of of therapists and coaches all over the world that are in suicide prevention, and they are successful,” Michelle says.
“But the day after the suicide, it’s not possible to prevent the suicide. Or the day before the suicide. You didn’t know it was going to happen tomorrow, so stop blaming yourself.”
It was only really when Michelle was studying with her grief educator course that she “finally was able to take that breath and release” and understand there was nothing she could have done to change it.
A meditation teacher taught her that so much suffering is caused by wanting to change the past.
“We cannot change the past,” Michelle says. “We can change our relationship with it. Once I accepted that, that was a big boost to my being able to release the guilt.”
Reactions to Trauma
Everybody reacts to trauma differently.
Some people are overdoers. They keep themselves constantly busy.
Other people are underdoers. They shut down. Michelle says it’s like carrying a backpack full of rocks that makes getting out of bed and putting your shoes on so difficult that it feels like you’ve run a marathon.
The stress can raise your blood pressure, raise your heart rate, lower immunity, impair digestion, and make it difficult to sleep and think clearly.
Another possible symptom is dissociation, where you check out from your body. Michelle explains that “your nervous system is so overwhelmed by the exposure it’s had that you just leave; you’re not there.”
One of the coping strategies Michelle used to get through her darkest days was permission slips.
This concept comes from Brené Brown, and it means giving yourself permission to be where you are at that exact moment.
“So often, when we’re going through a difficult time, we add pain to pain by being hard on ourselves about it,” Michelle says.
Perhaps you’re lying in bed, upset with yourself for not being able to do anything. Ask yourself: if your best friend walked in right now, what would she say? Would she be mad at you that you’re not making your way through your to-do list?
You can be a friend to yourself by accepting that this is where you are right now. It’s okay to be where you’re at.
Just take a deep breath once in a while. You don’t have to do everything right now. It’s okay to just sit and breathe.”
Grief is “a solo journey. You can get support and help, but nobody can do your grieving for you. Nobody can bring you back into your body if you’ve dissociated. You have to get there yourself.”
But there are tools and strategies that can make your journey easier.
You are not the only one this has happened to you. Other survivors can light a way.
Michelle does this in her books Surviving Spouse or Partner Suicide Loss and Supporting a Survivor of Spouse or Partner Suicide Loss.
This was the information she needed back in her darkest days.
Now she’s sharing it with others, in the hope it will help light a way for them.
Want to know more?
Find out more about Michelle on her website, or watch our previous interview on dealing with grief and loss:
Michelle Ann Collins is a best selling author, certified yoga therapist, wellness coach, and grief educator. Her yoga therapy practice focuses on movement-challenged clients who suffer from disabilities and chronic diseases. As a coach, she integrates the ancient practices of yoga, mindfulness, and meditation combined with modern psychology and neuroscience to promote optimal well-being in her clients. Find out how you can work with Michelle.