Lean into a support system that understands what you are going through. Having others be able to identity and validate your feelings is medicinal. There is almost instant relief in having your pain truly heard and named.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Douaire.
Melissa Douaire, M.Div., M.Ed., and Certified Grief Counselor is the proud mother of three college-aged children, living her best life in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and three dogs.
She consults, coaches and counsels others at schools, organizations and corporations giving them the tools necessary to acknowledge and address the grief we will all eventually experience, understand the impacts of loss, and find the silver lining in owning our mortality. Her mission is to cast the widest net, to help the greatest number of people have their grief affirmed as it relates to death or other life transitions.
Melissa is known and recognized for her gifts and expertise as a compassionate listener, faithful optimist, and knowledgeable confidante.
“Healthy healing allows us to live intentionally, treat each other kindly, and gently walk through dark days back into the light of hope,” comments Melissa. “The pandemic has most certainly shown us the importance of healing properly from the loss of loved ones, the loss of community, and loss of daily normalcy due to the increased social and emotional isolation we are experiencing.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Perhaps from the perspective of others, we might have been an eccentric family. At least when it came to our golden retriever, Cassie, who arrived as a Christmas gift when I was in 8th grade. She was only 50 days old, with a red bow around her neck as big as her head.
I was long past dressing dolls; however, it seemed acceptable to dress a dog in nightgowns. Our sweet dog never really understood that she was a canine, and we made little effort to dissuade her.
As in many households, one of our childhood chores was to set the table for dinner. Cassie took that as a cue that we were going to eat soon, so she hopped up on a dining room chair and waited, and waited, and waited patiently, for the rest of us, sometimes for hours after until we returned from swim team practice!
She was amazingly well behaved, even a bit proper compared to my armpit-farting, alphabet-burping brother who often shared his talents at the table.
We conceded that she deserved a permanent place at the table. She ate her dried kibble from a white paper plate. She was content, included, and seemed to follow our conversations with understanding.
We became the talk of the town and had a line of guests who wanted dinner with the dog who sat at the table.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.” Teresa of Ávila
This quote came to me later in life, when I was a stay-at-home mom who was frustrated because I wasn’t contributing to the greater world, though I consider raising kind, compassionate children a gift to the world. I was looking for clarity but feeling anxious and unsettled about who I was, who I would become, and where I was on my personal journey. It gave me calmness and patience for the future to unfold. I have shared this with so many people who feel the anxiety and pressure of the future. It is permission to just be, you are where you need to be, for yourself and for others.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I learned this word from my dad when I was 12 years old, and we were watching the Air Force Academy cadets as they drilled in Colorado Springs. It was a trait valued by my parents, and they epitomize it. Both were first-generation college students with graduate degrees. Education was valued, as was the perseverance to obtain it. I was told on more than one occasion, “Education is the only thing that can never be taken from you.” Laziness was abhorred in my household.
After the death of my mother, I walked the earth more gently. I understood the full life story and journey from beginning to end much better and was committed to living life more fully. People sensed my peace and non-judgmental presence that was becoming the essence of my being. Now strangers were telling me intimate stories at the grocery store, in changing rooms, by the pool, and then would say, “I’ve never told anyone that.” People who usually don’t cry did around me. I attribute this to empathy and creating a safe space in our hardened world.
I think vulnerability and my empathy dovetail to create an open safe space. My calling into the ministry unfolded through my vulnerability. Every time I have been vulnerable, it has been rewarded with a rich connection to someone or something. When I offered testimony about the growth of my faith through my mom’s death to my church community and others, it was met with compassion and affirmation. While my grief was unique to me, it is a journey known to many. My vulnerability and openness to grief and mourning allow others to be vulnerable, safe, and affirmed too. I continually open myself up about death, mourning, successes, and failures to make others comfortable enough to share and ultimately feel heard and supported.
We all need emotional and social support for healthy healing. Moving the collective culture toward greater attention, acceptance, and support is now my passion and public ministry.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
I freely share the life-changing loss of my mother dying. The acute grief has gone, but her death has shaped me into a better human being and now into a grief advocate in our culturally grief-averse society.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
The scariest moment during my mom’s last days was when my brother and I were with her on her bed, and she started choking and wheezing. We had read that the dying process might end with her gasping for air like a fish out of water. Her eyes got big and watery, her face red, and lips turned blue. We thought we were holding her through her dying moment, but she was actually fighting to sit up.
She was choking on her tongue, not dying, while we were telling her it was OK to let go. Somehow, in this trauma, it was communicated that she was not going to die in our presence. As a mother, she wanted to protect us from the actual moment of death, one that she was not spared when her father dropped dead of a heart attack in front of her when she was 14.
It was only by God’s grace I found the courage to say goodbye to my mom. After the previous scare, my brother and I knew she wanted to be alone with my dad when she died. It’s the way the family started, and it was only days away from their 40th wedding anniversary.
Christmas is about children, and she wanted me to be with mine.
Late in the afternoon, on December 23, 2005, I said goodbye to my mother.
I turned Claire de Lune on the CD player, a song she loved but never mastered on the piano and walked into her bedroom. She was on my dad’s side of the bed, and I sat on the edge. I kissed her forehead one time for each of my kids and told her how much they loved her. I would not let them forget her.
Then, I apologized for having been 12, something she never let me forget.
I rushed through my courage and didn’t listen closely enough when she tried to talk; her voice was inaudible and didn’t push past her dried lips. I regret that I missed her final words.
In our lopsided dialogue I reminded her “to blink the lights when you get to heaven,” which was a family tradition. I kissed her and left.
At 2:15 p.m. on December 26, the phone rang while we were in the kitchen playing Chinese Checkers. She was gone.
Linda Lou, Mom, Nan, lived for Christmas. All her life and just one more day. This was a deal negotiated between her and God. God honored their deal and on December 26, my mom died with my dad by her side. He said there was a glorious smile on her face, awed by the glory of God’s kingdom and the bounty of Heaven’s love. His speculation was that her dad was there to greet her after 49 years apart.
The phone call of her death prompted my return to my parents’ home. I was responsible for funeral arrangements and picking out burial clothes. Alone in her bedroom, where we had cocooned for the month of December, I talked to her and blew a kiss to her while staring at the 10-foot-tall grapevine Christmas tree outside her sliding doors.
It was surreal standing there alone in the quiet of her room. She had just been here.
I believed my mother was in heaven looking down on me right then, and she honored my request and the family tradition. The huge grapevine tree burning so brightly with more than 2,000 lights outside her bedroom during our last days and hours together captured my attention — and suddenly, one strand of lights at the bottom of the tree started blinking rapidly!
I yelled for my dad.
The lights paused, blinked again, paused and blinked, and blinked, and blinked again until they finally burned out.
Through sobbing and laughter, I said, “Look, remember what I asked mom to do? She’s okay. She’s in heaven!” Amazement, sobs, laughter, and hugs.
How did you react in the short term?
In the short term I really didn’t have time to grieve.
The earliest days after mom’s death were filled with the logistics of arrangements, oh, and I had three young kids and a dad who was so horribly distraught. I am a list maker, and the list was ever growing, caring for everyone else, and avoiding the tears that felt ever-present. I wore myself out taking care of everyone else. I felt very lonely because I was in the town where I was raising my children, where my friends didn’t know what to do or how to help. I was no longer in the community of grieving family friends who had offered so much support and shared my loss.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
I felt like I was left to carry the weight of my dad’s grief, so I didn’t grieve. I was angry about having to buy her mausoleum plot by myself. I knew she wanted to be buried outside under a tree, but my dad decided otherwise. I was angry that this was undecided by them before we were under distress. Eventually, I learned it was a loving decision because he could not stand the thought of putting her in the cold frozen Wisconsin winter ground. Forgiveness and mercy are really important parts of moving through grief.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
Honestly, it took a full year for me to let my emotions fully loose. It was right before the anniversary of her death that our 10-year-old golden retriever was killed by a hit-and -run driver. I lost it! Sobbing for hours, the tears just kept coming in wave after wave. I was dehydrated for days. But by being able to finally let go and cry for my dog, I was able to really cry for my mom.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal emotional shift to feel better?
As my mind was processing the spirituality and sacred space around my mom’s death bed, my faith was shifting because I’d experienced the reality of death. I had felt the love of God all around us, through her friends, and in the unwinding of her life. I experienced the love of God to my very core.
I recognized my own mortality and did some math. I was 36 and my mom died at 63. If I were to die at the same age, I only had 27 years left. I got busy living! I had jogged casually before her death, but on her birthday six months after her death I ran six miles for the first time. I felt obligated to take great care of my body, and it really helped my mind. I continued to run and subsequently completed multiple half-marathons, eventually building to three marathons.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
I had so few people in my life who had experienced the loss of a parent, and I lived far away from the community that was also grieving my dynamic mother. But my mother’s hairdresser of 35 years was a friend and confidante and she reached out to me. Mary was the old soul who always wore flouncy clothes and long fake eyelashes. She asked me to dinner the next time I was home to visit my dad.
Mary and her sister Deb listened and validated what the loss of a mother meant. “It’s a big deal to lose our primary nurturer.” I felt seen and heard. They listened and shared their own journeys of losing parents. There is so much heartache, and life-changing that happens from the death of a parent. Family dynamics are changed forever, which is another loss that also needs to be grieved. We also shared laughs about just how absent-minded we were through our grief, and how we fooled ourselves about keeping all the balls in the air. Mary was receptive to my spiritual awakenings. I could share these revelations with her; she nodded with affirmation, because spirituality was always an essence of her being.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Yes, as I mentioned, there was a huge spiritual shift and I was filled with gratitude. I felt a huge amount of awareness connecting a well-lived life to a peaceful death. My soul was changing; the loss of life brought my life into focus. There was a peace in me that came from witnessing loss and finding an urgency to share the impacts of grief and its profundity. I am resilient.
I saw and still see a problem with the way grief is accepted, or better stated, avoided in our culture. The lack of conversation around death motivated me to speak about it. I went to my minister to lament the lack of support, knowing that if I brought a problem to light then I had better be part of the solution. I helped start the Stephen Ministry at my church, a lay-led program, to journey beside people in their times of need.
My gift for compassionate leadership, faith in action, and ability to connect with people evolved into conversations about attending seminary. I was so resistant for so long. I prayed for clarity and purpose. The call to ministry was a constant song that would not leave my thoughts. As I further explored the idea of seminary, the path before me opened. What I thought would be obstacles and excuses — finances, scheduling, and commuting — rolled out of the way clearing a path of opportunity.
“But why me?” I asked God who replied, “Why not you?” God is patient!
It was not easy being in graduate school with three school-aged kids, but the commitment was coming from a place bigger than I. My days were filled with reading and writing in between shuttling kids and running a household with an absent husband.
During my chaplaincy internship, which required being on call for six months, my husband struggled with his own issues. He ended up reaching for the affection of a co-worker. I found out a year later why he wasn’t able to help pick up the kids from activities and support me through my journey.
On March 17, 2014, the betrayed spouse of my husband’s mistress called. Unfortunately, my 13-year-old daughter answered the phone and stayed on the extension while a heated and angry man was spewing colorful language about my then husband’s infidelity with his wife. She was instantly robbed of her innocence and security.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I was rocked to the core. It took years to work through all the grief of betrayal, and all the losses of divorce. Again, after breaking, I rebuilt myself and reclaimed my life. Never again would I ever be lied to, treated poorly, or be dismissed. After dark days I found the light. Not from others, though many supported me, but through a God of comfort and strength and faith in myself.
I became intentional about the shape of my life, what and who I would accept, and with whom I would share my time, energy and love. The urgency to live my best life again compelled me to heal, hope, and have faith in myself. Before I entered any relationships, I had a love affair with myself. I wrote a list of what I wanted in a partner and made certain I was not hoping for someone to complete me but rather to support and believe in me, who also valued respect and honesty.
Being intentional is what draws us to fulfillment.
I’ll cut this story short, but I found the love of my life. Never have I been more loved, supported, and encouraged by anyone than my now husband. I would not be writing this article or have had the courage to start this new venture without his encouragement and belief in me.
Whether it is grief related to death, or grief related to the many losses within life, it needs to be mourned through naming the loss and having our pain witnessed. Eventually, we will find new meaning and intention to live life well.
Life is not without pain. What matters is how we resolve it, learn from it, and share it.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change”? Please share a story or example for each.
1) The ability and opportunity to be heard
Lean into a support system that understands what you are going through. Having others be able to identity and validate your feelings is medicinal. There is almost instant relief in having your pain truly heard and named. That’s what I had with Mary, my mom’s hair stylist. Having experienced the loss of her parents, she could identify the journey associated with this grief. Losses don’t have to be identical to evoke empathy.
2) Social and emotional support, comfort in the loneliness and isolation
Unfortunately, grief often drives us into isolation, which is exactly what we don’t need. The emotional weight and physical fatigue make us believe we don’t have the energy to socialize. Being connected with others doesn’t have to be a highly social engagement; being with someone holding space with you, as you grieve, is enough. Having someone take care of you is something we are often uncomfortable with. We try to be the givers of affection, but grace can be allowing others to help you, and accepting their help graciously. Learn how to accept meals, tokens of love, affection, and thoughtfulness from others. Whatever you would do for someone, allow them to do for you. It will make you both feel better.
I learned from the example of my mother’s friends, known as the “Wine Ladies,” how to be a friend to others in need. The Wine Ladies anticipated our family’s needs before we knew what we needed. Food arrived, cards were sent, errands run, driveway snow plowed, and space held with their presence. My dad had friends who slept on the couch in the hours preceding my mom’s death — they stood guard so when she passed, dad would not be alone the moment he would forever live without her. We were so blessed with my parents’ amazing friends — they just seemed to know what to do. Amazing people that model Agape love throughout their lives.
3) Validation of all your emotions
All feelings are valid, especially in grief. Emotions are expressions of the moment, not a continuous state of being. Feelings are information that need to be expressed, heard, and witnessed. Support groups, friends, and other family members can do this for you. Unfortunately, the collective “we” are bombarded with information telling us to be positive and grateful because we feel guilty when other emotions appear.
Sadness and anger are appropriate grief emotions that deserve attention. My mom’s memory is still alive, and our relationship still dynamic, as I reprocess our relationship bringing my new experiences and understanding to it. I missed my mom horribly and have even gotten upset with her since her passing! It is an interesting state to hold — being upset with a dead person! Everyone I’ve ever known has had flaws in their existence, and there is no need to put them on a pedestal after they die. Keep them real, continue the conversations, and now you get the last word!
4) Space to lament
Culturally, we are uncomfortable with sadness. We are inclined to fix things and make everything better, aspiring for permanent happiness. The unrealistic idealism of non-stop happiness is damaging to our grief journey, our mental health, and places unhealthy expectations on us. Happy, chronically young, airbrushed beauty, falsely prosperous, influencer popular, rock-hard-fit body, famously admired, and perpetually posed smiling is no way to go through life! (Well, at least not every moment of every day.) Experiencing the full range of emotions is a better way to live a full life.
Rushing into positivity without lamenting is dangerous and unhealthy. Pushing past anything negative is denial and avoidance. We all need permission to be in the dark days, to experience our grief. The problem is not the darkness of emotions, but rather getting stuck in them. By allowing for and experiencing grief, we, as a society, will be emotionally and mentally healthier. Think of the days when those experiencing grief wore all black, or armbands to signal to others their bereavement. People they encountered were able to show them respect for their loss and treat them gently. Today in our culture we expect those grieving a loss to simply “get over it” and move on. Perhaps it is time to bring back the armband.
5) A new urgency to live
Recognizing my mortality and knowing that if I suffered the same fate as my mom, I would only have 27 years left to live motivated me to get living with more intention. Life had led me in many cases, and now it was time for me to lead life more passionately and more aligned with my heart and soul. I became a runner of multiple races including half- and full marathons. I went to seminary, and as a result, found my gift for pastoral care as a Stephen Minister.
All these tiny acts of courage became beacons of light pulling me into a new direction of purpose. I became more discerning with my friendships, relationships, the ways and with whom I spent time. I found gifts in life, and became a better listener, friend, and person. All these awakenings drew me into ministry through grief, healing, and sharing the hope of love in dark days and beyond.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My loftiest goal, I state often and openly so that the universe hears it is “to change our cultural aversion toward grief into attentive compassion.” Losses are facts of life. We need not hide from death; however, our youth-focused culture denies the inevitable fact we will all die. Death is the human common denominator, the ultimate equalizer. Hiding from the reality of death is a mental and emotional disservice. We love freely, and we should be able to grieve the love that is lost freely too.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
I would love a “rumble”(Dare to Lead) about how grief relates to courage, fear, and leadership with Brené Brown!
Brené is terrific in naming pain in real and honest ways people can relate to. I need a cultural leader bigger than I am to bring attention to the impacts of grief in every aspect of our lives. Many of her research topics around shame, vulnerability, and forgiveness relate to grief but are often not named as grief. Grief is experienced in many aspects of our lives. It is about loss, whether or not it is death-related. Our increased anxiety and depression are directly related to losses, especially since the pandemic. We have all lost our normalcy, control, and lifestyles; collectively we are grieving the massive numbers of death and social injustices that are escalating to a greater awareness.
Bereavement, which means to be robbed, seems to resonate better with our culture Bereaved offers the posture of injustice toward the loss. Using this language will empower rather than diminish what is lost. Try it out…“I have been robbed of…”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Grief will impact 100% of us, and it is not just one emotion to get over and move on from. Losing significant people in our lives changes us forever and is a process that requires support and empathy. Ignoring grief by shoving it away will allow it to grow teeth and come back to bite us.
Ignored grief is the recipe for dysfunctional behaviors and may manifest in substance abuse, addiction, and emotional and mental health issues that are later unrecognizable as grief. We can eradicate so much suffering, abuse, and dysfunction by honoring the process of grieving with attentive compassion and empathy.
My mission is to cast the widest net, to help the greatest number of people have their grief affirmed as it relates to death or other life transitions.
Please reach out to me via my website, www.wholepersonconversations.com, or linkedin.com/in/melissadouaire to connect, for speaking engagements that will support you, your community, or your workplace.
Let’s change the world into a kinder, gentler place by being the light for one another in the darkness.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Photo credit Tom Weaver