This interview is a conversation from our first edition, Winter 2021: Grief.
Nesreen Ahmed, inspiring life and grief coach, founded Harbor Light Coaching and has dedicated her career to supporting people through some of life's most challenging times.
DBN: Tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you got into grief coaching.
Nesreen: Honestly, it was my sister dying, a very sudden death. She was 37 and I was 34. She was my hero. When I was younger, I was like, "I want her clothes. I want her toys. I want her friends. I want her life." And she's just brilliant. She was so smart and so savvy. And I just always looked up to her. I was out living out in San Francisco at the time when she passed away. It was Saturday afternoon when I got a phone call, and she had died. And I remember thinking, well, now I can never breathe again. Everything shut down in an instant. I went into complete shock. And those questions, like how is this possible? Especially in those first few days - how your mind goes, What's going on? Where are her belongings? What needs to happen?
Nesreen: She was actually working on a national touring production of Book of Mormon. Such a great show. But she was living out of boxes and bags. It was easier in some ways to deal with logistically because there were so few belongings and all that stuff. But at the same time, there are so many questions and so many unknowns. And again, just a shock. I also went through a process of, okay, what's my path in life? Am I doing something that I love, that I feel is really speaking to me and also supporting other people? And what I realized was no, I'm not.
I pursued therapy and a variety of different support systems, but I felt so stuck in my grief. I needed another part of my life to be moving forward. I needed something to work if that makes sense. So I hired a coach. We did one free session and in the middle of it, I was like, "Stop everything. Christine, how do I become a life coach? I want to be a life coach."
It was amazing, a conversation I always wanted to have but never knew what it was called. I signed up for the year-long training, and during that, somebody mentioned a grief coach because I was talking about how I was still really grieving. I was like, that's a thing?
So I returned to San Francisco, trained in the grief coaching and recovery program, and started my business. I've been really kind of straddling both life coaching and grief coaching because I love both. And I think they're very related. Usually, what happens is people come to me for grief coaching, and then eventually we switch to life coaching after a while.
DBN: What are some reasons people might start grief coaching?
Nesreen: People come to coaching and counseling for a variety of reasons. Most people, I think, will look up a grief counselor if they have gone through loss. But at least 60, if not more, different life events can cause grief. So it could be a divorce. It could be the end of a friendship, relationship, a breakup. It could be job loss. Certainly, a lot of people right now are grieving the loss of their work, of their employment. If you have cancer, or if you have COVID. There's a lot of grief of what's happening to your body, the wellness that you're used to. Having a child could cause grief, in the form of postpartum depression. Empty nest syndrome. I mean, I could go on. There are so many different things that people don't necessarily associate with grief, but are very much grieving experiences. Basically, the way that most people I work with define grief as the loss, change, or end of a familiar pattern and behavior. It can be so broad, right? It's really not just 'my loved one died.' Think about what we're going through right now, how many people are mourning their normal life and everyday routine, let alone the mass loss Covid has brought. Some people couldn't even attend their loved one's funerals. Grief comes in all different shapes and sizes and comes from so many different life experiences and I think it's really important for us to start recognizing that and understanding that.
DBN: What are some of the more common ways that you see grief manifest, if not in the traditional sense?
Nesreen: Beyond the lack of motivation and sort of fatigue and physical signs of grief, there's a lot of questioning. Whether that's of their faith, whether that's of life. I lost my faith in life, that things were going to normally move from day to day when my sister passed away. But also what you were describing, which is, am I doing what I should be doing? Am I spending my time wisely? Am I here? I'm here for a limited time. How do I want to live? So those are some of the ways that people don't understand or don't recognize can be sort of side effects of grief. I do see some people that go down a less healthy path, whether it's substance abuse or sometimes reckless behavior, you find some people kind of go down one path that leads them to try to avoid their grief. But I have been seeing a lot of people also coming to me trying to figure out what they could do in a positive way. Like, how can they find meaning in this? How can they grow from this in some way? What can they create to celebrate the person that they lost and loved so much? And again, I don't know if they always associate that immediately with the initial sort of cliche version of grief.
DBN: What are some of the healthy ways of coping with grief and unhealthy ways (even apart from substance abuse)?
Nesreen: It varies from person to person. Obviously, every griever and their grieving experience is unique, but certainly, things like if you find that you're isolating a lot, if you find that you're so unmotivated, if it's hard to just get up out of bed every day, it's hard to kind of do your normal day to day routine, those are all things to keep an eye out for. But it also depends on where they are in their grief journey and how far along they are. I would say they would need some support because that could be opening up a lot of unhealthy habits.
A lot of people find it hard to eat, or they eat too much. Sleep becomes an issue, the very foundation of well-being. I always think about sleep and nutrition and exercise. If those are all completely out, that's concerning. Also, you have to keep in mind, some people in the early stages of grief might be feeling like they're numb or they're in shock, and we tend to assume that's a bad thing. But I always remind people that especially in the beginning, that is your body's way and your mind's way protecting you. You can't handle all of the emotions and the intensity at once. So feeling numb, feeling like you can't cry, feeling like it's really hard to think about this person or even understand and comprehend that they're gone. It's all normal. So I want to include that in the more healthy side of grief, even though normally people think that it's a bad thing.
I think all of us need to allow each other to go through grief in our own way. And if it comes to the point where the avoidance of that person or avoidance of dealing with their grief is prolonged, then it should be addressed. But especially in the beginning, if somebody's numb, or in shock, or really struggling to kind of comprehend and wrap their head around this, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's a negative or unhealthy behavior. I heard something recently, and I found it really true. If you can talk about your person, if you can share about them, without crying the entire time, that can mean progress for you.
On the other hand, if you're unable to do it because you're crying so much, and can barely get the story or thought out, you may want to look at that. Not that it is unhealthy or something's wrong by any means, but it shows you've really got a lot of emotion that needs to be supported and addressed.
DBN: What are your thoughts on the 5 stages of grief?
Nesreen: First of all, if you look at the five stages of grief, Elizabeth Kubler Ross actually wrote them about dying, and so the bargaining, the denial, all that stuff happened when you were facing your own mortality. And grief is not linear by any stretch, right? It is not a smooth path, like I'm going to start feeling better and better and better and better. Grief comes up, especially unresolved grief, especially if it's a sudden loss, especially if there's been trauma around it, especially if there's a complicated relationship. And there are so many different factors. And so the idea that you're moving from one stage to another in this very sort of neat pattern, I think, is unrealistic and idealistic. People like to have a guideline and know what to expect. It maybe comforts people that they know how they'll feel and that one day you'll get to acceptance, and it will all be okay. But that process is not necessarily the truth.