How do Americans express grief and mourning? According to Grass Valley grief coach Patricia Johnston-Casserly, it depends largely on the culture in which you were raised.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy was publicly admired for her “stoic dignity,” a New York Times story declared.
At the first televised funeral, the first lady’s “poise and grace” impacted an entire nation, said Johnston-Casserly, who is also a cultural anthropologist. From that point forward, Jacqueline Kennedy’s “dry-eyed, silent demeanor became a dominant cultural model for an appropriate emotional experience to grief and loss, one that is often emulated today in the United States.”
This differs dramatically from many other countries, she said, such as Ireland, where women are known to loudly wail, lament or “keen,” which is soon followed by a celebration of life.
But beyond cultural norms, Johnston-Casserly said a grief coach can assist in accessing the unique expression of personal grief.
“When you’ve lost someone, you have to be strong in order to allow yourself to truly grieve,” she said. “The real strength comes from not holding it in.”
The cliché “time heals all wounds” is a false assumption, said Johnston-Casserly — it’s actually what you do with that time that heals.
“Studies have shown that it can take between five and eight years to recover after the loss of a spouse,” she said. “But with coaching, it’s shorter — I’ve seen it. After coaching, I generally see a big difference in people — more joy and purpose. They’re able to find a ‘new normal.’”
For Johnston-Casserly, all of life’s roads seemed to lead to exactly where she is today. Trained as a registered nurse and cultural anthropology professor, she has studied grief and loss customs in countries around the world and shared this with her students at Sierra College. At Hospice of the Foothills and Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, Johnston-Casserly has worked with the staff on cross-cultural end-of-life preferences.
But it was her own personal experience that eventually led her to what she now considers her true calling. In November 2007, Johnston-Casserly lost her husband of 34 years, family practice physician Doug Johnston, to a brain tumor. She found one-on-one grief and loss life coaching to be extremely valuable when it came to her own healing.
“The coaching was personally the biggest help for me,” she said. “I’m here now professionally because of how much it helped me. I feel I’m made for this.”
Johnston-Casserly, who has since remarried, obtained certification from the Institute of Professional Excellence in Coaching, a rigorous program that has given her the tools to aid with many kinds of losses, such as the death of a spouse, child, parent, pet or friend. Also, many clients come to her with issues surrounding stillbirth, miscarriage, abortion, illness, job loss, divorce and others. Most sessions are conducted over the phone.
“There are also many caregivers out there experiencing what’s called ‘anticipatory grief’ — the process of normal grieving that begins before the death of a loved one,” said Johnston-Casserly. “Many of these caregivers aren’t quite ready to sign up for Hospice services, yet they can benefit from one-on-one grief coaching sessions by phone in the convenience of their own home that will help them express and release their feelings, as well as provide an unbiased sounding board for end-of-life family issues.”
An estimated 80 million baby boomers are increasingly facing the death of their parents or spouse, she said, which translates into an increase in the number of people who will be faced with the grief process. An estimated 5 million baby boomers are currently suffering from grief due to death or divorce.
“Grief coaching accelerates the process of healing and a return to well being,” said Johnston-Casserly. “Through this coaching process, clients can heal more rapidly and discover renewed energy and purpose in their lives. There are hidden gifts in grief — it’s an amazing opportunity for growth. You get to know yourself when you’re challenged and your whole personal narrative changes.”
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