Grief and Why It’s a Normal Part of Life, with Litsa Williams


In this episode, Doryn is joined by Litsa Williams of What’s Your Grief as they discuss what defines grief and the way that everybody goes through it. Grief is not what people traditionally think it is. It’s much more than suffering from the loss of a loved one. It’s actually a transition, much like midlife. This episode will open up a whole new perspective on what grief is and how it works through various stages of life.

Litsa Williams is a cofounder of the grief community What's Your Grief. She has been working in the field of grief and loss for 12 years before founding this community. What's Your Grief offers in-person support, including workshops, trainings and support groups, plus online support, including articles on all topics around grief and loss, a weekly podcast and online courses.

For any of Litsa's online grief support courses or webinars register with the coupon code "itsnotacrisis" for 20% off!

Be sure to check out the resources mentioned in the episode:


Doryn Wallach:

Welcome to It's Not A Crisis, I am your host Doryn Wallach. I'm an entrepreneur, a mother of two, a wife and a 40 something, trying to figure out what is happening in this decade. Why is no one talking about it? I created this podcast to help women in their late 30s and 40s to figure out what is going on in our mind, body, soul, and life. We may laugh, we may cry, we may get frustrated, but most importantly, my goal is to make this next chapter of life positive. I'm also full of my own questions, and I'm here to go on this journey with you. So let's do it together.

Hey, everyone. Welcome to another episode and another week, I'm so happy to have you join me today. Today's topic is really, really interesting, and it sparked my interest because I was listening to a podcast right after the pandemic on Ten Percent Happier, which is an amazing podcast and wonderful meditation app. I don't say that about meditation apps, I really dislike meditating, but Ten Percent gets to the point, it gives you advice, it's wonderful, I really like it. Dan Harris, on Ten Percent was interviewing a gentleman by the name of David Kessler, and David Kessler is a grief expert.

David was speaking about grief in terms of how our lives were before the pandemic and what we were grieving and what we were going through in this time of our life. It really spoke to me, it was so fascinating because I think I just always thought of grief as losing somebody. So, that got me to thinking about our lives and our age and what grief means to us. So, I did my research and I found Litsa Williams of What's Your Grief. We're going to talk today about all kinds of grief. I think this is very important as our lives go forward because we are grieving our past or what could have been, we're grieving the future, we're grieving our parents aging, we're grieving our kids getting older and we're experiencing death within our friend groups with either their parents.

In my three years of being in my 40s, unfortunately I've had a friend lose a husband suddenly, I've had a friend lose a child, I've had friends who have friends that have passed away from cancer. There's so much to this topic and there's so much to uncover, but I really hope that we will touch on as much as we can, and I'm very excited about Litsa coming on. But today we're going to piece it all together and talk a little bit about this, and hopefully if it's a show that you enjoy, we can also have a followup with Litsa maybe in her Instagram or her Facebook live.

Litsa Williams is a co-founder of the grief community, What's Your Grief. Litsa has worked in the field of grief and loss for 12 years before founding What's Your Grief. In that time, Litsa supported patients and families in the hospital at end of life, in circumstances of unexpected death and provided ongoing grief and bereavement support. Feeling frustrated with the online and print materials that were available for grievers, she co-founded What's Your Grief as a resource offering concrete, practical, creative, down to earth and relatable grief support. What's Your Grief offers in-person support, including workshops, trainings, and support groups, online support, including hundreds of articles on all topics around grief and loss, a weekly podcast and online courses.

She has been interviewed as a grief expert for NPR, Washington Post, U.S. News, The New York Times, Huffington Post and the BBC, and I am very excited to welcome Litsa into the show today. I'm very honored that she chose to come on It's Not A Crisis. Litsa, welcome to the show.

Litsa Williams:

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Doryn Wallach:

This is going to be a great episode. I was joking with a friend the other day that some of my episodes are just kind of people listening in on therapy sessions. I don't want to make that about ... it's not about me, I do have things to add, but it's so therapeutic for me as well because I'm learning along with everybody else. So, this topic I think is so relevant to women in their late 30s and 40s. I think I just want to start with the simple question of what is grief? How do you define grief?

Litsa Williams:

Sure. It's really interesting. I think even though we think of grief as this huge big overwhelming thing, the definition that I use is really simple, which is, just that grief is our normal and natural response to loss, and that is any kind of loss. So, it's actually a really straightforward definition. I think the trick is that response, that word, our response to loss or a reaction to loss, that can comprise so many different things. All of the mess of grief lives within that. But really the key is that it's a natural process, it's this normal thing that happens to us when we lose a person or we lose something that's important to us, something else in our lives. So, it's pretty straightforward and pretty complicated all at once.

Doryn Wallach:

Yeah, it definitely is. You just mentioned normal grief. What is normal grief?

Litsa Williams:

I think this is probably one of the trickiest questions for people, because I think we are always on this quest for like, "What is normal? Am I doing this right? Am I doing this wrong? Am I going crazy? Am I losing my mind?"

Doryn Wallach:

Every single day, every single day, that goes through my head.

Litsa Williams:

Same, same. So, I think there has always been this want to determine what normal grief is all about, and I think when we look back to the earliest, the models of how we understood grief and define grief, we go back to the 60s, and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the five stages of grief and all of those ideas where we wanted a nice, neat, little formula to say, "Okay, here's what grief is going to look like. We're going to go through these nice, neat, tidy little stages, we're going to get to acceptance, we're going to put it behind us and move on." People for a long time, really clung to that. I think in a lot of ways, society still thinks that normal grief must be that, it must be going through these five stages and finally getting to a point of closure or acceptance or moving on, and that's what grief is going to look like.

Often we think grief is all about sadness. Maybe we throw in a little bit of anger, but for the most part, I think that's what society still thinks of as grief. What we in mental health think of as normal grief is very, very different than that. We've come a long way from those days of stage, models and task models, and really recognize that grief looks very, very, very different for everyone, and it's not just one particular set of emotional responses. It is thoughts and feelings and behaviors, and it is like all of the very mixed up things that happen after we lose someone or something, and then we try to reconstruct our world after that person or that thing has disappeared.

So, grief is really that process of reconstruction that is in many ways ongoing forever. So, normally when we talk about normal grief, there's no easy way to say what it's going to look like because each person and their background and their coping skills and their own resilience and their own support system and what loss they've suffered looks so different. That the way that we reconstruct, the way we keep our connections to people who have died, the way that we build a life after difficult or traumatic event that's happened, it looks really, really different. So, I wish I could say there's an easy answer to what is normal grief. But I think the biggest takeaway that we have is that there's no timeline for it, it is something that is an ongoing process, that really is about how we integrate our loss into our lives moving forward.

So, that's kind of the slightly complicated answer, and I think it's the one that people don't like, because they're like, "No, go through the checklist and tell me what's normal." But unfortunately we can't really do that. We can say a little bit about when maybe you need extra support or when it's getting to a point where it's so problematic that it's interfering with your day-to-day life. So it's almost easier to say what's outside of normal than what's normal.

Doryn Wallach:

That is very complicated, and I think that when we were speaking prior to this, you had mentioned to me, grief can even be good change in life, and I thought that was so interesting because I don't think I ever personally had a word to cover those feelings related to positive things happening in life, which we're conditioned to be grateful and happy and these big transitions, whether it's having a baby or getting married or all of these other things, and sometimes we don't feel so happy about it. Sometimes just the change in general causes us to feel, I guess, in a way that we're grieving what was before that ... Can you go a little bit more into that?

Litsa Williams:

Yeah, absolutely. So, Ken Doka is this famous Greece researcher, and he's really the first person that have articulated this really simple idea that, any time we have change, even when it's positive change, there are things that we lose in order for us to move forward with change, and anytime we have loss, we have grief. So, when we think about those things that you just described, those positive changes in life, in order for us to make space for those new things, we often have to say goodbye to certain other things, right?

When we get married, it's this wonderful experience, and everybody's focusing on how great it is that you're getting married, but you're leaving behind this world and life of being a person who was single, maybe who had a different independence or way of thinking about their life planning that now we're taking other people into account all the time, and there are things that we let go of that we have to acknowledge and say like, as much as we love this new thing that's happening, we also need to give ourselves the time and space to grieve what we're leaving behind.

I think that that happens when people have kids, when we graduate from college and we're looking forward and everybody is excited about next steps while leaving behind the things before, all these different moments in life, I think creating a space where we acknowledge both is so important, but it's often not what we do. Oftentimes we think, "Okay, this is all about the good experience, this is all about the exciting thing that's happening." And we don't create a space to normalize and talk about and acknowledge, we can feel two things at once, we can feel really happy and thrilled and excited and wonderful, and we can also be really sad and struggling with some of the things that we had to let go of in order to create a space for these new things.

Doryn Wallach:

I also think we're of this generation of guilt. We have been given opportunities and whatever those opportunities are, we need to be grateful for them. I think that brings inner anxiety and sadness to so many women, because we can't admit that while we have X, Y, and Z, we may miss everything else. I have friends who, including myself, very happily married for many years. Once you have kids and everybody sucks the life out of you, there are moments that we grief our lives when we were just coming home. Personally I would come home and watch Sex and the City and eat pasta and have some red wine and talk to nobody. Those days, I miss those a little bit, but I think women are afraid to admit that they had those moments or they have those moments, and I think it continues through your life. I think this is something that we just need to learn to embrace.

Litsa Williams:

Absolutely. I think acknowledge, right, that there are so many lives worth living and we have the life that we're living right now, but there's always those moments where we think, "I love many things about this life, but there's this alternate life or this life that used to exist for me, and that life was amazing and wonderful and valuable too, or could have been amazing and wonderful and valuable." I think that sometimes we really struggle with that because we think, "Wow, if I spend time acknowledging that or talking about that, it seems like I'm not grateful for what I have right now." When that's not the truth, we can wholly feel.

I feel like sometimes it's like my mantra to people of like, we can wholly feel two feelings at the same time, being able to feel a sense of loss about something doesn't mean we're not feeling a deep gratitude about the thing that we have. We can feel both of those things simultaneously, and it's important that we acknowledge that and that we give it space.

Doryn Wallach:

I love that. I'd love to touch on something that's very relevant right now. I try to not bring too much of the pandemic into my podcasts because I hope that these will go on for a very long time and people will be able to always listen. However, the pandemic is changing our lives, and the reason that podcasts spoke to me, was talking about that we were all grieving what was before the pandemic. Like everybody, I have my days where I'm like, "Wow, you know what? I've learned something so positive out of this. I'm taking it easy on my kids and I'm taking more time for me, and I'm rethinking my career." There are all these positive things that have come out of it. Then I have the other days where I'm like, "This sucks."

The uncertainty and things that we've had to miss, and places we can't go, and friends that we can't see, the feeling of anxiety of not being able to do anything without feeling a little anxious right now and missing so much. At the same time, it's weird. I don't really want to go back to some of those things. What have you seen from grieving as far as COVID goes?

Litsa Williams:

Sure. I mean, there's so much within this because I feel like when I look at what people are coping with and feeling about these losses and that feeling of looking back at the world before the pandemic, I think there is exactly what you described, this feeling of longing or that yearning to go back to my comfortable, predictable life that existed before the pandemic, where I knew what school looked like for the kids, I knew what my job looked like, I felt all of those comfortable things that were easy. Then also feeling like, "Well, no, but there's great things that have happened as well." So I think there's a lot of people who are feeling that combination.

I think where we are right now, in the stage of time that's interesting is, I think many people have accepted. It's never going to go back to exactly what it looked like before. So I think that's causing this new round of feelings for all of those people who are like, "I'm just going to wait this out." Right? "I'm just going to wait it out and then it's going to go back to normal." Now people are facing this idea of like, "Okay, it's not going to go back to normal." At least, maybe not anytime soon, which is both anxiety inducing and at the same time, it creates this amazing new space to say, "Okay, now I really get to define what I want it to look like going forward. I'm not just waiting it out anymore. I can create some new balance."

So I think that in many ways is hard, but can be for people really empowering to say, "I'm going to just start to actively redefine what I want it to look like going forward." The biggest thing that I think is one of the reasons I'm really glad that you wanted to talk about this topic, I think one of the things that we're seeing from so many people is, there's this awareness that right now during COVID, there are people with worse losses, right? There are people who experienced the death of a loved one, the death of multiple loved ones, have lost jobs, have had multiple family members lose jobs.

So, oftentimes I think we're seeing people who are talking around how much they're struggling, but wanting, back to your point about gratitude, wanting to be like, "I can't say that out loud because I should be focusing on all the things that I am grateful that I do have, and that I haven't gone through maybe losses that are as bad as someone else's losses." One of the things that we always like to remind people is that tendency to compare, we do that in life in so many different ways. But if we're talking about grief, if we're talking about loss at any moment, we're always going to be able to find someone who has lost more than that we have lost, who's gone through something harder than we have gone through, but that doesn't invalidate what we're going through.

We can both, again, feel grateful for what we have in this moment while also creating that space to say, "These are real insignificant losses. If I didn't get to see my child graduate from high school the way I thought that I always would, walking across the stage in the traditional way." That's a real loss, and it might not be the same severity as some of these greater losses that we're hearing about, but I still need to give myself space to acknowledge the reality of that. David Kessler, who you listened to, and you referenced one thing about him that I love, that he says often, as he says, over my many years of working in the field of grief, people will often say to me, "What type of grief is the worst grief? What type of loss is the worst loss? Is it losing a child? What is it?"

David Kessler always says, "Your loss is the worst loss." I love that because when we're going through something in a moment, like that's what we're going through, and we need to be able to create a space to be able to acknowledge it while still having that gratitude at the same time.

Doryn Wallach:

I think that's very ... again, speaking to our generation, I think we are this generation that is supposed to commonly say, "Oh, but I'm so lucky." I think we were raised like that. I think a lot of us, I'm not saying everybody. But I have to tell you something in relation to what you just said, two things. Many years ago in New York City, there was Hurricane Sandy, which devastated a lot of Manhattan, and we live in a townhouse right near the river. But when I was an interior designer, I'd spent two years renovating, gutting this house.

About four weeks after I finally finished, Sandy came and dumped about almost five feet of water in our house and going down our stairwell, like a waterfall, all of our furniture was underwater. I was so scared. I didn't have a lot of empathy from people after that. I think they were like, "Oh, well." We were very fortunate financially, so we were able to build it back, but it was a lot of money that we didn't have. It was not just money, it was that my home was destroyed, the place where my kids were playing the day before and my life ... I was bouncing around from place to place for seven weeks, trying to find somewhere to live. Our lives were just in such upheaval, and it was a really traumatic time in my life.

I even remember the day after I went out to Long Island where they had it worse than we did, and I volunteered. I mean, looking back now, I started getting into this huge project and helping everybody out there because I felt like, "Oh, they are so much worse off than I am. I need to go help them." It's sad to me when I look back that I wasn't able to just go through my own grief of what I had lost and trauma of what I experienced. Part of that was my own fault, part of that was me feeling otherwise. I should be grateful, look at these people, they have nothing and their homes are destroyed and they're burned down or whatever.

Litsa Williams:

I think that it's really interesting when we talk about in grief and loss, when we talk about the word avoidance, I think a lot of times people think avoidance is about drinking or sleeping too much or zoning out and watching Netflix for hours and hours, avoidance of difficult things we're going through. I think we think that it's going to be some obvious negative coping, but the reality is, oftentimes when people go through things that are really, really difficult, one of the ways that people will avoid is by externalizing and focusing on helping other people. So like with death related losses, a lot of times we'll see, if somebody loses a partner, suddenly all of their emphasis becomes about how their kids are doing.

So, rather than tending to their own grief, they start just completely focusing on their kids, or within just weeks of a death, they'll become incredibly involved with volunteer work, maybe around the disease that the person died of or something like that. In many ways, other people externally are like rewarding you for that. They're like, "Oh my God, great job. You're going out there helping, you're helping these other people who've lost everything-"

Doryn Wallach:

You're so strong.

Litsa Williams:

You're so strong, you're doing all this great stuff. You've had this flood in your house, and yet you're still out there. So you're getting all this amazing positive reinforcement from other people. And oftentimes it is helpful on some level, right? For yourself, and it is keeping busy, it is sometimes giving you perspective. Like it's not to devalue it just because there's pieces of it that are avoidant. But oftentimes what is going on is that, it's avoidance. It's like, "Okay, if I throw myself into this, then it will allow me to take myself away from my own pain and my own reality of what I'm trying to deal with and the feelings that maybe I really need to feel and spend time with."

So, we always really encourage people if they're having that inclination immediately after something devastating has happened to completely start focusing on helping others. We don't want to say don't help others. That sounds terrible. Right? But we do want to say, make sure you're taking a step back and creating space for your own loss and your own feelings and your own potential trauma or your own ... the depths of your own grief, because that's important, it's important that you spend that time with that, because that's going to be what helps you integrate and be able to pick that up and move forward with it as you go down the road.

Doryn Wallach:

I think as women, we need to be supportive of our friends going through those things. We need to say to them, "You don't have to do this right now. You should focus on yourself, you should focus on your loss and all this other stuff can come later." I think it's up to us. I think it's very hard for women to make that move or that decision on their own. I think we need permission sometimes.

Litsa Williams:

Oh, I completely agree. Then that idea of like, you're being so strong, you're being this, you're being that, being careful of our own language when we ask women ... it's often women who respond to us, it's not all women, but when we ask people about things that other people said that helped them or hurt them when they were going through difficult times, many people will say other people thinking they were being supportive by saying like, "You're being so strong, you're being so brave, you're doing all these things." Those things actually really were difficult for them because it made them feel like they couldn't break down or they couldn't take a break from what they were doing. They had to just keep putting on that face.

When the reality, I think, is like, when I look at my friends, the friends who have been through things that are difficult and devastating, and who have been able to say, "I'm tapping out for a while, I have to take a break from work, volunteering stuff with my kids school." All of that. I need to just take time and space for my grief. I'm like, "You're the strong one, to do that, to be a woman who's in a place to be able to say, I know when I need to tap out." That's, I think, really impressive and really difficult for most women.

Doryn Wallach:

I have a friend who lost a child a couple years ago, and I don't think any of us can ever fathom going through that or understanding that experience. But maybe a year after, she was telling me the story about how she was in a school. I don't know if it was like a group or a PTA or something that somebody asked her to join, and they were all sitting around the table and talking about whatever subject they were talking about, that completely felt trivial to her at this time of her life which understandably. She told me that, "I just stood up and I looked around the room and I was like, I'm leaving, I have no interest in this. I'm done." She just flipped out and I was like, "Good for you."

I mean, clearly her perspective on life has changed drastically. I was so proud of her because it was a moment where she realized that like, "I don't want to do this, I'm not going to do this. This is not what I need in my life right now. I don't believe in this and I'm out of here."

Litsa Williams:

Absolutely. I love that. I think a lot of people, when they reflect on going through a loss, going through some devastating life event. When you ask people about meaning or growth or things that have come from it, not that you need to find meaning and growth out of your loss, I'd like to be very clear, but if you do find people who find that and had those moments, many times they're like, "It helped me to prioritize many things in my life. It allowed me to see which relationships and friendships were the most meaningful, and it allowed me to see where I really wanted to spend my time and where I didn't want to spend my time. It allowed me to reassess my life through this new lens." That's really valuable.

So oftentimes when we talk about post-traumatic growth, what happens is people will say, "I have fewer friendships than I had before, but they are far more meaningful friendships than the friendships I had before. Maybe I'm involved in far fewer activities and volunteer work and different things than I was before. But I'm so much more invested and committed in the things that I do now, because this event helped me to really prioritize my life in a way that I wasn't doing before the loss happened."

Doryn Wallach:

I'm feeling that way about COVID honestly, about friendships and relationships. I have really been re-evaluating my career in this whole thing. And I don't know if you know, but I'm a fine jewelry designer by day, I've been doing that for seven years. Before the pandemic, it was something that I was unsure about. I knew I loved to doing it, but I felt like it took a lot of my time and energy, it costs a lot of money to keep the business going. I really was thinking about slowing it down, but very torn because my jewelry does have a reputation and I have clients. So, how can I make a choice for myself that is not thinking about these other people? Then COVID happened, and it took me a while until recently.

I fortunately started this podcast during this time too, which I'm so passionate about and I love doing so much. I've decided now to restructure my business and change it despite consultants and despite people telling me, &q