"Therapists can study the science of grief until it is coming out of their ears, but they can ultimately only promise you a theory."
This past Monday I was to attend what would be the final Death Cafe in West Hampstead hosted by Josefine Speyer.
Josefine is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and the co-founder of the Natural Death Centre (NDC). Her husband who co-founded the NDC with her, was to die in a car accident in 2001.
Josefine set up the West Hampstead Death Cafe back when it was still a seed taking root in the UK, if I am not mistaken it was one of the first. It was for this reason, Josefine's skills and experience that I was to attend all those years ago (Josefine was to remind me that it had been six years).
Since that time I have experienced many more deaths, I have hosted many death cafes, set them up and delivered talks, workshops and coached on bereavement. I have no doubt that if it was not for attending the West Hampstead Death cafe back in 2013 with my Death buddy Liz Wong, things would have turned out very differently.
This final Death Cafe started as all do. Setting the agreement for the event and setting the tone. There were some powerful stories and experiences that were shared. For many, the emotion of their grief was still strong. Some had managed to work with their grief, others were still struggling deeply. What amazed me in all these cases was the power of the human spirit and I was honoured to be in the presence of such vulnerability and strength.
After my sharing my experiences, one of the attendees remarked, "I'm amazed. You've been through a lot, what amazes me is how did you cope?"
I paused. It had never occurred to me before that what I had done was amazing, or in fact that not coping was an option. It got me thinking. How did I cope?
This is what I have learned.
I allowed myself to fall apart. I didn't put on a "brave face" . If I needed to cry I cried. If I needed to scream, I'd find somewhere and let it out the cage. If I needed to hit something or break something I did just that, as long as I didn't hurt myself or others I gave myself permission to do whatever I needed to to get through it.
I had a tight support network. It wasn't massive. Just a select few. Each person served a different role, as it is unreasonable for me to expect one person to be all things. Some just made sure I had eaten, take me out to eat or prepare food for me. Others new the importance of displacing that emotional energy and check in on me to make sure I was still staying active and we'd go train.
I had select friends and family members who I could have deep and meaningful conversations with, and others who I were fun time friends - because even in grief it's important to smile and recognise that you can still be happy. These people were just there to make sure I had a good time.
This doesn't mean I didn't struggle. It doesn't mean that sometimes my life and relationships weren't messy. It doesn't mean that I didn't lose the plot. If I told you that it would be a lie. But what it did mean was that I set myself up for the best fighting chance.
I'm also a firm believer that you are never given anything that you can't handle in life - but how and if you handle it is down to you.
As I said at the Death Cafe
Time does not heal. It's more what you do with that time that matters."
Josefine was quick to point out to those in attendance, "The unprocessed stuff stays in the fridge."
The danger is that if you do not pro-actively deal with your bereavement (whatever that may look like for you) that what stays in the fridge is likely to go rotten - and no one wants that. It may very well be a short term strategy, but not a long term solution.
The death of the West Hamptead Death Cafe was tinged with sadness at the loss of such sacred space for healing that Josefine had created, but also feelings of gratitude for having bore witness to the start and the end of it, and the knowledge that Josefine will continue to do invaluable work around Death and Bereavement with the NDC and her Death Salons.
I'm not sure that I agree with Rio Ferdinand on this point, (to be clear he does advocate getting help from a suitable professional) but I do get his sentiment. The death of someone is like a scar that you carry, it heals, but the skin is never the same.
Now a doctor or nurse may be able to stitch you up and tell you how to take care of the wound to minimalize the scar tissue, but unless they've been deeply cut themselves they'll never truly understand what you are going through, and even if they have, they can only ever get a glimpse of your experience.
This is what it is to grieve.
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Former P.A, Boxer and now award winning Coach, Nazia Khatun shares her compelling story in my latest podcast episode, including her battle with eating disorders, establishing herself as an Asian female boxer in a male dominated sport, and why she went from a secure 9 - 5 job to become the Director Owner of the successful Fitness Reborn UK.
Her mission is to teach women how to fall in love with themselves and their body for better health. This bite sized podcast is packed with powerful insights, wisdom and sheer entertainment that will have you splitting your sides with laughter. [LISTEN HERE].
If you are are Michael Jackson fan then the image probably triggered the song Smooth Criminal to play fall blast in your mind. It was some years after the songs initial release that I learned that the line "Annie are you Ok?" was indeed inspired by the name of the first aid doll and one of the protocols - who knew?
Yesterday I was on a First Aid Course run by First Aid Training Organisation The course was filled to capacity, with practitioners from all walks of life, from personal trainers, massage therapists, teachers, to those working with the vulnerable. It was easily one of the best first courses I had attended, but half way through the course something happened that I had not expected, or was ready for.
We were pressure tested from the start, given various scenarios to see how we would respond. One of them was an example of an Road Traffic Accident (RTC) as we spoke about the scenario and as I looked a the dummy laying on the floor I began to have flash backs.
In May 2018 I was witness to an RTC where the person died. There is an ongoing investigation which I am a part of. I thought I had dealt with the situation, but it was clear that I hadn't one hundred percent. I began to get emotional as my mind played back the scenario, but I had the awareness to allow myself to feel the emotion and acknowledge it, while still staying present to what was happening right now, in front of me.
Why did I do this, continue, and not stop?
See, as someone who is First Aid qualified there will always be situations that trigger things and in the moment, and I need to be able to manage my emotional state so that I can be of assistance to others (as long as it's in my scope of practice).
My daily practice of mindfulness meditation, and the work I have recently been doing with Mood Cards have been paying off. I was able to hold a space where I could allow myself to experience and acknowledge the past trauma and still function in the present moment, carrying out the first aid.
Processing those emotions and taking care of myself afterwards is equally important - and if you ever experience something similar I urge you to find what works for you. While I had addressed the situation cognitively, I still had all this restless physical energy, so after the course I took myself to the gym to lift heavy, put on some tunes and got stuck it, utilising that physical energy for my benefit. I then went home to journal, utilising the mood cards and them meditated.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because our brain is a fascinating thing, and has evolved over time to protect us in various ways. Sometimes, even when we think we have dealt completely with something cognitively, emotional residue can still show up. This doesn't mean that anything is necessarily wrong. It just gives us the opportunity to get help if we need it, or practice our self care strategies. That day, because I was able to put those things in place, Annie remained ok.
In his book Irresistible, exploring Behavioural Addiction, Adam Alter comes across a fascinating insight.
Four and a half hours is the time it takes for the average marathon runner to complete the 26.2 mile course. Then at either end of the scale you have elite marathon runners completing the course in as little over two hours (Kenya's Eluid Kipchoge currently holds the world record with a mind bending time of 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds which he set in Berlin in September 2018) while the slowest walkers can spend 6 - 10 hours on the course.
A small group finish under the three hour mark with slower times becoming more common until you hit the four hour mark.
If you were to plot the finishing times on a graph you would expect to see something like this...
But according to Alter that's not what you find. In 2014 behavioural scientist mapped out the finishing times of ten million marathon runners and this is actually what it looked like...
Alter states that if you focus on the milestones that arrive every half hour (the thick black bars) you will see a dip after each milestone. Potentially there are several things happening here.
Some marathon times are more significant milestones than others. The compelling power of goals are such that running a sub four hour marathon is more desirable than running it in four hours and 1 minute. Runners somehow dig deep into inner reserves of energy as they strive to beat the milestones (this is true of the faster and slower milestones too).
The flip side is that if you're slightly off the four hour mark, the next significant milestone is four hours and thirty minutes. So what difference does it make if you've run it in four hours and three minutes of four hours and fifteen? (hence the slight dip after the thick bars, and numbers pick up again towards the milestones).
When you are demotivated, it's easy to slip into a negative spiral, or simply hold on to your energy reserves (why waste them?) as what's the point of wrecking yourself further if you have missed your target? Such is the compelling power of goals.
This got me thinking. It's well documented that the primary motivations for human actions are the seeking or avoidance of pleasure and pain. When it comes to goal setting, if we are not careful then our avoidance of pain (in this case failure) can negatively influence our commitment and our actions. Let me give you an example.
Let's say your goal is to lose a stone in weight by March. The New Year comes, you are full of enthusiasm, and ready to take action. You get off to a great start, throwing out "bad" food and stocking the fridge with free range organic goodness. We join a gym and nail going three to four times a week.
So far so good right?
Then life happens.
Our work commitments get hectic, social engagements begin to fill our diary, the odd treat begins to creep back in our diet, which then becomes a regular feature. Frustrated, we renew our commitment with vigour. We still make it to the gym, but this time just not as often.
Our weight loss begins to slow down. Cue the subtle panic.
It's now late February. The March goal looms over use like a dark cloud in the back of our mind. Just like the marathon runners who are off the 4 hour mile pace, we begin to become acutely aware that we are probably not going to make it. Each time we don't make it to the gym, and that treat sneaks back in our diet, we feel like a failure.
This is not a good look. It's certainly not empowering.
We spin our wheels going through the motions, but deep down not believing that we can achieve that weight loss. That icky feeling of failure grips us at our core, and who want's to feel like a constant failure right? That's a pretty poor return on investment for all your efforts.
At some point the emotional pangs begin to erode our sense of self esteem, which gets too much. We do what seems to be the logical thing, stop doing what is causing us so much pain. So we abandon the nutrition and fitness plan." F*ck it!" we cry! Sounds familiar right?
So where am I going with this?
Pretty simple really. Let me explain....
People often remark on my strength and my fitness. On any given day in the year I should be able to,
These are my fitness standards. These standards also provide a solid base for me to get ready for competition, but if I am not getting ready for a competition, then I only have to maintain this level. If I am not competing, then I do not need to go over and above this standard, and can focus my time and energies elsewhere.
These fitness standards are my base level - a set point. When you stop to think about it, you have standards in different areas of your life too.
The fundamental difference between a goal and a standard is that a goal is event orientated. It is a specific objective that you aim to achieve at some point in the future. The gratification, or reward is delayed (or not experienced if you fail). Once the goal is achieved we often lapse back (think yo-yo dieting, people who want to become multi-millionaires then blow all their money - you get the idea).
A standard is not a one off event. It is something that is sustained. Gratification is not delayed, the benefits occurs in the here and now. Rather than it being something that you work towards (like a goal) think of it more like a baseline that you do not allow yourself to fall below.
When you are applying for a new job, I'm sure there is a certain wage that you will not entertain working for less than. Even if the job is amazing - if wages are not at a certain level you will not apply. There may be a salary that you are aiming for (a goal), but that base level salary is not something you aim for, it's a standard.
The same is true of your relationships, there is a certain level of communication, intimacy and behaviour that you will accept, and anything less than this is unacceptable. Again, it's not a goal, it's your relationship standard. The same is true for your standard of living too no doubt.
I'm sure there is a standard of accommodation, or even quality of food that you have right? Holding a standard is a very different psychology from a goal (which we'll explore later). We all have standards in different areas, yet we often fail to look at how we can transfer this principle to all areas of our lives.
While I was always clear on my health and fitness standards, as well as my relationship standards, it wasn't until I read Code of The Extraordinary Mind, by the founder of Mind Valley Vishen Lakhiani, did I fully appreciate the possibility of practically applying standards (he calls them "set points") across different areas of my life, or indeed why they can be more powerful than goals.
A set point (like a standard) is a level of performance that you do not allow yourself to slip below. Remember goals are event based - they are one off.
Now when you have a set point (in any area) you will need to take a look at how effective your current systems for living are, and whether they support your set points. Remember, unlike goals, your set points are non-negotiable.
Identify which areas in your life you would like to have set points (Code of The Extraordinary Mind outline 12 such areas). Determine your set points for each, then test and correct if you are off the mark. If you are unsure, this is where hiring a coach can often come in useful (especially if you've had the same New Years resolutions for more than a year!).
I'm not saying that goals are not valid. I think they can be useful. But did you know that according to Adam Alter author of Irresistible, prior to 1950's goal pursuit was absent from English language books?
While goals have been around since life began, what has changed is how much of our lives are driven by goal pursuit. Whereas before, goals were mostly about some aspect of survival, the concept of setting one goal after another (relentless perfectionism) is quite new.
Alter goes on to explain that for some, goal setting itself can be a form of behavioural addiction - which can have a negative impact.
In my experience as a Coach, problems can also occur when you have no standards and set goals. If success is a habit, think of standards as a firm foundation which to launch your attempt at goals.
Now, you may or may not achieve your goal with out a firm foundation, but the probability of you achieving it is far greater if you already have a solid foundation.
So this year I invite you to ask yourself not "What goal do I want to achieve?" but rather, "What's my standard?"