I’m very happy to have Alana Sheeren here on the blog today as part of the Women Branching Out interview series.
Alana is a grief and loss coach who uses her own person experiences to help others grow and heal through loss.
Her tele-retreat, The Picking Up the Pieces Tele-Retreat begins November 20.
In your coaching practice you help people pick up the pieces after a loss. What are some of the tools you teach your clients to use?
One of the first things I do is share information. There are myths and misperceptions about grief in our culture that tend to be very hurtful, even harmful, so I like to dispel those in order to allow people to relax into their experience. Often we judge ourselves, or feel judged by those around us, for how we are feeling. Having more accurate knowledge about what grief looks like can relieve the self-judgment and enable us to trust ourselves in the face of others’ opinions.
I use the body as an important way into emotion, so I spend time helping my clients get in touch with their bodies in a nurturing, intuitive way. I also teach tools that increase self-awareness, deepen intuition and allow my clients to be more curious about what’s happening emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. I like to think of each of my clients as the expert in their own grief, so it’s my job to help them explore what feels good and right and healing for them.
Fighting grief, resisting it, gives it more power and makes it infinitely more painful. My goal is to help people soften into it, get to know it, get to know themselves without being defined by it. In accepting our feelings we give them freedom to transform. I want my clients to leave with tools they can use for the rest of their lives.
You say, “Grief is one of the most powerful ways to change your life for the better.” How has your own experience with loss and grief changed you?
The pain of grief will either shut us down or crack us open. What that looks like varies depending on the person and the situation. Each time grief has entered my life, I’ve learned about myself. I realized I was in love with my first boyfriend right after my childhood pet died. I left him four years later, shortly after my grandparents died. The grief wasn’t the cause of those decisions, but feeling broken open allowed there to be more space for listening to my heart.
When my marriage fell apart and we decided to rebuild it, it changed the course of my life. I went back to school to get my Master’s degree in Psychology. Learning to live with the pain, the anger, and the love – staying present with all of it – deepened my relationship with my husband and with myself. It was incredibly difficult, but I believe if things hadn’t happened that way, our marriage wouldn’t have survived the stillbirth of our son.
Benjamin’s death has been my most overwhelming experience of grief. It brought me back to myself in important ways. There were pieces of my soul that I’d been ignoring for years. There were things I was doing in my life that I knew weren’t serving me but I didn’t know how to change them. The trauma of his death was a call for me to wake up.
In order to get through the day in one piece, to continue parenting my daughter who was three at the time, I had to do two things: stop everything that didn’t make me feel better and start doing what eased the pain. That looked like everything from writing and dancing daily to letting go of a 24-year friendship to becoming a Reiki Master to losing 64 pounds and changing my relationship to food. I stopped letting shoulds rule my life and began listening deeply to my inner wisdom, my intuition, my soul cravings.
Even in the moments where I still ache to hold my son’s body, the moments where I am covered in tears and snot and running mascara, I am deeply grateful for what I’ve lived. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, I wouldn’t feel like I’m living on purpose, if he hadn’t come into my life. Because I’ve felt such deep grief, I’m able to experience even greater joy and peace. And I look and feel better than I have in two decades. Life hasn’t necessarily gotten easier, but I’m much better at riding the waves.
How has the experience of coaching others through similar life changes impacted your life?
Honestly it is such an honor that even thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. It is my privilege to hold the space for people whose hearts are broken open in this way, who are so beautifully vulnerable and willing to let life be their teacher.
It’s also challenging. I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself. I have to be clear in my mental and emotional boundaries or I begin to absorb their pain. I’m highly sensitive to energy so I make sure to ground myself before and after my work, and clear anything that I’ve taken in. I’ve discovered that I get messages in my body about what clients are experiencing in their bodies. It’s helpful in session, but then I have to be sure to let it go. I know my own grief signs so well that when they begin to appear, I boost my self-care.
I’m also very clear about who I will work with. If someone is stuck in feeling like a victim, or isn’t willing to come to the work with an open heart, I usually suggest they see a therapist, grief counselor or find a support group. There are other reasons I refer out as well, but that’s a big one. It’s too draining for me and it’s partly why I chose not to become a therapist in the first place.
What books and resources do you recommend to anyone who is grieving?
The number of books on grief is overwhelming. Some of them are helpful and others perpetuate the myth that grief is one-size-fits-all, or that there is a right way to do it. I highly recommend that people take what works for them – what feels supportive and healing – and let everything else go.
Grief Watch has a wonderful selection of books, including one of my favorites for adults and children alike, Tear Soup. The founders, Pat and John put a lot of thought and care into the books they create and recommend.
I recently read a new book, Turning Dead Ends Into Doorways: How to Grow Through Whatever Life Throws Your Way, by Staci Boden. It’s an invaluable resource for anyone living life’s challenges. My review of it is here and people can watch my interview with the author here.
I love the work of Cath Duncan and Kara Chipoletti Jones. They’ve created the Creative Grief Coaching Certification for people who want to work with grievers. They have wonderful resources and reading lists on their grief coaching site.
On my site, I have a free e-book called Picking Up the Pieces: thoughts on grief and growth. It deals with different kinds of grief and offers prompts for working through your own experience. I also have a TEDx talk about Owning Our Grief.
Any of Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability – her TEDx and TED talks, and her books, are worth watching and reading.
Patti Digh is another favorite of mine. Her book, Life is a Verb, was inspired by her stepfather’s death, 37 days after his cancer diagnosis. Though it’s not about grief specifically, it’s about living mindfully, which in my mind helps us to grieve. Her new book, The Geography of Loss, will be in bookstores mid-2013.
You have a virtual retreat coming up soon which will focus on getting through the holidays. Tell us a little bit more about that retreat and who would benefit the most from joining in.
The Picking Up the Pieces Tele-Retreat is for women experiencing any kind of grief, sadness, or sense of loss. I’ve had women participate who were dealing with infertility, pregnancy loss, stillbirth, pet death, the medical diagnosis and approaching death of a child or husband, childhood grief, the death of parents and other loved ones, the end of a relationship, the loss of a dream, and general sadness. The community that is created always blows me away. There is such openness and willingness to listen and support one another. For most people it’s a huge relief to have a place to talk about the emotions, thoughts, pain and fear that accompany grief.
It’s a five-week retreat with each week organized around a theme. They are Body, Mind, Heart, Spirit, and Relationships and Community. It involves a weekly phone call where I share information and people get support, a private Facebook group where we stay in touch between calls, a weekly meditation, prompts to encourage exploration and self-understanding, and daily emails with short self-care exercises. People can engage with each other and the work as much as they feel comfortable.
It was important to me to offer it over the holidays. This time of year is loaded with expectations, memories, desires and emotions. I want people to have a safe space to come and feel they can be themselves without fear of judgment. It’s a beautiful, gentle, healing experience. If anyone feels drawn to it but has questions, they can book a complimentary call with me this week and I’m happy to answer them.
Finish this sentence. I believe…
I believe in the strength, resilience and brilliance of the human spirit. I believe in love. I believe we are all meant to shine.
Who are your biggest supporters and bright lights in your life and what does their support allow you to do?
My husband and daughter first and foremost. He is my biggest supporter and she is my brightest light. My parents have always supported me, no matter how nutty they thought I was being. I have the most incredible friends, some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person. Their love has lifted me up in my times of grief and despair. Their support has kept me going when I felt like everything was falling apart. Their willingness to celebrate with me has made my celebrations sweeter. Knowing they are out there, loving me, believing in me, keeps me going on the days when juggling wife, mother and entrepreneur feels like more than I can handle. I am unbelievably blessed.
What did 7 year old Alana say she wanted to be when she grew up?
A ballerina and a writer. I danced professionally until I was 21, then gave it up for a long time. I have a feeling I’ll dance publicly again one day – though not ballet! I didn’t write, except in a journal, for almost 20 years. When I started again, it was like I breathed oxygen into piece of my soul that I’d been unconsciously trying to suffocate. But it wouldn’t die. Dancing and writing have saved my life.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
You can’t do grief wrong. You can make it easier or harder on yourself. You can learn from it or not. You can heal through it or not. You can let it define your life or you can let it be a part of you and thrive again. You can ask for help or go it alone. You can say yes or no when people offer you love, support and community. It’s really up to you.
Grief can be a doorway to increased kindness, compassion and awakening consciousness if you let it.
Trust yourself. Love yourself. Forgive yourself for being human. Allow yourself to have your feelings – all of them – and if you’re raising kids, allow them to have their feelings too.
Hazrat Inayat Kahn said, “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” Let your heart remain open. This one act, if enough of us do it, will change the world.
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Alana Sheeren is an emotional alchemist, deep conversation catalyst, Reiki Master, Kundalini yogi and proud mama of two children, a 5-year-old daughter and a stillborn son.
You can find her at AlanaSheeren.com, where you can download her free e-book, Picking Up the Pieces: thoughts on grief and growth, watch her interview series, Transformation Talk, and join a community of women learning to grow and heal through loss during the Picking Up the Pieces Tele-Retreat.