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Grief Coaching: A Great Way to Mourn with the Mourning

May 7th, 2009 | By | Category: Family Coaching Center Guest Posts

Grief Coaching: A Great Way to Mourn with the Mourning, by Rick Unruh*


Few people expect to get “the call”. I always figured it happened to others, but wouldn’t happen to me. Yet, there I was screaming in the phone “NO” as my dad had just told me that my son, Landon, was in an accident and might be dead. He was visiting grandpa’s house riding four-wheelers when he lost control and ran through a barb-wired fence.

What followed our loss is hard to put into words. It was a pain so deep that we weren’t sure we would survive. Each day was a flood of emotions and triggers that often sent us spiraling into dark depression. Jeremiah describes well what we felt, says “My joy is gone; grief is upon me;? my heart is sick within me” (Jeremiah 8:18, ESV). Not only was our joy gone, but our hearts were sick. Our pain felt unbearable.

Our recovery has been a long journey. Along the way we discovered coaching as a great way to relate people that are grieving. Coaching is a natural fit for what a grieving person needs. They don’t need a set of Christian clich├ęs. They need time and friends to come to terms with their loss. Coaching works well because it respects the unique way that people grieve, and allows them to set the pace of the process.

Grief Coaching is a way to come alongside the bereaved that conveys belief in their ability to survive the painful process. It engages them where they are motivated or willing to be supported and keeps them accountable and responsible to grieve in a healthy way. Although there is no set timetable, the key is not to become stuck and keep moving at whatever pace with which they are comfortable.

Grieving is a very difficult road, but a grief coach can make the journey a bit easier to navigate. Coaching the bereaved provides a way to get close with them, to cry with them, and to support them as they fight to overcome their pain. Sometimes the greatest impact on the grieving person is just to be there for them.

One of the things that impacted me greatly was a friend who coached Landon in baseball. His name was Scott. What people don’t realize, until you’ve lost someone close, is the impact of anniversary days. Their birthdays, the day they passed away, holidays, are generally brutal days. Since Landon’s death eight years ago Scott has called on every one of these anniversary days to care for us. He simply says, “I know today is a tough day, but I just wanted you to know that we are thinking about you and praying for you”. He’s also been there to give the gift of listening and to ask us how we’re doing. Although he was not a coach per se, he was using some great coaching techniques and I began to see the powerful tool grief coaching could be. It’s hard to put into words what an impact that made on us. Simply said, it has been priceless.

Job 5:11 says (MSG) “He raises up the down-and-out, gives firm footing to those sinking in grief. ” People many times feel like the grieving process is hopeless. It is very easy to become consumed with your grief. “The grieving process for me is not so much a matter of getting rid of the pain, but not being controlled by the pain” (Dr. Larry Crabb).

As we journey with those that are grieving we ask questions to open their hearts and minds about significant aspects of the process. Here are a few questions we have found effective in grief coaching: .

1. What was your belief about grief before you lost a loved one and what is your belief about grief now? Prior to loss a person can imagine what it might feel like, but the reality is much more intense, far reaching and long-lasting. My personal experience was far different than I could have imagined. I had no idea where I was going, how to get there, I was simply lost.

2. What did you believe about God’s role in grieving before your loss and what do you believe now? This question elicits various answers. Prior to losing a loved one some report viewing God as one who is loving and comforting; a God that wraps His loving arms around us. However, after we lost our son we wondered where God was and Why He didn’t protect him? We asked how could God let this happen, and if the pain would ever go away?

The coaching skill of empathic listening is essential when people vent their emotions and ask questions. Simple reflections are experienced as caring and compassionate. People who have lost a loved one, love to talk about them and share stories. Some days, just telling stories about my son would make me feel better. We also have this great fear that they will be forgotten and by talking about them helps us feel they are being remembered.

3. In five years what do you expect to be experiencing in the grieving process and in your relationship with God? Many times the bereaved dream of being healed from their grief in five years, but generally do not believe that is possible in the early stages. It is hard for them to imagine feeling any different because their current experience is as if they are drowning in their grief.

After losing her son teenage son, one lady said, “you grow up in church, raise your family in church and you are believing and praying for God’s protection for your family. I always looked at God as my protector, my insurance policy. But when he didn’t protect my child, my whole belief system was challenged.” The coaching approach helps people work through questions such as these. I can tell them until I’m blue in the face that it wasn’t their fault. They might know that in their mind, but their heart is full of grief. Until Christ brings revelation to that fact, it doesn’t mean anything. Coaching is not being pushy and telling people how they are supposed to feel. It keeps their defenses down and creates an environment in which they can hear truth from Christ.

Grief tests our faith. When we imagine grief prior to losing someone, we never see this part of the picture. Not only are many Christians grieving for their loved ones, but they are also thrown into a battle for their very belief system. Everything they once believed appears to be false. Although this may not be true for everyone, it definitely affects many Christians, especially when dealing with a child or spouse.

I remember sitting in my backyard a few weeks after losing our son. All of a sudden his loss hit me like a rock. “My life will never be the same”, I thought. “All my friends were able to go back to their normal lives, but I am going to have to carry this burden for the rest of my life.” I just wanted the pain to go away. I wanted my life back. I was angry that my life had been forever altered. I felt desperately hopeless as a dark depression began setting in.

I wish that I had known about grief coaching to help me get through my darkest days, and I wish there had been someone alongside to coach me through the process. Instead, I tried to numb the pain by chasing things and success. I sought relief in accomplishments and things. but I remained angry and bitter at God. It took my possessions being stripped from me before I dealt with my grief head on, with no distractions.

During my healing I had a clear vision in which I carried my son to the feet of Jesus. I told him this was my greatest pain and my deepest hurt in my life, and that I was choosing to give it to Him to use as he wanted for His glory. It was immediately after I laid Landon at His feet, that Christ began to lay out the ministry he had for us reaching out to the grieving. It was then that Jesus birthed a ministry we call Dream Again. “Helping People Dream Again After Loss”.

Grief Coaching begins by co-creating a map to help the bereaved to see where they are now and where they want to be. For many this includes a desire to believe in God the same way they used to. This is an essential exercise because a big part of grieving is that initially, you just don’t see a way out. It’s like being dropped in the middle of the desert with no water and every direction you look, it all looks the same. Then with the heat of the sun, the lack of water, and the lack of direction, it is so easy to want to run back to the safety of that dark cave called depression and denial. By helping the grieving build their own map, they now see that they can make the journey through the desert. It will be a long and tiresome journey. That they will survive this dry time of their life, but they have to keep moving, at whatever pace they want.

Grief Coaching gives us a way to be alongside during the long journey, to enact Romans 12:15 which instructs “to mourn with those that mourn”. It is a beautiful way to be alongside bereaved people as they progress through the stages of mourning. It gives us a way to patiently and compassionately walk alongside as they make the journey down the long road of a long process.

One of the first individuals that I was grief coaching was actually a friend who our sons had played baseball together. His loss was 7 years after ours. We had lost contact through the years, but we immediately re-connected. It was powerful to see the first hand results of what an impact coaching could bring to someone that was in deep into grieving, by just sharing their pain with them. I remember one day he texted me and said he was mad at God, mad at the world right now. I picked up the phone and called him and he was shocked to hear me say “that’s great”. That’s great? Yes, because it means that you are moving along in the grieving process and it’s okay to be angry (for a season) it’s part of the process. I then proceeded to start asking some questions on why he was angry, who, etc… Instead of feeling guilty about being angry at God, he embraced it as part of the process he had to sort out to eventually become healthy again.

Grief Coaching is effective in helping people find some sort of normalcy again. Through coaching, they realize that they can be real with their coach and that someone is there with them for the long haul. As the relationship builds, the coach is able to ask the tough questions and to ultimately make sure they are moving forward in the grieving process and not stuck or holding it in.

Although, it is my belief that you don’t necessarily have to have a great loss to be a grief coach, no doubt it is helpful. Yet, the coaching model in itself means we don’t have to be the expert, they are. I do believe, from my personal experience, that it would be very difficult to coach someone through grief if you haven’t grieved, because the actual experience of grieving is very different from what we imagine. But with coaching, we don’t have to have great words of wisdom and most of the time they don’t need that. They just need to know someone is there who will be very patient and give great compassion.

Bereaved people are unlikely to view God in the same way as before, but the same is true for people who experience significant trials and tribulations and losses other than sudden death. The fact is that it is through these experiences we grow and learn more about God. Our view of God might be different than before, but it is generally so much more valuable, deeper, and more meaningful because of what we went through.

Yes, we still miss our son greatly and I still cry when we visit his gravesite. A part of my wife and I died that day with him. But there is also a peace that I now have that was not there during the early stages of our loss. There were several key people who stood beside and listened to us on our good and bad days. And although they did not realize it, they were using a form of coaching to help us get through those dark days. Because their method of befriending and loving us was so effective we have become passionate about being intentional with those that are grieving by taking a coaching posture with them that honors the depth of their pain and the unique pace at which they process it.

The biggest blessing of coaching for bereaved that I see comes from something my son did a few weeks before he died. Tamela, my wife, had come home from a very tough day at work. The house had been wrecked by our 3 boys. She felt like she was about ready to explode, so she walked out and sat on the porch to clear her head. A few minutes later our son came out and sat beside her. He put his arm around her and simply said “It’s gonna be okay, mom”. There are no words that can express what an instant change occurred when my wife heard those words. She instantly became calm, because of a few simple words from her 12 year old son. What Landon did for his mom that day is effectively what we now do for others, and we invite you to do for the bereaved that God puts on your path

The bottom line is that the heart and skills of a coach equip us to put our arm around those that are grieving to love them by our presence and compassion and walk with them toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

*Rick Unruh attended Central Bible College from 1984-1988. He traveled as an evangelist for about 6 years before working as the General Manager of a motel. In 2008, God laid this grief ministry on Rick’s heart and so he went back to school for his Masters degree at Logos University. He currently directs the Dream Again Counseling and Coaching center in Wichita, KS., and Dream Again outreach to people who have suffered loss. Rick travels to share his testimony and to equip the church for ministry to the grieving. You can reach Rick at or 316-684-4006.



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