Sooner or later, most of us lose someone we care about, and since the start of the pandemic, loss has visited more of us than ever. The pain can be overwhelming, and we may feel nothing will ever be normal again. Losing someone we love is a highly personal experience, and no two people cope in the same way. As gyms and studios open up and students return to classes and training sessions, we—as fitness professionals—should know how to help someone who is grieving. Here are a few guidelines on what to do, and not do, in this situation.
Reactions to Loss Can Vary Widely
Students who lose someone dear to them may move through a wide variety of reactions, including anxiety, depression, irritability, guilt and lack of energy. They may isolate themselves, shut down and feel they are losing control of their lives. As fitness pros, we are not psychologists or counselors; we are compassionate helpers who can offer support. If you have not experienced a great loss, this may be frightening for you, but it is essential to be present with those who grieve and mourn.
Welcoming Back a Student Who Is Grieving
When a participant returns to class after a death, it is a major step and a sign that she is trying to move forward in life. Just as every grief experience is unique, the welcome a student receives should reflect and honor her as an individual, so make no assumptions; instead, follow the student’s lead. “Your first job is to make students feel secure and to let them know your class is a safe space,” says Kathryn Coyle, national Pilates program manager for Life Time Fitness Inc.
June Kahn, 2009 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and founder of June Kahn’s Bodyworks LLC, lost her son in 2016. She offers this advice to instructors: “Don’t ignore grief; honor it. Let students know you are there and will be there to support their grief and healing. Let them know that it’s okay to cry, but don’t baby them. They need to bring their life back to a new normal, and the workout routine is a huge part of that.”
Tread Carefully After a Loss
Some participants will not want to talk after they lose a loved one, and condolences may bring a flood of tears and the response, “I just want to work out.” For these students, a simple greeting is perfect: “I am so glad you are back; let’s practice.”
Try to get a read on a student, based on your knowledge of him; your relationship with him; and his postural, facial and verbal signals when he arrives. Then, respond with respect. If you come from a place of compassion, you can’t go wrong. Create space, and if the student talks, listen, but do not pry.
Modify Workouts If Necessary
A student moving through grief may experience physical symptoms, including fatigue, restlessness, muscle and joint pain, aches (especially in the chest), anxiety, loss of appetite and trouble concentrating. In the early days, modifying exercise intensity may be necessary. Know that it’s not your job to “open students up” (with spinal extension exercises, for example).
Watch for complications. Red flags can include prolonged grief (6–12 months, depending on the death), anxiety attacks, marked weight loss and/or physical deterioration. Any of these may indicate that the student needs professional help. Bereavement therapy is a specialty; it may be best to talk to local professionals to find a resource you can gently offer.
How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving
As an instructor, you can lend support with your presence, attention and kindness. End the session on a genuine, uplifting note: “I’m so glad you are back. That was good work. Thank you for coming today. Know I am here for you if you want anything, even just to go for a walk.”
Beyond that, remember that movement itself knows how to help someone who is grieving. Movement matters, movement heals, and—even after we lose someone dear to us—love wins. So keep your students moving, and help them on the journey from grief, through mourning, and back into light and life.
See also: When Students Grieve
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