Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us when we live.
Sooner or later, most of us will lose someone we care about. The pain this causes can be overwhelming, and we may feel that nothing will ever be normal again. Losing someone we love is a highly personal experience, and no two people cope in the same way or progress within the same time frame. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
While grief is the experience of psychological trauma, mourning is the process of psychological healing. As teachers, we should be ready to help students with both.
Begin With Self-Reflection
Students experiencing a loss 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 like they are losing control of their lives. As fitness professionals, 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.
As a starting point, take a moment to reflect on your own feelings regarding death. Do this in a gentle, nonjudgmental way. You may not have thought very much about death—you may even try to avoid thinking about it; you may be afraid of it; or perhaps you are curious about it. The feelings you have may stem from your own experience or inexperience with loss, from your religious faith or from your culture, but wherever they come from, they are just a starting point. They deserve your thought and investigation. If you have negative feelings, reflect on why you feel the way you feel, and what you might do to challenge the thinking that underlies those feelings.
Many years back, while I was working as a fitness director, a colleague's child died, and indeed it was a terrible tragedy to see a life lost so young. My expectation was that everyone would feel the family's pain and would offer support; however, some members of staff went out of their way to avoid the child's mother, and I finally got up the courage to ask one of them why. The loss was just too overwhelming for her to think about, she said, because that might have been her child. This teacher was so paralyzed by her fear that she could not be there for her friend; her first step was to examine her thoughts and move beyond that fear.
Be a Role Model and Guide for Others
As mind-body educators we teach students to be open in mind, body and spirit, to be compassionate to themselves and others. And ideally we role-model a mindful, compassionate lifestyle by being present with whatever shows up in our own lives. When what shows up is death, our practice is to be present with that. The Dalai Lama says, "Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the [spiritual] path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless."
Years ago I worked along with my husband as a death and dying educator at our church. As a certified instructor of Jivamukti yoga, I received part of my education and exposure to death and grief from the Focus of the Month essays on these subjects found on the Jivamukti website. Having a comfort level with the subject of death put a different lens on grief for me. That said, after losing my sister, my husband and my mother in a 3-year time period, I now have a much deeper and more personal perspective on loss and how to respond to it. Let's look at how we can support grieving students, taking things one step at a time.
Hearing and Sharing the News
You hear the news. Let's face it: No one wants to hear or deliver the news that someone has died—but if people don't know, they can't offer support. Who died, and how, influences the way you will share.
When a student dies, there is a loss to you and to your exercise community. Classmates and others the student would have encountered at the studio will all suffer. Help the community by sensitively sharing the news; listen to people as they share their feelings; and if feasible, do something positive to help.
When her student Peggy was dying, Deb Vincent, owner of Active Body & Health, in Severna Park, Maryland, put up Facebook posts to keep everyone informed of Peggy's health status. When the death came, she followed students' lead for quieter, more introspective Pilates sessions. The studio is now planning an annual Ovarian Cancer benefit in Peggy's honor.
Kathryn Coyle, regional Pilates coordinator for Life Time Fitness, lost a beloved student, Eugenia. On Friday, Eugenia was in class working hard and joking around with everyone, but over the weekend a call came from her partner that she had sepsis and would not make it. She died. When Eugenia's class gathered after that weekend, Coyle opted not to say anything, and to let the students work out. After class, she led them to a private room and shared the news, giving them time to ask questions, cry, share memories and learn of memorial arrangements. Some attended the funeral, and everyone contributed to a fund to help Eugenia's children with their future.
Responding in Words and Gestures
When it is a student's spouse or other loved one who has died, the pain brings with it the risk of high stress and its possible health implications. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is a survey of life factors with different weights for various life events. The most stressful event a person can face in their life is the death of a spouse, with the death of a family member ranking fifth. When you hear of a family death, reach out by sending a card or flowers, taking food, making a donation, and/or attending the visitation or memorial service. Be present for those who are grieving.
June Kahn, 2009 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and owner of June Kahn's Bodyworks LLC, lost her son last year. She says, "I would advise those offering comfort to realize that there are truly 'no words' at a time like this. Nothing anyone can say can take the pain away or make the person feel better." Saying simply, "I am with you through this in whatever way you need, even if it is just to sit by your side quietly," can be just what people need.
Welcoming A Student Back After a Loss
When a student returns to class after a death, it is a major step and a sign that she is trying to move forward in life. How the return is handled may determine whether the student feels welcome and able to resume practice or not. 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 safe space," says Coyle.
Kahn 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."
Some students will not want to talk, and offers of condolence may bring a flood of tears and the response, "I just want to work out." Personally, that's how I felt. I didn't want to talk; I just wanted to begin again. I felt that workouts were the one area where I could be in control. For students who feel this way, 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; 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.
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."
If it is comfortable, give the student a hug. If he has cried, he may be embarrassed or even apologetic. Remind him that your sessions provide a safe space where it is okay to express emotions. Make sure he knows you want him to return, and encourage him to keep coming. If he is a private client, be sure to set up another appointment.
Modifying Workouts If Necessary
A student moving through grief may be experiencing physical symptoms, including fatigue, restlessness, muscle and joint pain, aches (especially in the chest), anxiety, loss of appetite and trouble concentrating. This warrants consideration with regard to programming. In the early days, you may need to modify exercise intensity, and focus on what the student enjoys. It is not your job to "open students up," so don't be in a hurry to do spinal extension exercises, as these can trigger a sense of vulnerability and bring on tears.
As you continue to work with a grieving student, 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 that may indicate the student is in need of professional help. Bereavement therapy is a specialty, and it is best to talk to local professionals to find a resource that can be gently offered.
Have Faith That You Can Help
As an instructor, you can lend support with your presence, attention and kindness. Beyond that, one thing everyone interviewed for this article agreed on is that movement matters, movement heals, and love wins. So keep your students moving, and help them on the journey from grief, through mourning, and back into light and life.