The Big Happiness Interview: Dr Sherry Walling on how to manage grief

I lost my parents to cancer when I was a teenager, so I’ve always been obsessed with books that help you understand grief.

Having just read Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss by clinical psychologist Dr. Sherry Walling I want to buy it and give it to anyone who has lost someone.

As a clinical therapist, Sherry was familiar with the theory of loss, but when she lost her father to cancer at age 65 and her brother to suicide six months later, she began to chart a new landscape of grief and how to deal with it. In Touching Two Worlds, she gives us practical tools on how to function when the world as you know it has been destroyed and your heart broken.

“Grief is one of the few human certainties, but most of us are terrible at grieving,” she tells us. “We’ll bury mum on Saturday and be back in the office on Tuesday.

“I wanted to write a book that would help modern people relearn how to grieve, with suggestions and strategies to help us deal with grief meaningfully without losing touch with everyday life.”

Here she talks to us about finding healthy ways to grieve.

How do we live our lives when we are grieving?

No quick movements. Grief is a slowly unfolding transformation.

I see a mourning person like a butterfly in a cocoon. You need to give time and space to see what develops, knowing that there are many different impulses and instincts that emerge as grief progresses, but these may not be life plans just yet. Take a year before you make any big leaps in your life.

Journaling is a really important exercise during grief. Write what comes to you. We often have strong feelings and want to make big decisions. Instead, write about it: “I have these feelings that I want to leave my husband. I’m not sure what it’s about, but I’m just going to hold onto this idea for a while and let it hatch.”

When we write about our lives, we keep track of these things, but we don’t have the burden of action. We take them seriously by writing them down, but not so seriously that we act on them immediately.

How to help someone who has lost a loved one?

Always invite the person to talk about who they lost. Many people feel like they don’t want to remind their friends that they lost loved ones, but it can come off as if they’ve forgotten or don’t care.

The invitation to speak specifically about the deceased is important. But it’s not — “if you ever want to talk, call me.” That’s not specific enough. Ask questions and give them prompts like “Tell me your favorite memory.”

Take a year before you make any big leaps in your life

When a friend is dealing with a loss, sometimes you feel like you don’t want to be a bother… what’s the best way to support them?

Spread your help and support over a longer period of time. There is a lot of help in the first two weeks. Then people’s attention turns to other things.

But it’s usually around the six to eight week mark that people adjust to a new normal. Then the deep sadness replaces the shock. And in that window of six weeks to maybe three months, it really helps if friends are extra observant. But be really careful with the generic “how are you?”. Questions.

Instead, be specific – “How are the holidays feeling this year”, “What has surprised you most about the way you feel after losing your sister?

Sometimes it’s difficult because you just don’t know what to say.

Then say that. I find it very helpful when people literally say, “I don’t know what to say, but I have two hours absolutely free to talk or go for a walk or do whatever you want. ”

A friend who didn’t know what to tell me made me a playlist on Spotify. It consisted of songs that helped her feel grounded when she was sad. It was a beautiful, soulful gift from her heart to mine.

Illustration of a man and woman talking on the phone

Just taking the time to listen can make a world of difference (Image: Getty/

Does it make sense to send gifts?

Yes. Since loss is the absence of something, the presence of things feels strangely helpful. For example, when I was grieving, my friend sent me a simple shell necklace. Holding the tangible in hand helps balance the unbound feeling that comes with reaching out to someone who used to be there but isn’t there anymore.

How do you help your children grieve when you are grieving yourself?

Try a simple narrative of what is happening. Give them language for what you do. “I travel a lot to take care of my sick parents or I’m quite sad because I miss my own mother. So today I’m going to stay in bed longer.’ Provide a little narration, an explanation for what they are observing.

Most of us assume children don’t notice, but they notice a lot more than we realize but understand less than we realize. It helps them develop an external understanding of what they are observing.

Also understand that children will be afraid that if a grandparent dies, they will die too. Speak as directly as possible to acknowledge and speak to that fear.

For example: “Just because grandma died doesn’t mean that mom and dad will die soon”.

Our collective mental health would improve radically if we could experience deep pain and grief without feeling like we’re permanently stuck in these dark places

How do you support people who have just received a serious diagnosis and are undergoing treatment?

I think words of support are better when they are process oriented and not result oriented. Instead of saying, “It’s going to be alright, we’re going to fight this thing,” try “I’m with you every step of the way, no matter what.” Because you have no control over what happens.

There can be a lot of pressure to “fight” the disease, but sometimes it’s better to put it this way: “If you decide to have chemotherapy — I’ll show up, I’ll come, I’ll drive you to your appointments, and I will.” stick with you. But it’s not the only way either. I agree with all decisions, this is your journey. I’m here for that. I’m here to support you’.

If you’re struggling with supporting someone to die, how do you manage your own mental health?

It’s important to maintain one’s joyful practice—whether it’s yoga or Frisbee with the dog. I called the book Touching Two Worlds because it gives the feeling of moving back and forth. “I’m supporting someone who is sick and dying, and then I can also move into this alternate reality where I’m a very vibrant person with a career I love and beautiful children.” Both of these can be absolutely true at the same time .

It helps with the problem that you feel like you are drowning or lost in grief. When you actively practice being in both worlds, you feel like you won’t get stuck in grief forever.

What is the connection between sadness and happiness?

I feel a lot more alive having spent so much time near death. You lose a lot of fears or worries that really don’t matter in the grand scheme of the world.

I feel freer, more present in my life and more protective of my own joy.

Happiness is so precious and it’s not guaranteed. So I choose to approach it differently than I have in the past.

Sad woman lifting her hair

We need to stop being so afraid to acknowledge grief (Image: Getty/

What do you wish everyone knew about grieving?

Our collective mental health would improve radically if we could experience deep pain and grief without feeling like we’re permanently stuck in these dark places.

Our cultural aversion to grief leads us to believe that it is dangerous and that we shouldn’t be giving oxygen to the fear within us. It is the unaddressed grief that becomes dangerous.

How do you start tackling it?

One technique that helps with this is time travel. Grief, trauma and loss distort time. We need to expand our ability to imagine the future. What will happen in your life in a year? 5 years? ten years?

Our ability to envision our future selves has an important protective force in mental health and in all future-oriented life decisions. The ability to imagine the future is based on our ability to hope.

Imagine your way into another era of your life. Your ability to visualize changes over time will help prevent you from feeling stuck in the permanence of your current pain.

You haven’t always lived in grief. You will not always feel your grief in this way. It will change.

What to do when you feel overwhelmed by grief

In difficult moments, consider putting your current fear in the context of the past and present. It’s a simple process that fleshes out the moments and phrases in your life. You’ve been somewhere else before; you will be somewhere else again. It is like that today. If you’re feeling bad, accept that. But know in your bones, it’s not permanent.

Past: Five years ago, today…. Eg I’ve camped in Norwich and swum in the sea.

Present: Today I am …. Eg difficulty getting out of bed, feeling down because you feel down

Future: 1 month / 1 year / 10 years from now….Example: I will be at a conference in Leeds / I will be celebrating my friend’s birthday / I will be at my child’s graduation.

Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss (Sounds True, £13.99) is available now.

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