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From Loss to Growth: Exploring Grief and Trauma



Hello everyone. I'm Traci Arieli, end-of-life doula and founder of Comforting Closure. Today we're exploring a topic that is frequently kept in the shadows that affects so many people. Grief is a universal experience. Yet how it emerges and how we respond to it varies greatly. Grief, coupled with trauma in particular, poses significant problems not only to individuals who are experiencing it but also to those who are supporting them.

The rules and misconceptions of society might further complicate the experience. That's why I'm thrilled to have Kathleen Putnam with me today. A respected grief and end-of-life coach and doula. And she's also a trauma dietitian. The work she has done to understand and explain the complexities of sorrow, its impact on the brain, and the ways in which we can create room for healing is remarkable.

Kathleen, thank you for being here today.

Can you tell us about your journey into becoming an end-of-life coach and a trauma dietitian? And for those people who might not know what a trauma dietitian is, can you explain that a bit?


Yeah. So actually, my whole career has been working in nutrition. And as I evolved, coaching really became a place in which I found a home. I was also an educator in higher education and just realized more and more people do better the more human I was, the more I would relate to what they were talking about. And that really was encompassed with the coaching. So I was a health coach and I was a parent coach and really found my way.

And then what I noticed was just the impact that life was having on people was becoming more and more profound, and it became more and more difficult to see and realize if I was being helpful. And I would always question myself and I would get supervision and I would get more training and the consistent feedback that I got from the medical world, from the psychology world, from people who were training me, was if the person has a connection with you and they keep showing up, even if it seems like they're not moving the needle at all on their health wellness with disordered eating, you know, gaining weight or losing weight or taking care of themselves,

The connection is so important and so and that was consistent throughout my career, but it didn't really land well. I wanted to learn more and more about how to help people. And so coaching came in. I remember working in a neutral genomics company, which is really, you know, focused on your genes and how you can stay alive longer and all this jazz. And I had a client who just outright said to me, you know, we need to be talking about death and dying. She had lost her husband. And one of the ways in which I was supporting her was making sure that she was [eating well] because that's one of the things that can happen is your gastrointestinal system is very much connected to your nervous system.

And she lost her appetite completely. And wanted support and wanted ideas and had never lived alone or eaten alone. And when she said this, I said, you're right. And she said, you know, this isn't going to help to talk about this. But what would help is if we talked about what it was like to be a person who lost their spouse.

So I just dropped any agenda. Everything that we had been talking about up until then. And just to talk to her about her experience and I had recently lost my dad at the time. And so I had read a bunch of books, and so I started asking her if she had read these different books, and it just blossomed into a beautiful conversation. And I walked away from that thinking, I need to make a change. And that's when I found that... was offering and the training, and I signed up


It was great. So the primary focus of your work today is, is that grief coaching and nutrition and how does it how is it different from a lot of the grief support that's already out there?


Yeah, you know, I think the one thing that I noticed that I didn't know before until I started doing this work was that grief. And then I became a great coach during COVID. I signed up because there was so much grief that I wasn't even really helping people as a dietitian all that much because there was so much grief. That's what was coming up at the appointments as being the primary thing that the person needed to talk about. And so what I realized was that there weren't a lot of places to talk about it. I wasn't yet skilled enough to really be able to help people move through it and to be able to get to a place of self-care really was where I was wanting people to lean on whether that be, you know, eating, getting to sleep, a lot of the lifestyle stuff that we end up talking about as health coaches.

And what I noticed with health coaching, just like is being an educator or being a dietitian, is when you're not an authority figure in that person's eyes, then what can happen is there can be this disconnect and this inherent rejection, whether that's internal or potentially something that I wasn't aware of, of judgment. And what's interesting with the grief and trauma is a lot of people experience shame.

And I went through my caseload and realized 98% of my caseload at the time had either a diagnosis of anxiety or depression. And that's significant. And I thought, wow, I want to be able to attend to this. And what I noticed was with coaching is that there's this opportunity without me being in an authority on grief or without me being a celebrity in any kind of way, there was this opportunity for people to talk about it without feeling judged.

And I think what I didn't know that I was doing was I was normalizing it, which is one of the main things to do. But it really interested me around how we can make ourselves more and more available to people. So one of the things that I think does happen is when you get a diagnosis or when you're just about the way that you feel, it makes people shut down and makes some people shut down.

For some people, they find a huge amount of relief. Let's be honest. You know, when someone's able to actually say this is what your physical symptoms are showing you that match up with this criteria, that can be a huge relief to people. But what I was noticing around grief at the time is it's way more accessible to some people that feel like they're being judged or stigmatized because of the way that they're feeling.


Yeah, I noticed with you, I know we've had that conversations about the DSM and how, you know, int the DSM-3. you got a year to grieve before you're diagnosed. And then you get to the fourth edition and you've got two months. And now with the fifth edition, you have two weeks from the time you've lost the person until you're diagnosed or until insurance wants a diagnosis. So it's a real, you know, grieving is a natural part of life. And so to diagnose it as depression or anxiety, and there are people who do suffer from, you know, anxiety and from depression and should receive help. But, you know, just to assume, because you're grieving that you should be diagnosed in that way, is too bad.


It's really a shame if we don't normalize the process of grief. We don't have good role models about how to talk about it. And we have a, you know, pick yourself up by bootstraps, get back. People get very little time off work and get very little time to grieve. And we have a pretty toxic happiness culture where, you know, if you don't show up and you don't smile and you're not acting like a team player, and if your symptoms of anxiety and depression are showing up, it puts people at risk around judgment.

But also a lot of people have fears about losing jobs, losing friends, losing relationships, losing, you know, being a productive person. So one of the things that's interesting around grief and depression and there's a great book called The Grieving Brain is some research that came out and showed how the brain reacts differently to grieving. We actually have to go through an adaptation phase with grieving when we lose something or have a change.

That could be a job, it could be a person, it could be a pet, it could be, you know, a divorce. It takes a while for your brain to readjust to your environment and to your day-to-day routine. And what can happen when people are grieving is they can feel like they're going a little crazy. They swear they hear the dog outside or that the car just pulled up or that they see their loved one and the brain is actually looking for it. So it's really normal to have that happen. And the difference is, is there's a journey and a drive that's happening to seek and find, even unconsciously, the person or the thing that we've lost. Yeah. And so there's a period of time for the brain to reactivate and the grieving brain can have moments of joy and laughter and all of that where a depressed brain is not as motivated, okay? It's not seeking and there's less and less, if any, glimmers of joy and happiness. And then you also want to look at day-to-day functions. I think that that's so important. Are you able to get yourself, get depressed, get to work, take care of the bills, etc.? Certainly, there's create, you know, a period of time that the griever, the person who is grieving and has recently lost something, will go through where that stuff really can't be touched.


But the concern is if it's ongoing. Yeah, trauma and grief and trauma. So I know losing someone, it is very traumatic, but, you know, we hear about, you know, grief and trauma being combined. How would you define trauma and how does it affect that grieving process?


Yeah, you know, there are lots of definitions of trauma. I think the thing that helped me in doing some of the training in trauma and I've done a lot of different trainings in trauma is Dr. M.A. has a compassionate inquiry kind of approach, which feels very much like coaching as she talks about trauma not being the thing that happened, you know, the loss that happened, the traumatic loss.

But it's what happens inside of you as a result of what's happened to you. So it's the long-term, impact and how your body, mind, and heart are responding to the traumatic event. And I liked that because I saw how much grief and suffering happens when we're trying to compare our traumatic event or grief or a loss and how much pain that can cause when perhaps you and I are in the same room, the same thing at the exact same time, but how it impacts us and our relationship to it is going to be completely different because we're completely two different people. And there are things like our genetics, there's things like our upbringing, etc. that are going to impact how we respond. But if I start to judge and shame myself because you're crying and you look like somebody who's lost something and that it looks like an appropriate response, and I am not having the same response that we even have our internal judgments, but also what our culture tells us grieving should look like.


Why do you think that our society struggles so much to provide, you know, the space that we need for grieving, particularly when it's coupled with trauma and how have those cultural norms changed over time?


Yeah, I think like with grief, I think the tricky thing with three is that it's a kind of selecting group of emotions. We've been told that there's a process and that there's, you know, what to expect. But really it's any change of having that normal behavior. And I think and there's no limits, there's no boundaries. There are no rules about how a loss can impact us. And I think I think it's especially burdensome, grief during a traumatic loss that is sudden or unexpected or really severe. And I think that our society and I found this as a practitioner and I am ever, ever committed to ongoing education, because what I find is that I'm a part of this culture. And a lot of this was unbeknownst to me until there was just the part that was nagging inside me that I was missing something.

A lot of us are missing something. It's people are not healing. They're not able to respond in a way that's really helpful. And what I noticed was that we have specialties, you know, where, you know, you have emotional needs. You go see this person. If you have a spiritual need, you go see this person. If you have a physical need to go this way, mental needs this way. And what's really interesting is we're a whole people, you know, and we have emotional problems, spiritual problems, physical problems, they exist in one another. And so I think for me, I think we have when we have a specialty or we're told, you know, this is what you do under this circumstance and then this is the result. And I think there are no guarantees.

a And we are quick stitch society right there. Instant gratification and grieving is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs that are surprises that are going to surprise us to see it logically, that is going to surprise us mentally, you know. And I think we also, and I'd love to hear what you think, too, but I think we also have expectations about what grief should look like, what being strong or bright should look like. And we are very oriented in our culture. And we also are people who want to feel validated. They're fixing things, and that's the happiness part. So I think it's I think it's a complex group of reasons why we don't do so well around grieving and supporting one another with grief. And I think it's not unlike other chronic illnesses where we're probably not giving people enough, you know, as feeling like you're a burden is one of the most painful things that people are worried about.

So often that grief can be suppressed and people put on a face. Yeah, because it's a lot easier to express grief that is not accepted and held and cared about in the way that grief really does need to be. And trauma really needs to be.


Yeah. One thing that surprised me as I became an end-of-life doula and a grief coach was yeah, I always, before my training and before I had really experienced grief, I had always thought, okay, you have the year.

It's the year that you have. You go through all of you know, you go through the birthdays, anniversaries, the holidays, and after that year I know as an example in my culture, I'm Jewish. In that culture, you know, we have a year and after the year we have the headstone that we all gather around. And that's kind of, I'm not going to say it's the finishing of the grief, but you really get that sense of we should be over it. You know, a year has passed by and you've experienced all these big moments, as I said, the birthdays, anniversaries, you should start to move on. So yeah, that culture that you talk about, yeah, it's very prevalent And I yeah, I don't know how we get away from it except through that, that normalizing and the education. Having things like the death cafes and really being able to, to talk about this

and that includes in the office and at work. That's really the next thing I wanted to talk about how can can people, coworkers and businesses especially those larger businesses, how can we start to normalize in those environments, especially when in the United States, I think we get like two days off, isn't it, for, you know, for grieving or for bereavement official?

How do we talk about it in those types of environments.


I think, you know, what you're doing right now is really helpful so people can actually hear this is normal. I'm not the only person who's like this. I think one of the things that I noticed mostly going through a divorce, was how I felt really isolated in the sense that it almost felt like it was contagious. So I think we even have some of people don't want to talk about death and dying and don't want to get their paperwork done because if they start talking about it, they actually superstitious believe that then they're going to bring it on. And so I think there is some of that that we just have to acknowledge. And again, because nobody's doing it and I'm really grateful that you brought up that for a year because I have many widows that I've worked with who said, Wow, this is really painful.

I can't believe how hard the second year is. And I think it's harder because I was doing so much to take care and put things in order and people gave me a lot of attention and they're feeling like other people think that they should be over it by now. And I think COVID did really help to speak to how important it was for us to be able to get together when people can see people during death and dying, when people were losing jobs, when they couldn't have services where they could show up.

So I do feel like we are in a prime time to bring it to people's experience, including trauma. A pandemic is a traumatic event, so we all went through it one way or another. And so I think one of the things is to normalize it, but also get into corporations, businesses, communities and speak to this and train and help guide the people working there, the leaders changing policy is what's really important.

And I think really realizing that it's connected to productivity, it's connected to relationships, it's connected to the ability to communicate. You know, we can use our prefrontal cortex, our thinking brain, if we're still under so much stress and trauma, or we don't have the skills to get ourselves back into a place where we can actually think and we all know what that feels like when we're on autopilot or we're exhausted, you know?

So it's again, physical, emotional, mental and feeling safe in an environment. And I think one of the biggest problems with our culture now is the insecurity of jobs. Yeah, you know, basic need of being able to be in a job. So I have a lot of compassion why we would show up acting as if or, you know, putting the grief and the trauma aside because we need a safe environment to actually be able to heal and move through our grief. Even those tight teams in the corporate environment, when someone goes through a death of a loved one, I know that it's difficult to know how to to take in talk with you, how does that person want me to mention, you know, their their loved one And and so that education through the business can be really helpful for everyone.


What are some of some things that people can do to help, you know, self-care some of the things that you coach on that really you find help is helpful.


Yeah. I think the most important thing when someone is grieving or goes through a loss is you show up and what we do is we get scared and we get worried about saying the wrong thing and we get scared about our own emotions, our own loss, or, you know, we might have conflicting feelings about the loss that's showing up is the number one thing.

And you can show up in a bunch of different ways, but in person, to give a hug is the best thing. So show up and allow what transpires to transpire. So being really simplistic is I'm here for you. I love you, I care about you. And I'm so sorry I think. And then if you do have an idea and you want to show up with their favorite meal or you want to take them to an event, or you are very comfortable with helping them with their pets or their kids, you know, doing it.

And actions speak louder than words. Yeah. So and we have to be careful. We have to take care of ourselves. And I think the other thing is, is to keep checking in. As soon as you think about them, let them know that you think about them. Yeah. And so how do you show love? So again, that's very. Then it's authentic, right?

It can be awkward. It can be harder to show love of when you're grieving or your friend's grieving, or it feels like your loved one is isolating or shut down or, you know, are super busy. So I think it's also important to allow distance and keep showing up. So if you don't get a response, you don't get you answered the door, you know, keep showing up. "I love you. I'm here. I you know, I would love just that thumbs up that you got this message. And whenever you want to talk, I'm here for you." So honoring where they are. And I think it's really important when we're creating to feel like everything is allowed. And I don't know about you, Traci, but I've had grief where I complected like I'm scared and sad and I'm also really anxious, you know, that I'm not in a situation where I was worried about some things or worried about suffering or I've even lost a job where it felt like a relief because it wasn't really in alignment with what I wanted.

But it was scary, right? Yep. And you also had this other part and I think the world wants to push you into, okay, you always want this or, you know, we all know they're not suffering anymore and we want to honor all of it. We want to honor all of it. And that's what's so important with what I've learned about trauma, is that integration is that all of it's allowed and the trauma what trauma is all trauma has grief. And what trauma needs is it needs to be heard. It's seen and held with compassion and not judgment. And the person needs to feel cared about and understood as best you can that there's someone on the other side. So it comes out and through the body and does it reside and stay shut down and sometimes we do that, that the brain protects us with trauma and we forget

But I can speak to what's happening in our body or how the event may be playing out to our best understanding right now and how it's impacting our day to day life and what the research has shown us with trauma that's really beneficial. But I don't know if I said it is that we don't have to keep retelling the story and that is what all of my trainers who are in psychoeducation, psycho therapy, clinical practices or in research is that at one time it was thought that exposure over and over again exposure was going to be helpful for people and really bringing people into the here and now and what they're experiencing in their day to day life can be really, really beneficial. Thank you.


Thank you. Education resources. Can you suggest some tools or books or, you know, what do you what kind of information do you like to give to people that you're working with?


Yeah, you know, it really just depends on what they're looking for. I think the one that I wanted to mention was Alan Wolfelt. He has books for people who are trying to be with people who are going through very different or mourning. And his word is companion grief or mourning. And it really accentuates that curiosity and compassion and leaving space and and not fixing. Right. I'm not trying to change that trajectory. I know that a favorite is it's okay to not be okay. So to be able to have those conflicting feelings.

A lot of people like that. The Handbook of the Grieving Process can be really, really helpful for people. Again, anything that's normalizing, but I've also known is books that and and TED talks and videos of people that have gone through a similar experience can be really helpful. So finding books that are similar to the person's loss. So losing a child, losing a baby, losing a parent, having a parent with dementia, going through divorce. So something that's relatable. And I have to say I usually give two or three references at once because you never know. And I tell people to look on video or to look, but you can find a handful where you can just give them. I know a lot of people really do like having books like my children. You know, if somebody is really open to spirituality and a Buddhist approach.

Pema Chödrön just wrote a book on the end of life and dying. And so so also the context that the person is something spiritual in nature would be helpful. That's also something to look out for those people who are companions, who are holding space for people who are grieving, what can they do for themselves so that they can, you know, they can take care of themselves, they can remain present.

You know, we talk about the person who's grieving, and we need to also include those people who are in that circle. So I think self-care I think the biggest danger I've noticed with myself, actually, it started happening right when I was a dietician to taking care of people, you know, seeing people in the hospital and long-term care. And then in my private practices, it's the impact that grief and loss or strong emotions that weren't a part of my day-to-day life, nor was I trained really well about how to handle someone who's really angry at you or how to handle somebody who's just going through a ton of loss.

And you'll be able and standing there to be able to hold that grief. What I would say is the importance of finding a way in which you can stay separate. But most people, and that you can finish your day and walk away. And so I think it's those things about like, what do I know about Kathleen? That's true. That doesn't have anything to do with anyone else. Okay, What do I what's my routine? What's my ritual, What's my self-care? How do I know I'm off? How can I stay grounded as well? I'm holding space for someone else and it is tricky. And I have certain things that I do. I actually. I will build ice. I will squeeze my toes, I will I will get into my body.

I will do the breathing techniques. I will do the exercises with people. But I think it's also important to support, get mentoring, find people who are role models, seek out inspiration. A big part for me is education, but also normalizing it. And I think one of the most impactful things that I started noticing was energy in my body. Just how how a session with somebody who was grieving or how it was impacting my body, my posture, my breathing, and how I would end up carry that. But I think finding a community that's not scared to talk about it and also finding people who can be role models and mentors. And so you really feel like you're able to find your own landing is again, you don't want to be like the teacher.

Your body's different, you're reacting differently, your background's different. But what you're wanting to do is build up your own skills and your own coping mechanisms and your own separation. And one more thing before I forget. I think one really important thing with grieving and with dealing with people and grief and death and dying and loss, your diagnosis, any or any of those things is finding let's have fun.

And so it's fun. It's the fun factors going down, the enjoyment, the contentment in life. Then we really have to seek those things out. So one one final question. What do you see as the future of grief, support and what role do you hope to play in that future? I think the main thing is we need a lot more support for it.

So I'm really hoping, you know, in the trauma trainings and in the grief coaching, it's been normalized to have everyone trained like, can you imagine if you had a parent that knew about grief and trauma and they knew how to. They knew how to, and a teacher and a coach and health care professionals so that wherever we go, we feel safe and we feel like we can show up with 100% authenticity.

I remember there was a study about 80% of us lied to our doctors. And I mean your doctor, where you're actually seeking care, right? And so we really have to change that. So I think normalizing it and integrating it into our lives and showing up as role models. I cry when I want to cry now and it is it just happened this weekend when we had a friend here, but not a super close friend of mine.

And I just started crying when I talked about something and before I would have tried to shut it down, I would try and I'm like, You know what? I'm going to cry because again, it's freeing it. The body's probably going to have a lot, much more long-term impact. So finding ways to regionalize, I think the less the community gets together around religion and community and now online all the time, I think we're not getting together in community forums, so we have to find ways to stay connected. And I think for me, I want to keep educating and learning to be a lifelong learner, to find ways in which I keep others and give them the skills to coping, of normalizing education, but also giving them some skills to be able to move through it and then offering community and mentoring anyone and teaching anyone what know. Yeah, I look forward to the day.


Hopefully, maybe where end-of-life coaches or grieving coaches aren't needed anymore, that our society is just so good as a community, showing up for each other, that we're not needed.

Well, I know that we are through our 30 minutes. I'd like to thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your insights with us. I know our listeners have learned so much about the deeply complex nature of grief, as well as the steps that they can take to be healed and to feel supported.

Before we wrap up, can you please let our listeners know how they could get in touch with you?


Thank you so much for having me. I just I really appreciate what you're doing and I am so glad that you're with me doing this work and giving this voice that can be spread further. Yeah, You can find me, Kathleen Putnam, at,,,


I'll put those all in the description of this video so that people can reach out to you. And for those of you who are looking for more resources or insights or support in the end-of-life e journey, visit Comforting Closure, or connect with me personally.

Thank you for taking the time to watch this video. If you have any questions, please comment below or feel free to reach out to me directly. And if you found this video to be helpful, please like it, share it, comment and subscribe.

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