Surviving and Thriving After the Grieving Process

Cheryl Jones is the host of the radio show Good Grief. She is also a grief counselor, cancer educator and is Manager of Professional Education at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (Oakland, CA), where she developed, manages and teaches in their Continuing Education program.

Transcription

Frank Samson: I'd like to introduce our guest today who will discuss a very important subject matter that we're all going to be facing. We have with us Cheryl Jones. She is a host of a talk radio show called Good Grief. She is also a grief counselor, cancer educator, and a Manager of the Professional Education at the Women's Cancer Resource Center. It is in Oakland, California, where she develops, manages, and teaches their continuing education program. She has trained extensively with Erving Polster, leader in the field of gestalt therapy and author of Everybody's Life is Worth a Novel. She also facilitates grief workshops, integrating music into the art of remembrance. Cheryl, thanks so much for joining us on The Aging Boomers. I really appreciate it.

Cheryl Jones: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Frank: First of all, thank you for what you do on your show. I know you've helped educate a lot of people, as we try to do on The Aging Boomers. On your show, “Good Grief”, you talk to people who've made something pretty miraculous out of a difficult situation, heartaches that they have through loss, and I want to talk to you about some of those experiences of your guests, but first I would like to ask you about your own story. You have your own story of loss and transformation from that loss, so tell us a little more about that, if you would.

Cheryl: I like to start there, because it’s at the heart of everything that I do in my work life, and also the way that I think about my personal life. I guess I sometimes think of it like I skipped the line on aging boomers, and faced a lot of the issues that many of my aging friends are facing now. I'm 63, but I faced them early, when my first wife was diagnosed with a very, very lethal form of cancer. We were in our mid-to-late 30s at that time, and she was given a 6-month to 1-year prognosis. There's been such a change in cancer; that was during the period where doctors offered a prognoses. These days, I don't feel they do very much, because they don't know. That landscape has changed so much, but she was given that timeline, and she then lived 8 1/2 years. She never was considered in remission, she was ill that whole time.

The form of cancer she had was substantially disabling, it affected her bones, lots of broken bones and surgeries, and so death was never really out of our minds. The fact that death would arrive for her, in all probability, sooner than it would for me, and of course, we came to know that you never know. Lots of our friends who were just fine when she was diagnosed were dead before she was. For whatever reason, maybe because of the nature of our relationship and both of our personalities, we tackled it, as opposed to trying to put it aside. I'm not sure how that would have been possible, but I see people try, for sure, and so we were very immersed in that period with how to die, how to face loss, which, honestly, within a couple of years, transformed into "how to live well."

It transformed not just our relationship, our community, and our way of living, but after she died, I realized that it had transformed me, that I was a remarkably different person. I had been extremely shy in my early life, I'd be the first one to leave the party, just socially uncomfortable, kind of an insulated and introverted type of person, by and large, and afterwards, I was not like that at all. You can see that in what I do now, it is very public. That was that experience, and during that same period, I was training as a counselor, and so the two got folded together. I've always called myself a grief counselor; I've always felt that no matter what the issue is that someone is bringing into my office, there's loss involved. Maybe that's a particular lens I gathered during that time, but it has really helped me, and what's helped me even more is understanding that something can come out of a bad experience that is profound, that we can learn, that we can grow, that there's a way to make meaning out of difficulty.

Frank: You are interviewing people who are going through it, have gone through it, or professionals like yourself in the industry? Who are the people that you're interviewing?

Cheryl: The vast majority of the people that I interview have had some form of loss, and, of course, losing someone to death is not the only kind of loss that we experience in our lives, but my guests have had some form of loss, and something has come out of it that's remarkable. I would never be doing a show called "Good Grief" without having had that experience? I really highly doubt it, so for me, as an example, where that loss led, is something completely unexpected. That's true of most of my guests, that you could not have predicted what they would end up doing, and that the loss catalyzed something.

Then there are some people who have changed the way they do things because of their loss, or the people with whom they do things, because of their loss. I think I've had a couple guests who came from a much more professional viewpoint and had just been drawn to that kind of work, and have been changed by doing the work, but that's very rare. It's very rare that someone is drawn to working with grief of any sort, or end of life, or illness, without any experience of it in their own lives. That's very, very rare, from my view.

Frank: Before your wife became ill, what work you were doing? You're a psychotherapist, correct?

Cheryl: I was training to be a psychotherapist when she was diagnosed.

Frank: You were training. This continued and really led more into a specialty, in a sense, right?

Cheryl: Yes, that's a way to put it. I had very good therapy myself, and that's what led me to be interested in that field, and I would say that it was kind of more typical life problems I was dealing with, like anxiety, and trying to adjust to being a parent, and a kind of life adjustment, how to relate better. That helped me a great deal, and changed me, certainly. I didn't use the word "transformation" in regard to myself until this profound and deep loss in my life. Certainly, all the things that I had engaged in to change my life before that probably helped to favor that transformation, but I've seen people radically change without all that preliminary, if you will, just as a result of a major loss.

Frank: I'm sure that you've done a lot of interviews with people, and when I think of it, I can think of a few that stand out in my mind. Can you tell us a little bit about any particular interview that stands out in your mind?

Cheryl: Sure, one person I talk about a lot and think really exemplifies what I'm talking about is a woman named Terri Wingham. She was a corporate person, and in PR, from a young age, finished college, went right into that, that was always her plan, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Maybe some people don't think of it this way, but I consider cancer to be a major loss, actually more than one type of loss. For sure, you lose the confidence in your health and longevity that you had before. She got cancer, she did treatment, it was successful, she went back to her job. There's a lot of detail within that, but those are the outlines. She could not do it anymore. Within a year, she realized that she could no longer do the work that she did before, and so she quit her job. It was pretty risky because she had just become established. She then sat in her house saying, "What do I do now?”

She had a thought, "I'm going to go to Africa." She had never had such a thought before. That had not been on her radar whatsoever, but she, having nothing better to do, I guess, followed the impulse, and she thought, "Well, if I'm going to Africa, I should offer some kind of service," so she found a place to volunteer some time. She did that, she went on safari, and it was very life-changing for her. Then she thought, "This really helped me to assimilate cancer and send me forward," so she started a nonprofit, it's called A Fresh Chapter, where she takes groups of people all over the world, people who've had cancer and their caregivers, and they offer service and have an adventure. For instance, they go to India, they offer service in a school there, and they go visit the Taj Mahal.

She's using some of her previous skills to market the program, but there's no way her life would have predicted that turn. That came out of loss, and one thing I've noticed repeatedly is that when you've suffered with your grief, when you've grappled with it, I don't think just loss does it, I think it's that struggle that eventually causes people to surrender to their grief, and allow it. Once you've done that, these kind of, we could call them "brainstorms" or "intuitions," the things that come to you to do, have a lot of power, and they're not coming from "how can I be good at this," and "how do I impress people." All those usual achievement factors are less important than "this is what's calling me." That's what I've noticed with all my guests, almost all my guests, and they would say that the loss was a part of that. How they dealt with the loss, and how they came to allow it, was a part of that.

Frank: Would you say that most of your guests, as well as your clients that you deal with as a grief counselor, are the individuals that are experiencing that loss themselves, the ones that have a disease, like cancer, or other loved ones who are going through it because of their spouse or loved one?

Cheryl: Oh, it varies. I have a particular love for memoir, because I have a particular love for story, so a lot of the people I interview, a very sizable portion, are people who have had some terrible loss and written about it. They've survived, and then grown, and then shared. There's a guest of mine who I've interviewed several times, Marianna Cacciatore, and she actually interviewed me for my very first show, as well. She's writing a book right now about love, grief, and generosity. I just interviewed her a couple of weeks ago about that new book, which is not published yet. Her idea is that when we struggle with loss, and come through it in some way ... "Get over it" is not a phrase I resonate with at all. I think we come through changed. Once that happens, there's a kind of impulse to give, and that might be that you become the person that gets called when someone else is diagnosed, or when someone else loses a child.

It could be that simple, and it could be these big things, like writing a book, or starting a nonprofit, or becoming a doctor, or having a radio show, all of those things that are more eye-catching, I guess, or that seem sort of huger than you would have predicted. I really agree with her that there's some different motivation for action that comes when you've gone through a major loss. Of course that's true for my guests. I'd be a good example of that. I had to wait for the right impulse, which was just a little voice in my head that said, "Take this to a broader audience." That's what was going on when someone asked me to do a radio show, that thought was pushing at my mind, as opposed to the other way around.

Frank: What's your suggestion to those out there that either are going through it themselves, or they have a loved one going through it? Some people react differently, like you said earlier, I mean, you might have someone that just doesn't want to talk about it and just holds everything in, which obviously is not healthy, but everybody's different. What's your recommendation in a situation like that?

Cheryl: I wouldn’t say, “Obviously, it’s not healthy.”

Frank: Okay, all right, good.

Cheryl: I would say that you need to trust grief. That is very hard, because we are actually not trained in this culture to trust our feelings at all, and grief is a kind of miasma of different feelings. I do think it takes two things, two major categories of things, to have the kind of experience I'm talking about with grief. One is solitude. I think that there's a way we have to be alone with our grief some of the time. Paradoxically, the other is witness. We need people in community, or a community could be several people one at a time, but I think we do need witness. We need someone to see what we've gone through and receive it.

If you're in the solitude part of that, you might not want to go out, you might not want to show up at the party, so to speak, and that's just fine. I think that can be differentiated from depression, for instance. Grief and depression really are not as similar as they seem. They might result in the same action, but they're not coming from the same place. A grief invited moves. You have many different feelings, and grief tends to be full of feeling, and depression tends to be dull, and tends to consistently pull you down. I think the mind speaks differently. Depression tends to speak in a very self-critical and demeaning voice, and grief tends to speak in a more loving voice, if it's invited.

Frank: That's a good point, because it's important for loved ones to understand that and recognize the difference.

Cheryl: I notice with my clients who have, in their lives, been deeply depressed, it's a little harder for them to trust grief, because it looks a little the same. Maybe they don't want to get out of bed one day, and they get scared that they're depressed, and then they make themselves get out of bed, and then grief doesn't get its moment, if that makes sense. I think the biggest skill it takes to grieve well is to allow yourself to connect with your deeper self. I had all that time to prepare. I'll use myself as an example. We went to a lot of Stephen and Ondrea Levine workshops. He died just a few months ago, but he has written lots of books on what I'm talking about, accepting your own experience, learning to be with your own experience.

We'd had a ton of practice with that, and somewhere along the line, when it became clear that she was getting closer to death, I thought, "Okay, for at least a year after she dies, I'm giving myself everything my grief wants that I can. If I can afford it, if I can get someone to take care of my kids, and if I can get the time, and I'm going to work hard to get the time, I'm giving it to myself." I found grief to be a very deep and meaningful experience. That preparation actually did help a lot, and there was something very satisfying in caring for myself that way, because I don't think we're taught to do that.

Frank: You went through that kind of grief after. You said your wife had several years after she was diagnosed, and you were able to communicate and, in a sense, share it together for some time. Not everybody has that experience, it could come suddenly.

Cheryl: That's right. I'm thinking of a guest I had recently, her name is Anne-Marie Cockburn. I'm not sharing my more famous guests, because I'm sharing who's coming to my mind. Her daughter was 15 when she tried ecstasy for the first time and died. Quite an accomplished young woman, nothing to predict her actually trying that, really. She had the immediate thought, "I still have a life," which is quite remarkable, that she had that thought, but I've heard that from a few people that have lost children, that against all reason, they realized right away, "I have to keep living.”

She, at the very same time, really allowed herself to grieve. Her family and friends took care of her, she didn't go back to work, she wrote. That's something ... I tend to go to music, but many people go to writing, and I think it's important to say that creative expression really helps grief. Grief loves a creative expression. She wrote, and she wrote for 5742 days, and ... No, I'm sorry, she wrote for, I think, 100 days, and what she named the book was "5742 Days," because that's how long her daughter had lived. She wasn't in the same place at different times. Her book is a very good representation of how many different places we go with grief, but she just let it be, and came through very well.

I feel, for myself, quite strangely grateful for all that time, but the amount of time doesn't determine things. It changes the course a little, like I could have that advance thought, "I'm giving myself everything that I need," but I've seen people come to it through sudden loss. The other thing is that one, in a sense, prepares for the other. My father did die suddenly, years later, and obviously, that was a profound event in my life, but what I had done to come to terms with loss and grief itself did help me quite a lot, and it helped me show up, you know, and just stay with him as he died, and not be afraid of it, because I'd already experienced it. Every grief is different, but your own capacity to be with it increases from loss to loss, I think.

Frank: Cheryl, unfortunately, we're near the end here, but I want to make sure you share with our listeners how they can get more information about your show, so they can listen to it as well, and any contact information you would like to share. Why don't you go ahead and do that, and then, unfortunately, we'll have to sign off.

Cheryl: Absolutely! The easiest way to get to the show is to just put in the search bar "Good Grief, VoiceAmerica," and that's all one word, "VoiceAmerica," put no space in between, and I will pop up. That is the easiest way. Once you are at that page, it has every show, every interview I've ever had, and I've been doing it for almost three years now, and it also has links to my website and all my social media. Just in case someone would rather go to my website directly, it's weatheringgrief.com. I do, as you mentioned,counseling in the Bay Area, and I do teach. I am also a speaker and do grief workshops, so people can get on my mailing list, and they'll find out about everything I do, including notices about the show every week.

Frank: Great, Cheryl.

Cheryl: It's also available, just like you, on iTunes, Stitcher, all of those outlets, so they can look for the show there too, under "Good Grief."

Frank: All right, check it out, Good Grief. Cheryl Jones, thank you so much for joining us. You're a wealth of information, and I really appreciate it very much.

Cheryl: You're very welcome. It was a pleasure.

Frank: It was a pleasure for me as well. I want to thank everybody out there again for joining us on The Aging Boomers. Just be safe out there, and we'll talk to y'all soon.