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Workingmums.co.uk talks to Suzanne Howes about her coaching business which aims to help people who have been bereaved find a sense of meaning and purpose.
How can people move forward after the trauma of grief? Suzanne Howes believes, from her own lived experience, that coaching provides an opportunity to take back control and put the focus on the future to help people move ahead with purpose and meaning.
She has set up her own coaching business – www.coachingafterloss.com – to help others like her.
Suzanne trained as a nurse and in 2020 she was working as an organisational development consultant with the NHS in London, helping with people development, including with psychological support for those working in critical care during the pandemic. Even then she was dealing with loss and experienced the power of creating communities of support.
She recalls a half day reflective programme fairly early on in the pandemic with expert support for 800 NHS staff who were able to voice their feelings about working in a Covid environment. “It was the most powerful thing I have ever done,” she says. “People came together and told stories of what they had seen, what they were proud of. We got them to do journals, to talk about their experiences, about watching families saying goodbye to loved ones on Face Time. There was a strong sense of community and support.”
Then in September that year, Suzanne’s son Samuel took his life, after many months struggling with his mental health, and the kind of loss and trauma she was dealing with in her job became all too personal. After bereavement leave, Suzanne moved to working on the Covid vaccine programme because the work on psychological support was too triggering for her. Soon after her mother died suddenly, followed a few months later by her father.
Within seven months she had lost three of the closest members of her family – and all during the pandemic which meant she had to organise three funerals under Covid regulations. Going back to work was extremely difficult, although her colleagues were very supportive.
She speaks of trying to help others be comfortable around her, of how people who are grieving often put all their energy into just getting through the day at work and then collapse at night, of how grief fogs the brain, making it impossible to think straight or find the right words, of people worrying they might say the wrong thing, of isolation, of finding it easier to connect with strangers on Instagram who had been through similar experiences.
She recalls a zoom meeting at work where people had to bring in an object that meant something to them and how she brought a journal with a picture of Samuel on the front and people had to turn their cameras off because they were crying. She also says that, for her, grief was a continuation of the isolation she had felt dealing with Samuel’s mental health issues.
Everything was affected. Just before her father died, when he was in palliative care after having had a stroke, Suzanne was due to have an interview as part of a work restructure. She withdrew from the process and was sidelined into another role. She says she had lost her passion for her work and for the office politics that went with it. None of it seemed to matter. Her relationship suffered. She had had a plan to semi-retire and move away and she decided that there was no reason to wait.
She has recently moved to Newcastle where she runs Coaching after loss, having done career coaching in the past. Her aim is to offer coaching to people like herself who have been through challenging times, are looking for meaning and need a voice. Her daughter is a journalist and helped her to create her website.
Suzanne says there are challenges. She hadn’t fully thought through how difficult it would be listening to parents who had also lost their children to suicide. Also she has to be very careful over who she coaches as some of the initial interest was from people she felt were not ready for coaching, for instance, people who were very newly bereaved or who wanted her to help them ‘get better’. She knows that there are no easy fixes. Moreover, some people start the coaching and realise it is not the right time for them.
Having been bereaved herself, she is also very aware of all the resources available and can signpost people to them. She knows too that some of the support on offer can be fairly superficial and that some support groups can be triggering. Yet she is also aware that there is some very good work being done. She mentions Cancer Research’s grief and bereavement network and says it has a session coming up on grieving during the pandemic.
Suzanne offers two packages, with the most popular being a three-month one. She says she prefers to coach people who have had bereavement counselling. Her coaching, she says, is not about looking back, but moving forward with the person who has died. The people who come to her want a sense of meaning and purpose. Some want to reconnect with their work. Some have reduced their hours and want to prioritise themselves and their wellbeing. “They know they want to do something different and they need a safe space to work that out. The exercises we do are thought-provoking,” she says. They help people to focus on their strengths and values, what makes them them.
Suzanne, who also continues to do freelance work for the NHS, says trying to figure out a way forward is compounded by the brain fog of grief. “Coaching breaks it down into manageable chunks and encourages people to be kind to themselves.”