413: Tools for Processing Grief to Experience Post-Traumatic Growth with Krista St-Germain
Today, I’m speaking with Krista St-Germain. Krista is a Master Certified Life Coach, grief expert, and host of the Widowed Mom Podcast, where she specializes in helping widows move forward and love their life again.
When her husband was killed by a drunk driver just 3 ½ months after their wedding, her life was flipped upside down. As she worked through her loss, she realized that she can leverage her loss to make her life better and has helped others do the same. Her Moms Go On program has given hundreds of widowed moms the tools they need to create futures they can get excited about.
In today’s conversation, we dig into the biggest reasons people avoid talking about grief, the magic that can be found in post-traumatic growth and how grief doesn’t always work in the 5 stages that we’ve always heard about.
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In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- Why grief is so much more than just the feeling of bereavement.
- How traumatic loss gives us the power to redefine our lives, find new meaning, and live more authentically.
- Why Krista believes that the five stages of grief (DABDA) has become outdated, and what it means to truly and authentically navigate grief and the ways it affects our lives.
- What Krista would’ve done differently to prepare for traumatic loss.
- How to rethink our relationship to money as we navigate grief.
- What–and what not–to say to people who have lost loved ones.
- "Our discomfort with the idea of loss prevents us from talking about it, which leaves us ill prepared when it happens." - Krista St-Germain
- "No matter what the loss is, it doesn't mean we have to be glad the loss happened. It doesn't mean we have to count our blessings about anything, but it does mean we get to be the ones that make choices about our lives and how we live them." - Krista St-Germain
- Coaching with Krista
- Coaching with Krista on Facebook
- Coaching with Krista on Instagram
- Krista St-Germain on LinkedIn
- The Widowed Mom Podcast
- Richard Tedeschi
- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
- David Kessler
- On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
- On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler
- The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss by Mary-Frances O'Connor
- David Bach
- The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer
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Casey Weade: Welcome to the Retire The Purpose podcast, where it is my mission to deliver clarity and purpose and elevate meaning in your life. And we do that in a couple of different ways here on the podcast, both focusing on the financial and non-financial aspects of your life and your retirement, or pre-retired life for that matter. Every single Friday we bring you a short form conversation that comes out of our Weekend Reading for Retirees email series. That's an email that hits your inbox every single Friday with four articles on trending topics to help you make better decisions about your life and your finances. And we like to pull out one of those articles and take a deep dive in those Friday conversations. I encourage you to get signed up for that Weekend Reading email because not only do you get all that amazing information that our team curates, but we also will invite you to special webinars and events. We’ll give away books and all kinds of great things. And one of the cool things that you also get to participate in as a Weekend Reading subscriber are our conversations with our world-class guests. Every other Monday we bring to you one of our world-class guests in a long-form conversation, just like we are doing here today. And we reach out to you prior to these conversations, and you can submit your questions to us and help me architect this interview to best suit yourself. To get signed up for that Weekend Reading email, just shoot us a text with the key letters WR to 866-482-9559.
So, now it's Monday. Who do we talk to today? We have Krista St-Germain. Krista is a master certified life coach, a post-traumatic growth and grief expert, widow, mom, and the host of The Widowed Mom Podcast. When her husband was killed by a drunk driver in 2016, she was at the age of 40, and that was about three and a half months after their wedding, Krista’s life was completely and unexpectedly flipped upside down. We're going to get to hear that story today. So many individuals are going through grief and having these experiences. I think we've all been touched by grief in our lives in some way, shape, or form. This conversation, if you are going through it or you have friends that are experiencing this, family that is experiencing this, please share this conversation, this inspirational conversation with them. After her therapy helped her begin to transition through the grieving process, Krista discovered life coaching, post-traumatic growth, and learned the tools she needed to move forward and create a future she could get excited about. And now Krista, she coaches and teaches other widows so they can love their life again, too.
Today, we have partnered up with Krista to give away a free tool. We're giving away a free online widow grief course led by Krista that covers processing grief, helpful next steps, and tools to navigate moving forward. If you'd like to get that free course, all you have to do is write an honest rating and review of the podcast on iTunes. So, write us an honest rating and review on iTunes and then shoot us a text. Text us the keyword ‘GRIEF’ to 866-482-9559 and we will get you signed up for that free course. Again, all you have to do is shoot us a text. We’ll take care of the rest. It's really that easy.
Casey Weade: Krista, thank you for doing that, and thank you for joining us here on the show today.
Krista St-Germain: Absolutely. My pleasure. I love it when anyone wants to talk about grief, so thanks for having me.
Casey Weade: Well, that's a good place to start, isn't it? Why is it that we tend to avoid this conversation?
Krista St-Germain: Yeah, I know. This is what I think. If we could actually talk about grief more than when we got to our own grieving experience, it would be easier, right? And our discomfort with it, our discomfort with intense emotion, our discomfort with the idea of loss prevents us from talking about it, which then leaves us so much more ill-prepared for it when it happens. That's definitely what happened to me.
Casey Weade: Yeah. And it's the same with death and taxes, right? But I think this is important because, I mean, we talk about in the financial planning standpoint, a lot of people aren’t planning around their death. A lot of people aren't planning around taxes. These things are inevitable. I feel that grief is, to a degree, inevitable as well.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah, 100% agree. And I love too that we have an opportunity to open up our definition of grief because it's not just bereavement, right? It's not just losing a person. Grief to me is any time we, you know, life doesn't go as planned to a significant extent. We have a perceived loss and that to us feels like something we didn't want. And that can be so many things. It's not just death of someone we care about.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Well, many are experiencing grief as they transition into a new career, as they transition into retirement. There are so many different ways that this shows up. And I want to get into kind of how it shows up here later in the show in different areas of our lives and how we manage those things but I think it's good that we prepare ourselves for that. You know, I think this is something that I think about quite often, “What would it be like if I lost my spouse? What would it be like if I lost a child?” Because I know that risk is there and I want to be prepared. I think this is why this conversation is so powerful. During an interview, you mentioned that during your grieving process, you realized that you can use experiences of loss as leverage to make your life better. And in turn, this realization lit a fire in you. And I want to say, how do you get to that point? How do you reach that realization that, "Oh, my life is going to be better in the midst of despair?” I feel that so many get stuck somewhere in this grieving process and never reach this realization, maybe even feel guilty to reach a realization that something good may come out of this.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. I will say it wasn't an immediate happening. It was a gradual process, right? Early in grief, early after Hugo died, if someone had said, "You can love your life again. Your life can actually be better than it was before he died,” I would not have been open to that. I probably would have been offended by it, right? So, it happened over time. But I, unlike I think most people, I had heard about post-traumatic stress disorder. I never heard about post-traumatic growth like that was a new concept to me. And so, hearing about it and learning that it was actually possible, gradually got me open to the idea. And when you're in such a powerless place, there is some hope to be found with the idea that, yes, traumatic things do happen, loss does happen. And also, we never lose the ability to choose who we want to be and how we want to respond, even when the loss is significant. So, post-traumatic growth, is that something you've talked about before in the podcast?
Casey Weade: No. This is great.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. Usually, I do a lot of grief education and when I ask people, "Who's heard about post-traumatic growth?” most people don't know. They've heard about post-traumatic stress. So, post-traumatic growth was a phrase that was coined in the mid-90s by a couple of researchers, Tedeschi and Calhoun were their last names. And before their work, what we really thought was that when something traumatic happened to someone, the best we can hope for was that they would bounce back to where they were before the traumatic event. And at the time when this work was done, also, we thought about trauma a little bit differently. We kind of gave this idea of big T, little T trauma, right? Like, there was a list of things that were traumatic as opposed to what we now know, which is that trauma really is subjective. We experience it in different ways.
But that being said, what these two researchers discovered and they were actually studying widows, which I think is fascinating, is that there was this kind of qualitative wellness level that people experienced before a loss, how they rated their quality of life, how they rated their satisfaction of life. And sometimes there was a group, kind of three groups of people, really. One group would, after the loss of their spouse or something traumatic, dip down below that level of wellness and then never come back. That dip then became their new normal. The second group would dip down but then they would bounce back to where they were before the loss, which we're not surprised. But then there was this third group that they would dip down but instead of just bouncing back, they would actually bounce forward. And they were reporting greater levels of satisfaction with life, greater levels of wellness. And this is really revolutionary at the time, because, again, we thought the best we could hope for was to bounce back.
And so, what post-traumatic growth teaches is that some sort of traumatic event, spousal death included, really shakes us up, really wakes us up, really gets us out of the monotony of how we were living. When we were just kind of going through the motions and taking things for granted and maybe on autopilot, in a lot of regards, we have a significant loss and we can take that. Not that we wanted it to happen, right? Not that we're glad that it happened or we're grateful that it happened, but we can take that and we can use it as a way to check in and assess based on what I value. Am I living life the way that I want? How could I live in a way that's even more of what I want? I compare it to tornadoes because I live in Kansas. Easy to do, right? Tornadoes come. They knock people's houses down. And it's kind of like that where you're living in a house, a tornado comes in, it knocks your house down. You didn't ask for that tornado to come. You didn't want it to come, right? You're not grateful that it came but it did. It knocked down your house. And now what? You could just rebuild the house that you had as close as possible, right?
You could get those plans out. You could give them back to the builder and say, "Please try to give me something as close to what I had.” Nothing wrong with that. But also, you probably learned some things from living in that house, right? You've had some time there. You're not the same person that you were when you moved into that house originally. So, maybe you know that you want more light in your kitchen, you want more outlets, you want a larger closet. Like, you want different things because you've learned some things from living there. So, why not take advantage of that opportunity, which is to update the design of the house that you build next so that it's even more of what you want? It doesn't mean you didn't love the old house and it doesn't mean you asked for the old house to be knocked down or that you're grateful that it happened but it does mean that your house did get knocked down. So, now what? What are we going to choose? And that's really post-traumatic growth in a nutshell. It's deeper appreciation for life. It's deeper spiritual connections. It's maybe career changes. It's more authentic relationships. It is making a contribution in a way that you've never done before.
For me, it was, “Do I really want to be working at the company that I'm working at? Is this what I want to do?” My husband and I worked together at the same company. He was a very passionate electrical engineer. He loved, absolutely was obsessed with airplanes. We worked at Learjet, which is a company that builds airplanes. I didn't care about planes. For me, it was good money. It was good 401(k). It was financial stability but it wasn't really purpose. It wasn't really impact. And so, for me, post-traumatic growth looked like, “I’m going to shake it up.” That's when I left my job, became a coach, and so on. So, that's possible no matter what the loss is. It doesn't mean we have to be glad the loss happened. It doesn't mean we have to count our blessings about anything but it does mean we get to be the ones that make choices about our lives and how we live them. It can be a great opportunity if we want it.
Casey Weade: And it doesn't mean we're re-architecting our relationship that we had previously. We're not creating a better husband or a better wife. We're creating a better life as a whole. I would assume that that's where some of the guilt comes in and the creating this next life is that, well, I had it so good before. I don't want that spouse to feel that I'm dismissing the life that I had.
Krista St-Germain: Right. We make it mean things that it doesn't need to mean, right? We make the choices that we make now in the present moment mean something about that person that we cared so much about. We make it mean that we didn't love them enough or that they weren't good enough, or that we're moving on too quickly. We just have all these stories that we tell ourselves that are really so painful and so unnecessary that block us from fully living into what we want now.
Casey Weade: You talk about these three individuals, one dropping down and staying there, one dropping down and bouncing back, one dropping down and moving forward. So, when we talk about retirement, we think about it in different stages of life, different stages of a major life transition. So, are all of these different groups, these three groups, are they all experiencing the same stages or do we experience stages differently? Are there standardized stages of grief?
Krista St-Germain: I am so glad you brought that up. It's a topic I feel very passionately about. This is another question I often ask, and I would ask your listeners, "Who's heard of the five stages of grief?” And I'm going to guess everybody's hand is going up or their head is nodding, right? And then when I ask the question, "Who's heard of any other theory of grief?” nobody raises their hands. No heads nod because no one has. And so, I think it's really important to talk about that because did you know the five stages of grief, first of all, was originally created in 1969? You can imagine if we were using the same financial theories and rules today that we were using in 1969, we might be a little bit outdated, right? Things have changed a little since then. It's the same in the grief world. So many new pieces of work, new bodies of work, new theories have been created since 1969 but somehow the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) seems to be the one that just caught hold and shows up everywhere, right? That's the one everybody knows.
And I think it's important for people to also know that that work, while it was really important in its time, wasn't even about death. It was actually about the process of dying, right? It's Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' work and David Kessler, and she was actually studying what happens in a hospice setting where people are coming to terms with their own terminal diagnosis. First, they deny, then they get angry, then they bargain. So, that work was originally then documented in a book called On Death and Dying and then later written in a book that she wrote called On Grief and Grieving. So, in her later years, she actually very deeply regretted that people took her work and turned it into something that implied that grief was linear, that implied that you had to go through certain stages and if you weren't, you were doing it wrong. Because she realized having her own grief experiences, that really didn't reflect most humans' experience of grief. It's not like that. It's very messy. There really aren't any neat and tidy stages. And when we use the idea of stages, we give people the impression that grief ends and it doesn't, right?
If grief is the natural response to loss and we can't go back and change that the loss happened, that means we're always going to have a response to it. So, yes, we may change our response over time, right? We might think different things about that loss over time, that's amazing and normal, but also, we can't undo it, which means it doesn't end. And so, if I could just get us away from the idea of stages and away from the idea of ending and towards integration, we're not trying to get past it or move beyond it or do something so where we come to some imaginary place where we've just accepted it and then everything's amazing because that's not how it works. Can we recognize that this is what happened? We are still living and then decide how we want to think about it and integrate it into our lives. Very different than thinking about it as stages or a process that we have to go through.
Casey Weade: Well, you talk about that in the way of weaving it into our lives, really weaving that grief into our lives. And I feel that I wouldn't want to weave that grief into my life. I want to get rid of it. I don't ever want to experience it again. I want to bury it. I want to go dig a hole in the backyard, put it down in there, and never look at it again. And what you're saying is it's not possible or it's not healthy.
Krista St-Germain: I mean, I suppose it's possible if you spend most of your, you know, the rest of your life in avoidance, trying to avoid your feelings, which many of us do, right? We're great at that. That's sometimes why we do a lot of extra shopping and do a lot of extra eating and drinking alcohol. We can overwork ourselves and distract ourselves with lots of different coping mechanisms that keep us in avoidance. It's not a wrong path. It's just not the path that most of us would make if we had skills that allowed us to actually feel what we're feeling so that we didn't need to avoid it. But it's no wonder we love it here.
Casey Weade: Well, what does that process look like when you're working with someone? I'm still seeing it in stages. Maybe I need to get away from this whole stage thing.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. I know. You and everybody else.
Casey Weade: There’s got to be stages or… I'm so process-driven. I go, “There's got to be a process for weaving it into my life. I can't just push a button and weave it in there. There has to be some level of process.
Krista St-Germain: Think of it more like tools, right? Like, what tools can we use based on where we are and what we're struggling with as opposed to, first, you do this and then you do this and then you do that? I will say in terms of stages that I do believe that it is helpful to normalize the intensity of early acute grief and what's happening there for most people, not because it's the same for every person but because if you're unprepared for it and it happens to you, you can kind of question your sanity a little bit. So, early acute grief where it feels like your whole world just kind of exploded and sometimes the best that you're celebrating is that you ate something that day or that you showered that day, right? You really just don't know what to do with yourself. Your hormones are off, everything. You know, grief is such a physical experience. Your everything is off. You're not sleeping as well. You don't want to eat. It’s widow fog is what I call it, grief fog, perhaps more broadly.
But the idea that because everything is off, your prefrontal cortex, which already has kind of a limited bandwidth anyway, is just really overwhelmed. And it's like your brain is in this constant state of buffering. You know how when a computer program is running slowly and you get that little buffering wheel. You could just see it spinning. It's kind of what it feels like. It's like cotton candy in your brain. And you might have been someone who was super organized or never had to write anything down, never forgot things, always paid the bills on time. And all of a sudden, that doesn't feel like you anymore. You're missing bills. You forget to pick up your kid at daycare. I mean, who knows what it is? But it's very frustrating if you aren't prepared for it. It's frustrating even when you are prepared for it. But early acute grief can be really intense and surprising. And it's also this kind of strange place where if we don't appreciate what's happening in our brain, we can start to question our sanity.
So, in our brain, especially when it comes to spousal loss, our brain is really good at based on what it has experienced, predicting what should happen in the future. So, if we've had a couple of decades with someone, which I'm assuming a lot of your listeners will have had, then our brain has had a lot of exposure to when the garage door goes up, it's them. When something bad happens, we text them. When we reach over in the middle of the night and feel they are there, right? And our brain expects that. If someone is really important to us, can you imagine how awful it would be if you really never knew or believed with certainty when you would see them again or where they were? It would be very stressful if they were important to you. So, fortunately, as we are living with a person, our brain has just decided some of those things for us based on past predictions. It knows when it's going to see that person next. It knows where that person is going to be, and therefore we don't have to constantly be trying to find them or worrying about that. We can just live our lives.
But when they die, our brain has to relearn to make accurate predictions. It keeps predicting based on the past, where they should be and when we should see them again. And that is extremely disorienting. It's kind of like Mary Frances O'Connor wrote a book called The Grieving Brain, which I highly recommend if anyone wants to learn more about what I'm talking about. But she compares it to if you go into your dining room in the middle of the night, you know how to avoid the dining room table, right? You know where it is. You can just walk right around it. If you went into your dining room and you walk to where the table should be and it wasn't there, that would be very confusing, right? Like, where did your dining room table go? Who stole it? What happened? Why is it not there? And that's almost how it feels to someone in early grief where we intellectually know they died but our brain keeps expecting that we're going to find them and that they're there. And so, we have a lot of counterfactual thinking, right? We have a lot of deep yearning, and it doesn't really make sense to us which is why we kind of question our sanity, that we know that they died, but yet we keep acting like they didn't sometimes.
So, those things are all really helpful for us to know about in early acute grief, not because it's a stage that we work our way out of but just because it is a common experience that we have. And then most of us reach a place and again, not super linear. It's not like one acute grief ends and the next thing begins but a lot of us reach a place, which is where I really like working with people and I call it a grief plateau. And what that's like is where you're back to functioning. You know, if you were working and you wanted to go back to work, you could. The grief fog is less intense. The emotional swings are less intense. People have probably stopped asking about you at this point. You look to them like you are doing fine, right? They might not want to bring up the loss around you because they're now worried that they will set you back or make it worse for you. But how you feel on the inside is not the same as how people perceive you on the outside, right? You're back to functioning but you're not really loving your life and you feel maybe empty and hollow and robotic.
This is where I really want people to know that that is not where we have to stop. It's common, right? It's common to be in that plateaued space but this is that place where people start saying things like, "Well,” and I did this, “I guess I should just count my blessings. I guess I should just be grateful for what I had because it's probably never going to be as good as it once was. I guess this is what people call that new normal.” And we don't say that with an air of hopefulness. We say that with an air of resignation like, “I'm going to survive. I'm going to get through, get by but I'm really just going to tolerate a life that's less than what I actually want because this must be the way that it is when you go through something like this.” Wah-wah. Right? So, there's nothing neat and tidy about it but what I really hope people will hear is that all those things that happen in acute grief are so normal, and it doesn't mean we've done anything wrong at all. That's just grief. And also, when we get to a place where we feel like things are kind of back to functioning but we don't feel great, let's not stop there. So, I went on a little rabbit hole. Fired up.
Casey Weade: That was great. There are so many different ways that I want to take that because there are so many different, really important things you said. And I just really think before we move on, it's important to emphasize something that you mentioned, which was celebrating the wins during that acute stage. You mentioned you celebrate eating that day. I've got to imagine, though, that you're working with people, you're coaching people through this, you probably have to remind them to celebrate those things and maybe they feel a little guilty about celebrating those things. How does it look to really celebrate during the most trying part of your life?
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. It is a hard thing to do, and I think it's a little bit easier when we kind of pull back and we understand that the human brain is designed to prioritize the scary things, right? It is for our survival. It is designed to place more weight on the things that could kill us than the things that feel good because we need to pay more attention to the things that could kill us. So, if we understand that evolutionarily speaking that's how our brain is designed, it has this negativity bias built into it. Then we could cut ourselves a little bit of slack knowing, "Oh, okay, of course, my brain doesn't want to see the positive. It wants to focus on the things that feel heavy and scary.” And then it becomes a little bit easier to do that, knowing that it doesn't really have anything to do with the person that died or the loss itself, as much as it has to do with using this incredibly powerful tool that we have in our brain for our good in order to create something that we want because it's a tool that we really want to be aware of and use.
So, I have my clients celebrate victories that we just get in the habit of doing it. What are three victories that I can celebrate today? And what are three victories that I can anticipate tomorrow? I'm training my brain to focus on the gain instead of the gap because that's what it wants to do but I got to do it on purpose.
Casey Weade: Yeah, that's great. I think that's a really important takeaway for those that are going through that or experiencing that part of their lives. You mentioned you were talking about this study about going back, bouncing back to even bounce and going ahead. You said that you were really fascinated that it focused on widows. Why the fascination there?
Krista St-Germain: Well, I mean, it's always encouraging when someone comes along and tells you not only is something possible for humans, generally speaking, but also it's the whole work was based on somebody who's experiencing what you're experiencing. So, I just felt a personal connection there. It's easy to look at people who are experiencing maybe something that you wish you could experience and say, "Well, it's possible for them but it's probably not possible for me.” And so, I think hearing that work was based on widows, it's easier than to believe, “Okay. Well, it's possible for me too.”
Casey Weade: Yeah. But statistically speaking, it made a lot of sense that it focused on widows as well. We have some stats here from a ‘22 AARP article, 58% of women aged 75 and older experience widowhood compared to just 28% of men. Additionally, the average age of widowhood is 59. I have listened to other statistics. We had David Bach on the podcast years ago and he talked about I believe it was 80% or 85% of men will die married. Well, I mean, if there's 80% to 85% of men dying married, then the odds are pretty good. Probably you could almost conclude that 80% of women are going to become a widow at some point during their lives. And we usually plan for these types of risks. When it comes to building a financial plan, we always plan for the biggest things that could derail our lives, derail our financial lives. Long-term care is one that's always discussed, right? 70% chance that a 65-year-old couple are going to need long-term care at some point in their life. So, they say, "All right. Well, what's the long-term care solution? Let's look at different options so that I can fill that gap.”
There's nearly a 100% chance you're going to experience a down market during retirement and a 100% chance you're going to experience a recession. So, we plan for those down markets. How do we insulate ourselves against a down market or market volatility? We do these things to plan and then we have this risk that is just as high, if not higher, which is I'm probably going to lose my spouse someday, but we don't plan for that. And I mean, that's why we're having this conversation but so many I've heard say that lose a spouse, say, “I could have never prepared for that. I could have never planned for that. I could have never been prepared to lose my husband, could have never been prepared to lose my wife, my child, whatever that is.” When you think about your loss, do you feel that you would have done anything differently if you had it to do over again to better prepare yourself for that experience in your life?
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. And as you say it, that has not been my experience that people plan well financially. So, I'm glad that's normal in your world and your listeners. Perhaps that's why they listen, right? Because that is something that they value and have already created for themselves but I find there are so many women and couples who aren't having those conversations, who don’t. They have no idea where their money is. They don't know where their passwords are. There are some real challenges that they could be prepared for that they're not. And I don't mean that to say that that only happens when someone's killed in an accident. I'm talking about even when it's a long-term terminal illness, we're not having conversations because we don't want to feel the intense emotions that come along with those conversations. So, amazing to those people who are but I think there's a lot of people out there who aren't and could really benefit from getting curious about why they're not.
I think an answer to your question, "What would I have done differently?” if somebody had given me the skill of allowing intense emotion to pass, if I had had tools for that in advance, that would have helped me. We live in a culture that teaches us, first of all, that happiness is the goal, right? That if we're not happy, we're doing something wrong. And most of us have grown up or been taught that we're really just going to resist emotion, react to it, avoid it. But most of us have never actually been given tools for how to allow intense emotion. An intense emotion is a huge part of being human. And it's certainly a huge part of experiencing grief. And so, if I had had what I now teach with regard to how do you feel a feeling, grief would have been easier. And it would also not just in early acute grief have been easier, but it would have been easier to not create what I call the stagnation zone. Like, if you can imagine, you have a lot of intense emotion and you have a miserable experience of that emotion. It's kind of understandable why you wouldn't want more.
But if you want to actually really live again, then that means you're going to have to expose yourself to more emotion, right? If you want to try something new, you risk the chance of failure. And if you fail, that means you're going to have a feeling about that. If you were in a relationship and you want to be in a new relationship, now you have to be vulnerable again and you could be rejected and you're going to have some feelings about that. So, what I see a lot of us doing is because we don't have the skills to allow intense emotion, which makes sense because nobody taught us, then when we get to a place where we can just tolerate what we have or go and create something new, we tend to tolerate what we have, right? We tend to not take new chances. And I actually see this showing up with women and money on a regular basis because they might not believe that they're good at money. They might have a lot of fears around money. And they're so uncomfortable asking someone like you questions and admitting that they don't know what they don't know because they don't know how to feel the uncomfortableness of that, that they won't, they won't ask the questions. And that's a feelings problem. That's not an information problem.
If they were willing to feel how it feels to not that they should be embarrassed, I don't think they should but if they were willing to let themselves feel uncomfortable enough to ask questions to pursue new things, then it gets easier to create what you want because pretty much everything you want is on the other side of something that's uncomfortable. But what I see is which we shrink, right? So, we may prevent ourselves from experiencing less negative emotion but also because we're then taking less risk and putting ourselves out there less, we then also prevent ourselves from experiencing the positive emotion that we want, the desirable emotion. So, we end up with this band in the middle, which I call it the stagnation zone. It's like no risk, nothing new avoidance. It's like mediocre land, right? So, feeling feelings, if somebody had taught me that like, whoa, probably made a difference.
Casey Weade: But what's that even mean? And I got to say, I mean, especially for the greatest generation, my grandfather's generation, that was not part of the attributes that were admired by society. Right? It was strength. It was burying those emotions and not letting those things out. And then if you are able to control your emotions, then you're going to be better able to handle what life throws at you. And I wanted to ask because one of the questions I had was what were those attributes of people that tend to do the best, that tend to actually be able to weave this grief into their life most efficiently and handle that grieving process in the healthiest way? And I am assuming it's those that are actually more vulnerable or have actually showed more emotion and more vulnerability throughout their lifetime. Not those that were the stonewall.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah, for sure. They're emotionally resilient, right?
Casey Weade: And what tools do they use? So, you talk about using tools to allow for more intense emotions in order to better prepare yourself for these things. What are some of these tools that we can start practicing today? I know me, for one, I want to walk away from this conversation and go do something about it so that I can be better prepared for what life might throw at me.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. I love that you're asking those questions. So, there are a couple of things that come to mind. So, one is again developing the skill of feeling feelings, and I'll give you a couple of ways to do that. Also, another is what's called cognitive diffusion, which basically means understanding that the way that we think isn't actually the truth of who we are. And I know that sounds very deep, but basically, we have tens of thousands of thoughts every day in our brain, right? We didn't ask most of them to show up. They just do. But sometimes we're so fused with them that we can't tell the difference between who we are and what we're thinking. And we are the ones that get to think about what we think, right? We are the ones that get to decide which thoughts we pay attention to. And that's really important that we develop that skill because a lot of the thoughts that show up after you lose someone can take you to a place that is not where you want to go, right? So, for me, one of those thoughts was my best days are behind me.
If I had not been able to separate myself from that way of thinking, if someone had not shown me that that was just an optional sentence in my brain, I would have kept believing it and I would have stayed in a place that had my best days behind me. I would have created that into reality. So, being able to see ourselves as the watcher of our thoughts, the thinker of our thoughts, and pull ourselves away from our thoughts so that we can decide which ones are useful and which ones we want to give our energy and attention to and if a thought is actually moving us away from what we want, then we don't have to keep giving energy and attention to it, right? We can decide to believe something else. We can decide to believe, "Maybe actually, I could love life again. Maybe I could. Maybe I could get good at money. Maybe I don't see myself as that now that the thoughts that I have about my ability to manage money, invest money, whatever, are based on years of experience and actual results that I have created related to money. But what do I want to believe about myself and my ability to manage money or handle it?”
Casey Weade: And this is what you talk about in your saying, separating yourself from your thoughts.
Krista St-Germain: Yes.
Casey Weade: And I think this could be also being the observer, being the observer, and not being the ego. And I know one of those things that really helped me was The Untethered Soul. I don’t know if you grabbed that book. It’s an amazing book, right?
Krista St-Germain: So good. Yeah.
Casey Weade: And I had that realization of, well, I always thought I knew who I was but then when the book says, "Hey, if you're hearing these thoughts and these thoughts are passing through your brain, then who's actually hearing the thought?” Or maybe I am the one hearing the thought, not the actual one that came up with the thought. There are two different pieces.
Krista St-Germain: Crazy, isn't it? But it's so exciting to think about that because if we don't, then really what we're doing is just perpetually recreating the past.
Casey Weade: And recreating becoming our thoughts, very much becoming our thoughts and not becoming ourselves. So powerful. And I'm glad you brought that into the conversation. You've talked about money and wealth several times here, and you talk about wealth purgatory. And I think this is an important thing especially so many of the families that we work with, they're doing this one simple thing that we all do. I've done it, which is buying life insurance. So, we go out, we buy life insurance. Why do I have so much life insurance? It makes me feel good that my family's going to be taken care of if something happens to me. And the thought process behind that is, well, I'm going to leave them all of this money that will allow them to not have to worry about money. It'll make their lives better. It will allow them to have some peace of mind that they're going to be okay. It's almost selfish, though. I'm the one that's actually getting the peace of mind. I don't know if I'm actually giving it to them as much as it's benefiting me but we like to say it's about the other person.
And you said that the result of this often isn't a positive feeling. Even the positive change in wealth that's experienced after the loss of a loved one can just heighten these negative emotions and put us in wealth purgatory. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. One thing I've learned is that money doesn't create our feelings, right? Money doesn't create safety. Money doesn't create happiness. Money doesn't create fear. Money is a neutral thing. And it can be really easy to imagine that if you have, and in my case, after Hugo died, more money than I'd ever had before, that I would feel good, that I would feel comfortable, that I would feel safe, that I would feel, I don't know, just something better than what I felt, right? But it isn't the money that causes the feelings. It's what we're thinking about the money that causes the feelings. And so, when we have all of these thoughts like I did, we can have a really miserable experience even when we have more money than we've ever had before. We can have guilt around that money. We can have discomfort around that money. We can want to hide that money. We can be afraid that we're going to lose that money, right? We can just not enjoy it at all based on what we think about it and our ability to handle it, how it came to us. We can resent that money, right? We can be mad that we have it because what we really want is the person instead of the money. So, it can just be a really complex experience and surprising if you expected that more money equals a particular emotional experience because it doesn't.
Casey Weade: Yeah. You say to put those money beliefs under a microscope and let's put them under a microscope. Why is this money making me feel bad? Why do I feel bad about wealth? And then I think it also shows up for retirees that have stepped in. And now they're going to feel lost with the wealth because now they want to spend it. And they should feel good about spending those dollars that they save because that's why they saved them in the first place. So, I think this has a lot of application. And you talk about using some tools or leveraging a tool with your clients to put them under a microscope called the self-coaching model or the thought model to analyze those thoughts about money. How does this work? How do we implement this?
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. Simply put, if we could just classify a way of thinking about money as a move toward what we want or a move away from what we want, and then look at it through that microscope. Right? So, money is just math. The drama doesn't come from the money. The drama comes from the way that we think about money. So, if we could just dump out all of our thoughts about money, what are all the thoughts we have about money? What are all the thoughts we have about our ability to budget, to spend, to invest? We would probably fill up a couple of pages, honestly. Most of us have a lot of thoughts about money. You know, it takes money to make money. You got to work hard for your money. You could lose money, right? It can be taken from you instantly. Like, I'm sure you have tons of examples of these that you've seen within your own clients. But when we get those all out onto paper, the tool that I use is called the self-coaching model but essentially what it says is money is the circumstance, right? It's the math. It does not cause the feeling. Things that happen to us in the world, those are just neutral things. They don't mean anything to our brain until we have a thought about them.
So, money is the circumstance. Then we have a thought. Thoughts create emotions, feelings, right? So, thoughts create emotions and feelings. Feelings drive behaviors and behaviors produce results. And we always ultimately produce results that line up with our thoughts. We literally create our own thinking into reality. So, if I am thinking, “I am not good at money,” I'm going to feel probably insecure, right? That thought might cause me to feel insecure. What are the behaviors I then have around money when they are being fueled by insecurity? I'm probably going to hide. I'm not going to reach out to you. I'm not going to ask questions. I might avoid looking at my money. I might not budget. I might spend recklessly. I might have no idea what's happening. Because humans who feel insecure don't take action that creates something that they want, right? So, then I end up producing a result where I literally prove my own thought true that I am not good at money. That is a thought that's moving me away from the experience I want.
Casey Weade: Right. I get the sense that you can move this model in either direction. So, you could start at the end or you could start at the beginning, depending on where you find yourself.
Krista St-Germain: Yes. You can start in any line. And I don't want people to get lost in trying to use that tool because it does take some practice to use it but what I really want people to know is that what you're thinking is only true because you keep thinking it and because your brain keeps finding evidence for it. So, you will just think you are making an observation when you say that, “I'm bad at money.” You won't think that's a thought. You will think you're just telling someone the way that it is. And so, that's why the diffusion piece is so important. Because if you just think that's the truth, then you're just going to keep recreating it. If you can pause and say, “Oh, wait, maybe that's just a story in my brain. Maybe that's just a sentence that my brain has been gathering evidence for, and I thought it for so long that I now believe it.” You know, a thought that we practice becomes a belief. And I just have this belief but all beliefs are changeable. What do I need to start thinking so that I will actually move in the direction that I want to move? That's the tool.
Casey Weade: Yeah. Now, we could put ourselves into really defining the circumstance and then defining the result that we want to get as well, and then we could work through our thoughts, our emotions, and behaviors that’s like a thought, emotion, and behavior sandwich, right?
Krista St-Germain: Yes.
Casey Weade: And it can be so powerful. I can't wait to use that tool myself and really expose others to it. I think it's going to help so many. There are a couple of other questions that I kind of want to wrap things up with. And I think one of those things that I want to ask ties back into something you said earlier. At the opening of the conversation, you said you were in this acute stage of grief. And during that acute stage, if someone were to tell you everything's going to be okay, your life is going to be better, or things are going to turn around that you would have been offended, maybe even angered at that time. I think that's really a big challenge for those that are with those that are experiencing those acute stages of grief. You walk through the line at the funeral and you're saying hi to someone. You don't know what to say. And I still don't know exactly what I'm supposed to say. I feel bad to say that I'm sorry because, obviously, I’m not nearly as sorry as they are. I can't say, "Life goes on. Things are going to get better.” What do you say to someone that's in this stage? How can someone best support their loved ones that are experiencing this acute grief?
Krista St-Germain: Well, I love that you're asking that, too, because it's so challenging to be on the receiving end of comments and it is so challenging when you're the one trying to figure out what to say. So, before we decide what to say, I think we want to pull back and we want to think about what our motivations are. So, again, because most of us are taught that feelings are problems and we're taught that we're supposed to be happy all the time and we don't really have great skills to stay present with intense emotion, then what really we're doing is we're sensing undesirable emotion in someone else, and we're uncomfortable with it. And we don't intend to be selfish but sometimes what we're really trying to do is we're trying to make them feel better so that we can feel better. We don't know how to be comfortable with their discomfort. And so, we're trying to say things that solve it. “They're in a better place. They're no longer suffering. You'll find someone else.” You know, things like that. That is not what we really want when we are experiencing that kind of emotion. We don't want somebody to take it away from us. We just want somebody to witness it. We just want somebody to be there with us as we experience that emotion. We don't want to be talked out of it.
So, if we can remind ourselves that our job is not to talk someone out of how they feel, we're not trying to make them feel better. There is just so much comfort that comes when someone witnesses what we're going through and is there with us as we go through it, and that makes us so much less likely to say the thing that is dismissive. That makes us more likely to find a connection with the person, “I love you.” It comes from a place that says they are not broken. I don't have to fix them. I'm just going to be with them as they experience this. And that will have a say in completely different things because our motivation isn't to change them. It's just to bear witness and be with them and let them be as they are.
Casey Weade: “I love you. I care for you. I'm here for you.” That's great. And what about from the other side of things? How should someone that's grieving share that grief when they're in those acute stages? I feel that's going to be significantly different than the plateau. I see someone in the acute stage just shutting down, maybe. I see those that are in the plateau stage have seen this and they don't want to be the ‘poor me’ person anymore. And so, then they're not talking about it at all. Whether they're in the acute stage or the plateau stage, I get the sense that they're not talking about it for two very different reasons but they're still not having those conversations and sharing those things. How does someone that's going through this process share that grief with others?
Krista St-Germain: It's such an individual question. There really isn't a manual for that. And I don't think we even want to say that you have to share it. That's not what everybody finds helpful. Some people don't really want to do a lot of talking about it with other people and that's okay, too. So, I really think it's more a matter of figuring out what feels good to you. For me, it felt really good to go to a therapist in the early days and just get it out with someone who was unbiased and I didn't have to worry about how they felt. Because sometimes when you're talking to people who know you and are invested in your life, again, they're not comfortable with your discomfort. So, you start talking about what's going on and then all of a sudden they're uncomfortable and now you're consoling them. That’s not helpful. So, for me, there's a lot of value in just talking to a neutral third party who wasn't going to judge me and I didn't need to fix their feelings. There was so much goodness in that. There was a lot of value in just journaling. I would write letters to Hugo daily for a long time, just telling him about my day and what was going on for me. That felt very valuable to me.
And then I think it can just be what you need it to be. A lot of us do very well in community. When we tend to think that what's going on for us is somehow different, bad, wrong, abnormal, it can be very normalizing to be in another community of people who can normalize our experience. When we can go, "Oh, it's not a me problem. This is just grief,” and then it gets easier. But in order to do that, sometimes we have to be brave. Sometimes we have to find a group, realize it's not the right group for us, and then find another group. Sometimes we have to find a therapist and realize it's not the right therapist. Then find another one. We have to advocate for the environment or the experience that is most beneficial to us next and not quit until we find it. And I see people quitting too soon because they find a depressing grief group and that doesn't help them or they find the wrong life coach or the wrong therapist for them. And so, they quit. And it's really just a matter of what is it that would be useful to me and then will I be committed enough and advocate long enough until I find it?
Casey Weade: Yeah. I see how it's weaved into your life quite clearly. I see how it's weaved into my mother-in-law's life going through grief counseling and then becoming a grief counselor herself as well and continuing to do that years later and probably the rest of her life. That's part of her life here today. And I think another element of this I want to make sure that we hit on is this piece of moving on relationally. So, for instance, we had a friend of ours that about six months after his wife passed away is dating, and then nine months later, he's got somebody he’s bringing to the holidays, and everyone's judging him for it that he moved on too quickly. It's not looked on positively by anybody that I've seen. I can imagine it from his perspective going through that and go, “Well, am I supposed to move on? Am I not supposed to move on? What are other people going to think of me?” How should we think about moving on relationally and creating new relationships and the judgment of others along the way?
Krista St-Germain: Yeah. Because it's not like they're just going to judge you for moving on. And by that, I prefer that you are moving forward but it's not like they're just going to judge you for dating too soon. They're also going to judge you for not dating soon enough. “What's wrong with you? Why aren't you dating again? You should be dating again.” Everybody's got opinions about what we should do with our lives. And to me, the most simple advice I can give people is just to let them have opinions because they do. We might as well just stop arguing with the fact that other people have opinions about how we should be living life. Some people will think we're wearing the wedding ring way too long, and some people will be just shocked that we have taken the wedding ring off. Okay, let them.
Casey Weade: Yeah. I love how simple that is, yeah, but it's so true. And I think many will find that very freeing and empowering. Thank you for joining us today. I want to make sure we get people into your free course because those going through grief, they need this work. They need this kind of environment. They need this kind of community. And so, again, we are partnering with Krista to offer her online widow grief course led by her that it covers the process of processing grief, helpful next steps, and tools to navigate moving forward, not moving on. And if you'd like to get access to that free course, it's super easy. Just write us an honest rating and review over on iTunes and then shoot us a text with the keyword ‘Grief’ to 866-482-9559. We'll get you signed up for that free course. Krista, this has been an amazing conversation. Thank you so much for the work that you're doing in the world.
Krista St-Germain: Totally my pleasure. Thanks for having me.