Rachel Ricketts Wants You to Know That Grief is Not a Dirty Word

According to the grief coach behind Loss & Found, being truly happy means dealing with our shit. And cooling it with the selfies on Instagram.

Portrait by Bethany Schiedel

As humans, we don’t like dealing with shitty stuff that pops up in our lives. Whether we follow the classic ‘fight or flight’ pattern for handling tough stuff or just bottle up our emotions, we tend to push feelings like grief and sorrow aside. But research shows that avoiding our grief is hurting us more than ever. For example, half of new mothers struggle with mental health issues—but 50 percent of those cases go undiagnosed due to new moms fearing they’ll look like failures because they aren’t dealing. The pressure we feel to curate seemingly perfect personas on social media makes over half of us feel inadequate, jealous and depressed. And it’s worse for men than women: since men are typically socialized to ‘man up’, bottling up their feelings can lead to big repercussions. In the UK, premature death is 1.5 times as likely for men than it is for women due to their unwillingness to have their issues diagnosed. And although men and women have similar rates of depression, men are 3 times as likely to commit suicide. All of this is partially a result of the taboo around acknowledging grief—which is why Rachel Ricketts is here to change that.

The Vancouver-based entrepreneur is behind Loss & Found—a platform where she offers her services as a grief coach and tries to cultivate a community around universal experiences of sorrow. She does individual and group grief coaching, offers a grief webinar, interviews all sorts of people about grief and even recently published a book on the topic. And although Rachel’s credentials as a death doula, reiki healer and psychologist are robust enough on their own, it’s her intense personal experience with grief that makes you trust her immediately. In 2015, her mother died after a 20 year struggle with multiple sclerosis. That same year, Rachel was in Paris the night of the attack at Le Bataclan theatre; she was two blocks away when it happened. A few months later, she saw a man drown in front of his family on vacation. “I fell into this level of grief and sorrow which I didn’t know was humanly possible,” she says about the aftermath of all of those events. “But I said to myself, ‘I am absolutely not the only one dealing with grief like this. There’s gotta be a better way.'”

Rachel did her research but couldn’t find anything that resonated with her in terms of helping her cope but also building a community around grief. Her solution? Making one herself to break down taboos around grieving and help people actually face emotions in a culture that stifles sadness and sorrow. Loss & Found was born. In light of this, we thought we’d talk to Rachel about the importance of facing our own shit, the real definition of grief and why Instagramming our food all the time is making us lose our minds.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Rachel. What made you want to take your personal experiences with grief and use them to help others?

Rachel Ricketts: Since I was young, it’s always been important to me that people don’t feel alone. I grew up as, like, the only black girl in Vancouver, which gave me a physical distinction but also a level of separation, like I was the odd one out. I was raised by a single mom in the 80s, an era when there weren’t a lot of single moms. Plus, I was a really sensitive kid. All of this made me feel misunderstood and alone, so it was important to me that other people didn’t, because it’s a really shitty feeling.

Flash forward to 2015, when my mom died. Initially my system was in shock to protect me, but witnessing dying is pretty painful. It was probably around the 3 month mark where I was like, “no, this just fucking sucks, actually.” I felt totally isolated, the most alone I’ve ever felt, and fell into this level of grief and sorrow which I didn’t know was humanly possible. Which was really bad—like, suicidal thoughts bad.

I said to myself, “I am absolutely not the only one dealing with grief like this. There’s gotta be a better way.” I did my research but couldn’t find anything that resonated with me or a community that made sense. So I thought, “I guess I’ll make one.” Because it was a catharsis for me, too: worst case scenario, it would be something helpful for me and that’s it.

For a lot of us, grief is a difficult concept to grasp because culturally we don’t talk about it. How do you get your clients used to what grief really is?

Before I even get to the part of helping people, I build awareness around grief. Firstly, grief is completely and utterly universal, meaning we will all deal with death—whether it’s our own or the death of people in our lives. But grief isn’t just about death. My definition of it is a normal and natural response to loss or change of any sort. It isn’t just sad things, like divorces, job loss or death; it’s also becoming a parent, for example—total identity shift. Getting married—total identity shift. Graduating. All these positive things include a transition and there’s a piece of that which normally includes some loss. And it feels conflicting. It’s usually a form of deep sorrow, but also includes relief, joy, hope, anger, guilt, shame and sadness.

Culturally we’re increasingly addressing mental health issues—but grief and death seem left out of the conversation. Do you think we’re becoming more comfortable with discussing it, or it’s still very taboo?

I don’t think we’re talking about it in any way that’s sufficient or fruitful, really. But we should be, because we will all fucking die and that shouldn’t freak us out. That is the one thing we know for sure. People are like, ‘death and taxes!’ and I’m like, ‘well, a lot of people don’t pay their taxes, so just death.’

Plus, we’re in this Instagram culture based around immediate gratification. You know, if you’re not selfie-ing shit or happy with your big plate of food, it’s like, what are you even doing? And it’s total crap. We’re just SO afraid to have the conversations about the sad stuff and feel like we have to ‘be on’ all the time. With death in particular, we’re so afraid of it because it’s a complete and utter lack of control and we like to believe that we have control in our lives. But we have no control over anything except for how we choose to show up. We’re all on a hamster wheel trying to prove otherwise, but we’re suffering mental health as a result. Total burnout is a result of trying to control stuff that’s uncontrollable.

And a lot of people also don’t like to accept that they’re in pain. When you work with clients, how do you make them face those difficult emotions?

Well, I’m trying to speak to a specific subset of people who already buy into what it is I’m sharing and acknowledge that grief isn’t a dirty word. For example, the work I do with moms is so freeing when they acknowledge that they’re grieving and that it’s normal. It’s like, “I’m not insane, I love my kid but this is fucking hard.” But ultimately, it’s just semantics. If you’re in a life transition, it’s the same shit—it just depends on where you are on the spectrum. The people who come to me recognise that they’re in pain on some level and want help minimising it. Most people who see me don’t come for a death.

Have you observed any patterns in terms of how people deal with grief?

My experience is that when acute grief happens in our lives, we’re not just grieving that one particular instance. We’re grieving the stuff we haven’t dealt with yet, because how we didn’t deal with things in our past is how we’re going to try to deal with this new thing. But it doesn’t work ‘cause it’s too much to handle, and people get really afraid to lean into pain or grief. A lot of the time I hear people be like, “uuuugh, I’m so afraid that if I start addressing this grief that I’ll fall apart and won’t be able to put myself back together.” And my big wake up call is that it’s actually the opposite. If you continue to to deny it, to stuff it down and ignore it, it’ll come for you. It might come for you as depression, as cancer, as isolation because you ruin your relationships. You don’t get out just by stuffing it down and keeping it there until you die.

So how can you make choices so that grief can impact you in a positive way? That’s possible, and that’s what I help folks do.

Have you noticed any differences between how women and men deal with grief?

Women need to talk about it more while men need to physically move it through their body. Also, a lot of the work I do with men is reminding them that they have permission to be emotional. Men in particular feel like their role is to, you know, “man up.” That’s what we socialise them to do and that’s how they work through their emotions a lot, and not in a good way—they just throw themselves into something. Women do that too, of course, but the focus of my work with men is like, “It’s ok to feel. And have compassion for yourself when you can’t—your entire life you’ve been told that you shouldn’t feel.” Women have more emotional intelligence purely based on how we’re socialised.

It sounds like your work is about being super close with people when they’re in the middle of some really dark places. What qualities do you need to have to be able to handle that?

You need to be able to uphold boundaries, first and foremost. You need to be able to connect with folks on a personal and authentic level without making it about yourself, which isn’t easy. And you need to understand, acknowledge and honour that everyone has the tools they need to heal themselves. Like, I am just a guide: I’m not a guru or the answer at all. I am just here as a coach to help people figure out what’s going to work best for them.

That’s also part of how a grief coach differs from a therapist. When I sit across from my therapist, it’s very formal: she has the knowledge and tells me what needs to happen. But with what I do, I’m making people curious so that they can come to solutions on their own and walk away with practical tools to move through their own shit.

What are some things you would love to see happen in society right now that would make it easier for us to deal with shit and be more comfortable with grief?

I would love to see us be honest with ourselves and each other, first and foremost. That doesn’t mean that you have to see Instagram full of people crying or anything, and you don’t even need Instagram, anyway. Fuck Instagram! But if someone asks you how you are and you love and respect them enough to be honest, instead of saying you’re fine by default just take a moment and actually check in with yourself. I’d love to see us expand our compassion so that the real answer doesn’t freak people out, or people don’t even ask how are you unless they have integrity behind the question.

What is the most satisfying part of this work for you?

Seeing people fully step into joy. If you’re denying yourself the full experience of your pain, you’re also denying yourself the absolute heights of your joy. When you lean into the pain, yeah, it sucks and that’s why it’s helpful to have someone hold your hand through it; but when you slowly start to come out of on the other side, your capacity for joy is so much greater. Your ability to empathise and love for yourself, others and this life is like ten fucking fold. It’s so beautiful to see people get there.

And honestly? It doesn’t have to take that much, and it’s so worth it. If you want to tap into a higher sense of love and joy, you have to sit with the darkness.

Thanks, Rachel.