Aly Bird is a coach, therapist-in-training, widow, and author of the wise new book titled Grief Ally: Helping People You Love Cope with Death, Loss and Grief. When Aly was 30 years old, the person she loved and trusted most in her life suddenly died, leaving her in a world that no longer made sense.
In the aftermath of her loss, Aly quickly realized that her positive experience of support was unique and unlike the horror stories of isolation and ignorance that she was hearing from her widowed peers. With unconditional love, courage and brutal honesty, Aly and her support network began navigating how to live in her new reality, and this collective experience inspired her to write her wisdom-filled book.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- The terrible cliches people say to the grieving that are more harmful than helpful.
- What happened during a party after Will transitioned that inspired Aly to write Grief Ally.
- Aly’s experience with a workshop instructor that convinced her that we need to shift the way we support people who are grieving.
- Ways Aly now advises people to show up for a grieving friend or relative.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS ALY:
- What are the differences between supporting grieving adults and grieving children?
- How does a person handle wanting to help in an environment that has become unpredictable and is changing frequently?
- What is the difference between being a superhuman and a superhero?
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Aly Bird: The Optimal Ways Each Of Us Can Show Up For A Grieving Friend Or Family Member, The Terrible Cliches People Say To Grieving People That Are More Harmful Than Helpful, And The Right Questions To Ask That Help A Loved One To Heal!
I am delighted to have this opportunity to interview Aly Bird, who is a coach, an author, a therapist in training, and a widow. When Aly was 30 years old, the person she loved and trusted most in her life suddenly died, leaving her in a world that no longer made sense with sensations in her body that were foreign, involuntary, and happening without her consent.
In the aftermath of her profound loss, Aly quickly realized that her positive experience of support was unique and unlike the horror stories of isolation and ignorance that she was hearing from her widowed peers. With a willingness to lean into personal development, Aly dove headfirst into a world that no one ever wants to live in. With unconditional love, courage, and brutal honesty, Aly and her support network began navigating how to live in her new reality. This collective experience inspired her to write her wisdom-filled book titled, Grief Ally.
Aly, who will be speaking to us from British Columbia, Canada, has a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology, a Master of Science in Social Planning with a specialization in Public Health Policy and Community Development, and many impressive training certifications in the areas of trauma, supporting grieving children and more.
I’m looking forward to talking with Aly about her book Grief Ally and what she calls Grief Allyship, the terrible cliches people say to grieving people that are more harmful than helpful, how to ask the right questions to help a loved one to heal, the differences between supporting grieving adults and grieving children and more for what is surely going to be an inspiring, very wise and helpful interview for many of us.
Aly, a sincerely warm welcome to the show.
Thank you so much, Irene.
Let’s get everybody to know you from the beginning. Would you like to tell us about your early years and your relationship with Will? I’m so sorry about how he died and what that was like. You’re only 30 years old.
I have lived a lot of life. Growing up as a kid, I was super creative and very into theater arts. I was a figure skater, also with drama and vocal music. I had it in my mind that I was going to change the world. I went off to university and became an urban planner, which was a great career but also left me wanting more in terms of creating real change and getting to interact with humans one-on-one. That’s how I ended up being a coach.
As I was working in Toronto in the nonprofit setting, I met Will at a dive bar in Toronto. I like to say that he filled all the gaps that I didn’t know I had. We had this beautiful and adventurous relationship based in BC. We climbed mountains, skied, rock climbed and mountain biked. Every outdoor little mishap we had strengthened our relationship. Unfortunately, it was a hiking accident that killed Will. It was romantic between the two of us but I can romanticize how I have become the person I am because of my experience of loss.
Were you hiking with him when he had the accident?
No, I wasn’t, which is strange because we usually did most of our hiking together but he was with a friend, not me. It has been a wild ride of getting to know who I am in the world without Will physically present next to me and doing that in a way where I have had to empower myself to get what I need and to be the person I need to become to live with the legacy of Will’s loss and Will’s life and be able to carry that forward.
I can so relate. It sounds a little bit like what I have with Saul. You lose the love of your life but they’re still with you and you’re carrying on. I’m sorry for your loss. That must have been horrible when you got that phone call. I can also relate to the struggle of being alone because one of my big challenges, when Saul died, was to learn how to be alone. I had a life transition coach and she give me assignments like, “Do this by yourself.” I don’t want to but I got to.
People don’t tell you about the loneliness that happens. You get the narrative of you’re going to be sad and hurt but they don’t tell you how much of an ache exists in you.
You were at a party about three months after Will transitioned. That party inspires you to write your book Grief Ally: Helping People You Love Cope with Death, Loss, and Grief. I have to say to everybody, I read it and it’s a wonderful book. I suggest that you’d like it very much and it’d be very helpful to you. Would you tell us about that special story, Aly?
At the three-month mark after Will died, I was starting to be like, “I can leave the house,” but I could also feel that the care, support, and attention that I was receiving was starting to dissipate. The thing I found so much comfort in after Will’s death was that people were willing to talk about him. That brought me so much comfort. As things started to dissipate, they stopped talking about him.
I put a story up on Facebook saying, “I am not okay. I’m not going to be okay for a very long time but if you do have any stories of Will and you’re ever wanting to talk about him, I would love it if you chose me to have those conversations and share stories with.” I ended up at a party with people who knew both of us. As I was leaving, I was waiting for two friends to walk home with. I stepped outside and two young guys were standing in the dark. I had just enough to drink to say, as we were all standing there, “This is a bit awkward.”
One of them, this young man about 23 years old said, “Can we go inside and have a quick chat?” I was like, “Absolutely.” It was at his house. We stepped into his bedroom and he was like, “I saw your post on Facebook. When I first read it, I thought it was a cry for help.” I was like, “I expected people to interpret it that way.” He’s like, “I read it again and I appreciated it.” I’m like, “Tell me more.” He said, “I think about Will every day and all the time. It brings me a lot of comfort to know that you do too.”
We sat there on his bed for another 30 minutes and he shared photos that I hadn’t seen of Will. He shared a video that I hadn’t seen. We laughed and cried. It was so light walking home because when you share stories like that, it takes a weight off your shoulders. You’re not carrying this person alone through life. You’re all carrying it together. I wanted that experience for everyone bereaved.
It’s a lot to ask one person to carry the legacy of someone but when we all carry it together and people are allowed to talk about their beloveds who aren’t physically present anymore, they still get to live big socially active lives without having to hide the parts that are a little more tender in places where they exclusively feel safe. That’s the story that inspired me to write Grief Ally.
You’re also giving people permission not to clam up and to share. I’m that way about Saul too. I have had other people in my life and all but I talk about him and laugh about him. There are certain traits that I have that are pieces of him. It’s wonderful.
That’s so inspiring. We were talking about our age difference. The reality of losing will at 30 means that I have so much life to live before I die. The thought of having to carry Will’s memory with me for that long by myself is so heavy. The way I want to exist in the world is with Will being an active part. He was this big, loud, and exciting person to be around. I want that to exist in every room with me.
That can be inside of you too. My husband was hilarious. He had this amazing sense of humor, which everybody loved. People tell me they think I’m pretty funny. I was his best fan. I love to laugh. There’s this little piece of me where every once in a while, something comes out of me and I go, “Thanks, Saul.”
I do that too. I land some pretty good jokes and I’m like, “Will, yes. You would love that.”
You know he’s laughing with you. There’s another story you have that’s not such a positive story. That’s a story about a workshop instructor. That experience convinced you that our culture needs to shift the way we support people who are grieving, which inspired your book. Tell us that one.
I was at a workshop about four months after Will died. The facilitator came out with their speech about why we were all here. They commended the participants for being there and having the courage to learn how to cope with their grief in healthy ways. If we all learned how to do that, then we would be wise. When we are wise, then we can help other people.
That didn’t sit right with me because I had experienced the most devastating, life-shattering thing in my entire life. The concept of the only reason that I should survive so I can help other people didn’t sit right, given that there are so many people who were around me who had agency and weren’t living with the pain and suffering that I was living with. Why weren’t they being asked to learn how to equip themselves with the tools that they need to help us survive?
From there, I was like, “This needs to be different. I don’t want to live in a world where it is only the people who know grief and loss so intimately that have to do the work to create safe spaces for more people as they cross that line. I want to equip people with the tools to hold those that experience devastating losses and create a space for them that is safe while they incorporate, shift, adjust, and survive these bad things that have happened to them in their lives.”
It sounds like you want to hold and cushion them.
I do. I want to protect them.
You nurture them, not in a suffocating way but in a positive way.
It seemed to me that the work that the workshop facilitator was asking us to do was only perpetuating this narrative of how grief is treated in our culture. “It should be kept behind closed doors. Don’t make anybody else uncomfortable with your grief or stories of loss. Figure out how to deal with it yourself so we can all keep carrying on.”
That’s not the world that I want to live in. I want to live in a world where my grief gets to live alongside all the other big things that are happening in my life, whether they are good or bad. The world isn’t safe enough yet. People are so briefly illiterate and death adverse that they don’t have the tools and capacity to hold us when we are suffering some of life’s greatest losses. My intention with the book was to give people a roadmap and teach them how to support the people who are bereaved and have traumatic losses so those people get to remain in their communities and be held within them, instead of having to go find other people who know what it is they’re living with.
To tell you the truth, some people are so afraid to talk about it because if you’ve had a loss, they’re afraid to look at their mortality also so it makes it uncomfortable. A book like yours gives them permission to know how to approach someone who’s grieving and not personalize it and be afraid of it from their fears.
I honestly believe that people want to be there for other people who are suffering but there’s this fear that they’re going to make mistakes or make it worse. My intention with the book is to relieve them of some of that anxiety so that they can stay close. They don’t lean back.
I would think your book would be a wonderful gift for people surrounding someone who’s had a big loss, mothers, fathers, cousins, or friends. How do you advise people to show up for a grieving friend or relative after a loss through what you call Grief Allyship? What is your advice to them? Let’s say someone’s had this devastating loss and they don’t know what to do.
At greater themes, I want you to show up with unconditional love, respect for how someone griefs in their unique way, and empowerment. Empower them to ask for what it is they need and have those needs met. That’s what I define as Grief Allyship at a very high level. Specifically, within the book, there are steps about taking care of yourself, being a great active listener, recognizing what grief is, and how it can be different for everyone. That will get you through the long haul.
They don’t have to be a grief expert to be a grief ally. They just need to know how to respond. They’re walking into an environment where the person’s grieving and there are all kinds of issues going on all over the place. They’re walking into an environment that’s become unpredictable and constantly changing. You’ve got a very upset friend over there. What do you advise them about creating stability or being stable while the tornadoes are popping up all around them?
My best advice in that situation is self-care. My definition of self-care is three things. The first is being self-aware. Recognize when you are feeling out of alignment, feeling a little bit uncomfortable, and being able to name that like, “I’m feeling angry.” Once you have the name for what it is that’s going on, usually, it’s an unmet need. Once you have the name of it, it’s like, “I feel blank means I need blank. “I am angry. I need to yell.” The next step would be to yell or express that need, what your body wants it to do.
Is this for the person who’s attending to the person grieving?
Yes, for the caregiver.
Your person is having all of this stuff going on and if you need to yell or carry on, go for it.
Use some tact. Don’t do it right there in the room with them. Put it in your pocket and when you get out into your car, hold the steering wheel and let out a good primal roar. That is so much better than swallowing it and being stoic through these situations. Being unmoved in situations like these, you’re not helping anyone.
You are going to be affected and it is okay to feel things because of this loss in your community. Have compassion for yourself. Having a loss or death in your community is going to make you question your mortality. It’s going to bring up other losses from your life and that is all okay. Give yourself compassion for feeling all those things. Recognize that you need space to vent and feel what you’re feeling as well.
You’re helping your friend but meanwhile, you’re helping yourself also. What are the terrible cliches people say that are more harmful than helpful? What are the right questions to ask to help a loved one to heal? Give us our script, Aly.
In the book, I’m going to point you to Chapter Six which is called Poetry Cliches and Nonsense: What Not to Say. I’m going to give you a few tips straight from the book. The first is asking, “How are you?” I would never suggest asking the question, “How are you,” because you know how they are. They are not okay. It’s going to be a while before they are okay again.
If you are curious about how they are doing at that moment, I advise asking a specific question like, “How did you sleep last night? I heard you were going to the cemetery. How did it feel to be there? I heard you were going to have a conversation with so-and-so. How did that go?” If you don’t have time to sit and have a conversation, don’t ask a question at all. Send the message that says, “Thinking of you. I love you.” The heart emoji. That’s all much more productive than asking, “How are you?”
Also, let’s get rid of all the silver linings. If you are ever going to use the phrase “at least,” that’s adding a silver lining to someone’s experience. “At least you had five good years with him.” Megan Devine does beautiful work and she says, “Every time you use ‘at least,’ there is a ghost sentence.” There’s half of the sentence that you are not saying and it’s saying, “Stop feeling so bad.”
It’s like if someone loses a child and they go, “At least you have two other kids so stop feeling so bad.”
That’s a horrible thing to say to someone but we don’t say that second ghost sentence. It is so harmful. It’s asking someone not to be in the state that they are in. The best thing that you can do to support someone who is grieving is to give them the space to feel what it is they’re feeling or do what it is they’re doing to cope. That’s about respecting their experience. Asking them to be in a different way says more about you not being uncomfortable with their current state than their state at all.
It’s not about you. It’s about them. What is the difference between being a superhuman and a superhero? How can a person discern when superhero mode is helpful and when it’s not? You’re talking about two different personas of people who are coming to help.
Especially if the death was unexpected or out of order, everybody likes to rush in like a superhero. We all have that fight-or-flight response in our bodies. That’s what’s triggering that immediacy like, “I need to get there and rescue them.” The reality is grief doesn’t get fixed. It’s a long process. All response that we have that allows us to pull people from burning buildings, car wrecks, or escape danger isn’t going to work in the context of grief support. That’s superhero mode and that’s not going to help. Unless they actually need to be rescued.
If you were at a funeral and somebody is cornering the person that you care about, telling them to move on and giving them unsolicited advice, swoop in and rescue them. That is great. For the long haul of grief, what you need is to be a superhuman whose superpower is to be present and respect what your person is going through.
They’ll feel validated.
Exactly. That’s the goal.
Is there a significant difference between supporting grieving adults and grieving children? What are the most important things a person should provide someone who’s grieving?
There’s a quote somewhere but it’s an image that sticks in my mind about the difference between adults and children. For everyone, grief is like a river. It can flow like its monsoon season or it can be the mid-summer and it’s just a stream. For adults, often, we are in the river. We feel it flow around the banks and move forward. For children, grieving is more like puddle hopping. When they are outside the puddle, they can experience life with brand new eyes that they have and be unfazed by death in their life. When they are in the puddle, it is as turbulent as the river is for an adult.
That’s the difference. In terms of supporting a child, the most important thing you can do is to have open lines of communication. Give them the opportunity to talk about their loss, if they want to talk about their loss, answer questions when they have them, and make sure that there is a trusted adult in their life who can answer those questions.
What if the kid is planning up and they don’t want to talk about it?
Maybe it’s not the right time. It’s to say like, “I see you don’t want to talk about this now. Maybe we can talk about it tomorrow.” Check in with them tomorrow like, “We didn’t talk about this yesterday. Do you want to talk about it today?” If they say no, try the next day. There are so many different ways that people grieve as adults and as children. A child might be keener to express their grief through an art project or by building things out of the sand.
It is okay to do grief rather than feel grief. That can happen to adults and kids. In terms of support, there are two most important things that I tell people to do. Grief can’t be fixed so there are only two ways that you have power and that is, how can you make your person’s life easier and how can you make your person’s life more comfortable? Comfort and ease are those two things that I say to keep in the back of your mind when you’re showing up for someone that you love who is grieving.
A lot of people will bring casseroles, dinners, and food, which is lovely and then they’re out of your life forever.
Honestly, the working title before this book was called More Than Lasagna. It’s true. The narrative that gets put out there is to bring food, send a card, tell a joke, go to the funeral, and then you’re done. When in reality, if you love a person or they’re an intimate part of your life already, food will get you in the door but then what are you going to say when you get inside? That’s why I wrote the book. If you follow the steps in the book, you’re going to be in good shape for the long haul.
Speaking about the long haul, how does a person remain a grief ally as time moves forward through that long haul? A friend can get exhausted from it also. “I don’t want to be involved in this negative and sad energy anymore but I love my person.” Now what?
In the book, every chapter starts with a promise. Chapter Two is all about respecting that you don’t need to be a grief expert to be a grief ally. It gives you what you need to know about grief to be an ally. Chapter Two is all about self-care, promising to take good care of yourself so that you can take good care of your person. Every chapter starts with those promises. If you can keep your promises and follow the steps in the book, then you are in great shape for the long haul.
Being there for the long haul doesn’t mean that it is all sad and dark. Being there for the long haul means that this person that you care about, whether they’re a family member, a great friend, or a chosen family, means you get to be there for all the good stuff and the hard stuff for both of you. That’s important when we talk about maintaining the communities that we already exist within and showing up for people throughout our lifespan.
Not only you sharing their sadness but you’re sharing their joy too because they can subsequently have joy also. Some of it is there while they’re going through the other things so you get to witness that also. In what ways can therapy help a grieving person? Do you believe in that? You’re a therapist in training. How does it help them to heal and cope? I am a person who went to therapy and it helped me a great deal but would you like to speak about that? How does therapy help while these changes are taking place in the grieving person’s life? Maybe it even helps a person who’s a friend or a witness who wants to go into therapy and talk about their loss.
If you find yourself needing an impartial audience, therapy can be wonderful. I’m not saying that everyone needs therapy in grief. I hope that fewer people do because of resources like my book but therapy can be a wonderful way to have a mirror held up and say, “This is why things aren’t working. This is a bigger reason why I am feeling something.”
Grief can bring up so much from childhood trauma to our attachment styles, to guilt or shame that we’re holding onto. There are some very talented practitioners out there who work with trauma that might need to be processed so that you can move forward. Most of all, therapy is an opportunity for someone to sit with someone who is incredibly empathetic and will be an impartial unjudgmental audience for whatever it is that you are experiencing.
We’re talking about Grief Ally. What else would you like everyone to know about your book? Do you have a special offer for our audience?
Yes. The only message that I have is that go check it out. If it feels like the right fit for you, pick up a copy. It’s available as an eBook, paperback, and audiobook. However you absorb information, you can do that. Special offer, if you are reading this show and it’s within three months of the airing date, you can reach out to me for a 10% discount on any coaching package. I work specifically with people who are in a grief allyship role. I can help you work through problems that you might be facing within your community like confidence or anxiety. I would love to help you.
What is your tip for finding joy in life?
My tip is to eat food that tastes good. It’s all about simple pleasures. I am the person who always says yes to dessert. That’s my thing. Keep it simple. Just eat dessert.
Aly, I want to thank you for writing Grief Ally for all those who wish to help someone they love to alleviate their profound sorrow after a heartbreaking loss via your empowering grief allyship. I thank you from my heart for this inspiring, very wise, and helpful interview. It’s also been fun talking with you. We had a great time. Here’s a loving reminder, everyone. Make sure to follow us and like us on social @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. We thank you so much. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings. Bye for now. Thank you, Aly.
Thank you, Irene. This has been wonderful.
Thank you. To be continued.
- Visit Aly’s website
- Follow Aly on Facebook and Instagram
- Aly’s book: Grief Ally: Helping People You Love Cope with Death, Loss and Grief
About Aly Bird
Since her husband’s untimely death, ALY BIRD has poured her heart into helping those who feel helpless during an unexpected crisis. Her extensive study of grief psychology and culture, combined with her own devastating firsthand knowledge, led her to create a road map for the courageous and dedicated individuals who are willing to show up for the people they love with unconditional love, empowerment, and reverence. A speaker and workshop leader, Aly shows a clear path to those who have the courage to take on the vital role of being a grief ally.
Recognizing that there must be a change to the way our culture handles grief, Aly is committed to building a support and educational network not only for the ones who have experienced an earth-shattering loss but also for the people who are often overlooked: the griever’s loved ones and trusted support system. To aid in her mission, Aly is currently pursuing a graduate degree in counselling psychology and a career in grief therapy. Aly Bird is a coach and author with a BA from Carleton University and MSc in social planning from the University of Toronto. She is a member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and the Bereavement Ontario Network.
Keeping her life in balance, Aly is passionate about taking long walks with her dog, creating art, and singing at the top of her lungs every time she has the chance.