Susan’s entire world flipped upside down when her husband was killed in a tragic car accident, leaving her to pick up the shattered pieces of her young family’s life. She eventually came to the realization that action and intention are the two pillars needed to build a powerful roadmap for healing mind, body, and spirit, which is the foundation for rebirth. Susan combined her extensive professional knowledge and deeply moving personal experiences in her 5-time award-winning book, which is used by mental health practitioners and bereaved communities worldwide. Titled, A to Z Healing Toolbox: A Practical Guide for Navigating Grief and Trauma with Intention, the book is a wonderful tool to accompany a person’s healing journey through grief.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- The difference between the “be-ers” and the “do-ers” are people who offer their support to a person in grief.
- The surprising ways relationships change with family members, friends and others when a person’s life is altered by grief and trauma.
- How a “peer mentor” invited Susan back to life and how it became a win-win for both of them.
- The ways the non-profit organization “Soaring Spirits International” helps the global widowed community.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS SUSAN:
- What are the 5 pillars you call OASIS that foster rebirth and help us to bloom?
- How does your business A2Z Healing Toolbox assist those who are grieving?
- What is the difference between Post Traumatic Growth and PTSD?
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Susan Hannifin-MacNab: Social Worker, Grief And Trauma Educator And Author
I’m delighted to have this opportunity to interview highly regarded social worker, grief and trauma educator and author Susan Hannifin-MacNab, who holds a Master’s in Social Work, a Bachelor’s in Education, and credentials as a teacher and a school social worker. Susan will be speaking to us from San Diego, California.
Susan’s entire world flipped upside down when her husband was killed in a tragic car accident, leaving her to pick up the shattered pieces of her young family’s life. She eventually came to the realization that healing grief and trauma does not happen by waiting for time to pass, that action and intention are the two pillars needed to build a powerful roadmap for healing mind, body and spirit, which is the foundation for rebirth.
To say the least, this exemplifies the mission of the show and its community. Susan combined her extensive professional knowledge and deeply moving personal experiences in her five-time award-winning book, which is used by mental health practitioners and bereaved communities worldwide, titled A to Z Healing Toolbox: A Practical Guide for Navigating Grief and Trauma with Intention.
The book illumines an entire alphabet’s worth of proven practical techniques to accompany a person along his or her healing journey, guiding those who have experienced grief or trauma with an abundance of life-changing suggestions, powerful daily action steps, independent writing prompts and inspirational stories from others who have also experienced grief or trauma through personal crisis, illness or death. I’ll soon be asking Susan questions about her grief journey, healing book, and so much more.
Susan, a warm welcome to the show.
Irene, thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here with you.
I love it. We’re going to have a great time.
We are. I feel like I know you so well already.
I would like to jump through the screen and give you a hug. Maybe one day, though it won’t be through a screen. Let’s begin our interview with this question. Please tell us about your life, both before your husband’s accident and after the accident when you became a young widow and solo parent to your then five-year-old son Jacob.
Before, I was raised here in San Diego, where it’s a beautiful 70-something out here in the middle of winter. I studied Education in college. I went to school in Boston. I went back for a Master’s in Social Work and married an amazing guy who was an international business professor. His career took us to Hawaii, Canada, and Australia. Those were great travels, adventures and experiences. Our son, Jacob, was born in Australia. When our son was five, we were coming back to the US mainland to get resettled here.
For 25 years, before Brent died, I was an educator and a social worker, traveling, getting into the world of academia with my husband and then learning how to be a parent overseas. Those were fun but also challenging times. We came back to San Diego. We were here for a month when my husband went out for a drive and never returned. He was out for a drive in the local mountains and never showed up for dinner and breakfast. I had two weeks of missing in person. What do you do with that?
That’s where a lot of the trauma comes in, running, chasing and hiring private detectives, filing a missing person’s report. I’d always heard the stories of missing persons, and I could not understand the complexity and the trauma surrounding that until I was in that situation myself. Two weeks later, a knock came to the door. The medical examiner came, and the California Highway Patrol was called by a nature photographer who was down in this area of the mountains and saw a vehicle in the ravine.
Somehow, the vehicle had gone off the side. It was a very twisty turn-y road area and accidents have happened there often. That was my story. There was an accident. We found out what had happened. There’s a chasm right down the middle of the before the death and after the death. That was a two-week chasm of “What is happening here?” and then a huge crevice. I was sucked down into the black hole of, “What is this? Where do you begin at all to crawl out of this darkness?” That was the before.
After the accident, you were in the darkness.
I was in the darkness for what seemed like an eternity until, and I described this in the book, I realized, “I have a five-year-old. I’ve got to give him a childhood.” I was so focused on children as an educator, so I had such love for all kids in general, but I knew this child needed a parent, and I was the one. He needed a childhood, and I was the one who was going to give him that. That nudged me into, “I don’t care about myself anymore. I do care about this child.”
He’s the reason I got up and started social working our lives, which was, “I’ve been helping other people for 20 or 25 years, collect resources and help their lives get better or stronger in some way. I’ve got to do that for us and him.” That’s when I started crawling out a tiny step at a time and looking for resources in the community to help us heal. That’s what I’ve been doing, helping my son and myself heal, turning around, reaching a hand back and helping others who are in profound loss situations.
Let me ask you, Susan. What is post-traumatic growth? You talk about that a lot in your book. How is that different from PTSD?
I had always heard about PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress, PTS. We hear about that a lot because it’s related to the military. When veterans come back, a lot of them have severe post-traumatic stress from war. I didn’t realize that that could also apply to civilians who have been in traumatic loss or traumatic situations in general. I started reading because I was grabbing any resource I could.
I came across the theory of post-traumatic growth, which is the flip side of PTSD or PTS. PTG is Post-Traumatic Growth, and these are the growth areas that can come out of a traumatic experience. The research came out of the University of North Carolina. I started reading about these researchers who were working with groups of bereaved parents for a couple of decades. They were seeing that in this group of parents, there were five markers or growth areas that were coming around eventually. Not immediately because we’re still in the dark trying to figure things out. I call these growth areas, OASIS.
You experienced traumatic grief. What are the most common trauma reactions adults experience as opposed to grief reactions? You’ve got trauma reactions and grief reactions.
I like to think of grief and trauma in a Venn diagram. If we have a circle here and a circle here and we intersect them, there are reactions that have similarities. There are some overlapping reactions and then some different ones as well.
There may be members of our audience who are going to relate to what you’re saying, and they’re experiencing these things also.
I have them specified in the book because I didn’t realize I was traumatized. Nobody said to me, “This is trauma. Brent died, and you’re going to grieve his loss in his physical self.” I was having flashbacks, nightmares and night sweats. My nervous system had been derailed. In trauma, we can experience behavioral changes, social changes, physical changes and mental or emotional changes. There’s a whole plethora of these that I list in the book and on the website as well, so people can look at that and say, “I’m normal. These reactions don’t feel good, but it’s normal.”
The trauma reactions you said are also common grief reactions too. They’re the ones that overlap with each other.
Grief affects us. There’s not one ounce of me that remained the same, maybe things like what I like to do. I still like to exercise, but not mentally, emotionally, behaviorally, socially, and spiritually. People don’t even think about the spiritual side of things. You may start to question, “Where is my person? What do I believe about God or the universe or where we go when we die?” There are a lot of changes that can happen.
There are so many common grief reactions that may be different. Between you and I, maybe there are 55 common grief reactions, but maybe I have these 30, and you’re over here with these 22. If I’ve learned anything about grief and trauma, it’s that there are common reactions, but we all behave differently within that sphere.
I love what you had to say about grief brain. I can relate to that because I had a little bit of that too. Do you want to tell people about grief brain? That’s pretty common.
Grief is stress. It is in relation to how much we love our person. They’re not here physically anymore. That is stress. The hormone cortisol, that level rises and affects us physiologically. We may feel fuzzy. We may not be able to concentrate. We may forget things. That is what I call grief brain. Another reason why the experts say after a profound loss, “Don’t make any severe or major changes in the first year,” is because our brain has been changed. It takes a while for the hormone levels to regulate once again.
I remember after I lost my husband, after the car accident, a lot of people said to me, “Don’t make a decision this year.” It would’ve been helpful for them to say, “You’re going to have grief brain.” I didn’t quite understand why they were telling me. That was the concept.
I do want to say quickly too that sometimes we need to make decisions in that first year. We may need to move, get help and shift our life even more. In a perfect world, which we know we’re not in, we could all recognize, “Our brain functioning is not as high as it was. We’re a little bit loopy and it’s normal. It doesn’t feel great. If we could mellow out with everything else, that would probably help.”
It also points to my next question because this is what happened to me. You call it a posse. I call it a wagon train. When I lost my husband, I gathered a wagon train around me of certain people, and they performed different functions for me. They helped get me past the grief brain. If I couldn’t process something, I had someone I trusted who could help me with that.
You wisely gathered this posse of people to help you, which integrated the notion of interdependence into your life. I had to learn that too. It was a decision that dramatically helped you and your son. I love how you talk about the difference between the doers and the beers in your posse. Do you want to share that with us?
I’ll start by saying I didn’t have an enormous posse of people here. We had just moved back here. Although I grew up here, I was away for fifteen years. When I came back, I had my parents, thankfully, who were here and a few girlfriends. They couldn’t manage all of the things we needed. We needed therapy and healing in a million different ways. They could not manage all those things. I had to go out and gather the posse of healers, the therapists, the sand tray therapy group, all the different people, the acupuncturists, meditation specialists, exercise folks at the gym who were helping me and the nutritionist. All of those people had to be gathered.
In my inner circle of girlfriends and parents, I started realizing that not everybody could just sit in the pile, in the dark with me or in the tough times with me. They were better at doing things like making a meal and shuffling my son where he needed to be. I described this in the book. My thought press is very sequential and linear. I pictured a piece of paper in my head with three columns.
One said be, one said do and one said shelf. I started filing people into these columns, like the people who could be in sadness with me and give me a hug and support without doing anything. Then the people that had to do. My mother’s a perfect example of somebody who likes to do things to fix things. She was making our meals, taking my son to get a haircut and doing all the things.
There was a group of people that I couldn’t manage at all. We all have a lot of wonderful folks in our lives who give us more anxiety. They don’t mean to, but they do. I had a column for people I needed to put on the shelf. I picture a shelf. I had to set them on a shelf for now. I couldn’t do them. I couldn’t manage them. The shelf analogy is one that a lot of folks I work with love because we can take people off and on the shelf. Sometimes, they need to rest there so that we can rest.
I found the same thing. I call it detaching with love. Maybe they come back into my life at another time, but I don’t have any angst with them. Nothing, but it’s not working. We’re not in sync with each other now. We’ll just detach with love. I respectfully do that. Please, vice versa, do that for me. You had a peer mentor who was crucial to inviting you back into your life, which was a win-win for both. She got a lot out of it also. Would you like to share her with us and tell us about that?
I always love talking about Ruben. Some people say things happen accidentally. I do not believe that anymore. I was at the gym and exercise is always something I’ve done to feel better. It’s been a second home for me, the gym. I met my husband at the gym. It felt normal. When everything was not normal and Brent was missing, I was at the gym. What do you do when your life is in purgatory? You do the next thing. The next thing for me was to go work out because that’s normal.
I happened to meet a woman in this small group training class named Ruben. She happened to share with me that she was widowed with two young kids at home. I’ve never met anyone widowed with kids in my life and my husband’s missing. I happen to hear this story from her. No accident, I know. Two weeks later, I get this knock on my door. I realize, “I’m widowed with a child. Ruben.” I don’t know her last name but I know there’s a woman at the gym I need in my life.
I called the trainer and said, “This is what happened. I need Ruben’s number. I don’t know her last name but she’s the one I need.” Ten minutes later, Ruben is on the phone with me telling me that I’m going to survive and that she’s going to be there next to me. She was a total stranger. Ruben has dragged me to healing conferences and healing retreats. She dragged me out of bed and helped me with my son. We work out during the pandemic in my garage together. It was a home gym.
It was a win-win for her too in what way?
I wish she was here next to me to say but she’s four years ahead of me in this journey. Helping me helped her realize how far she had come and what a strong person she was becoming, raising her kids. It helped her get perspective on where she had been, how far she had come and what she had to give back.
You’ve got a heart-based business called A2Z Healing Toolbox. For the audience who are grieving, how does A2Z Healing Toolbox help them? How does it assist those who are grieving?
Before, after and during the pandemic, I have been running workshops. This is what the book looks like with my sticky tabs here. It’s all based on the curriculum in this fat book. This fat book has 26 different tools that help people heal grief and trauma in single small steps. I run workshops virtually and in person. I have been speaking to groups of bereaved parents.
I will do retreats from medical practitioners, giving them tools to give their patients. It’s a wide variety of things that I offer for people so that they can grab onto some practical tools for healing. There are 26 tools in the book so people can start anywhere. I talk about a variety of things that might ring true for anyone at any place in their journey.
There are 26 but do you want to highlight 2, 3 or 4 of them?
I’m so glad you asked that because right here, I have a straw. I talk about letter B, Breathwork, a lot, which is not something that I ever considered. When we are anxious for whatever reason or stressed out and that happens during grief and trauma but even if you’re stressed out because of a pandemic or a job situation, it’s an important thing to do to learn how to regulate our breath. A straw can help us do that. I teach something called straw breathing. If you want to grab a straw, I’ll show you how to do it.
All you do is inhale through the nose and exhale through the straw. When we exhale through this tiny tube, that is going to force our breath to slow down. My breath will be constricted when we blow out of this tiny hole. I’ll do it once to show people how it works. If you do this a few times in a row, you can feel your body automatically relaxing because you’re regulating your breath, which regulates your heart rate and the entire nervous system.
You’re going to inhale through the nose and you’ll repeat that a few times. When we are stressed out or anxious, we breathe high and tight. That’s how anxiety attacks happen. With straw breathing, you are forcing yourself to slow down your rate of breath. It slows down your heart rate and your entire nervous system can get under control. The breath is something we have with us all the time. Whether we’re using a straw, we’re in yoga class or we’re doing something else to regulate our breath work, letter B, I love because it’s breath work, which we have all the time.
Letter B would also work for a toddler having a tantrum, don’t you think?
I think so. This is a great tool for kids. I buy colorful straws and they’re recyclable. I’ve done this with adolescents who are having anxiety or stress about whatever’s happening in their life. You put this in your purse or backpack or behind your ear. Nobody needs to know. They could think you just got a drink at a store. I would do this in the car driving down the road. I have these all over the place.
Do you want to tell us about 1 or 2 others? I have another cool question for you.
Something I talk about a lot is Imagery, which is letter I. Imagery is harnessing the power of the mind for us to heal. I want to share a website, a book and a woman that helped change my life. Her name is Belleruth Naparstek. I love her name and I love her. She’s been a social worker and therapist forever. She’s the queen of guided imagery.
I came across this book called Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal. If you don’t want to dive into the whole book, you can visit her website, which is called HealthJourneys.com. She puts out guided imagery. For instance, guided imagery to ease the grief. One is on healing trauma. Here’s imagery on helping with anxiety and panic. All you do with these is listen. That’s all you have to do.
You don’t have to go out of your house. You just listen. Guided imagery helps. This is what I used over and over again. It’s the three stages of healing trauma. There are three CDs in here. This is the lovely Belleruth. She’s amazing. Her voice is very soothing. Imagery helps a lot. That’s not something I knew before this happened.
These two wonderful illustrations are 2 of 26 that you offer. Everyone should want to read your book that talks about each one of them. You also talk about in your book of healing with intention, educating through action and envisioning post-traumatic growth. Please define that for us.
Let’s start with the first one, intention. I was under the impression that grief would get better with time. Time heals. I’m sorry but I sat around and that did not help me. I knew I needed to put action and intention into my healing world, which is intentionally finding experiences, opportunities and individuals who might be able to help you on your journey. Taking action, not being passive but being assertive and proactive. I don’t want to be reactive. I want to be proactive in my healing.
People said to me, “What can I do?” I said, “Send me books on grief, healing and trauma healing. Send me books for children.” People want to help and they don’t know what to do. One thing people can do is send you information. That’s healing with intention and action, putting movement behind your healing. We can stay stuck in the trauma loop, the grief loop forever and ever.
My son loves cars. In our car, we have a rearview mirror. It’s big. Our windshield is huge. This windshield is where we’re going. Eighty percent of the time, that’s where we’re headed. Twenty percent is this rearview mirror. That’s how I tried to live. Twenty percent is what happened. Twenty percent of this interview is, “What was your other life?” The 80% is, “I’ve got a huge windshield here. I’m looking forward to see who’s up there, what’s out there and how we can all heal together.”
That’s envisioning post-traumatic growth because that’s where you’re going and heading.
That’s the growth and there are five pillars of growth. That is the OASIS. The growth period can come out of a traumatic experience. With OASIS, O stands for Opportunity. When I say these, you’re going to be thinking in your mind, “That’s true for me.” Look at this show you’re doing and the book you wrote. This was not our life before our husbands died. New opportunities can arise. That’s the O.
A stands for Appreciation. Often, people that have experienced a profound loss or trauma eventually have a new appreciation for the flowers, butterflies, friendships, community and the people that come into their lives. It’s a deeper appreciation for things. We’re on letter S, which is Strength. That’s inner strength. “I have lived and survived this hell. I can do anything. I can do a podcast and write a book. I can connect with all these people. I can be on radio shows. I can do the hard stuff, whatever that is.”
Letter I is Interpersonal relationships. We just met but I already feel like I know you and part of you. That is a strong strength area and growth area that can come out of a traumatic situation, where we develop interpersonal relationships that are strong with sometimes total strangers because we connect in another way.
The last letter S stands for Spirituality. That growth can come in a number of ways. It can come as a brand-new spirituality or a brand-new way to look at life. It can come in going deeper into one’s original spirituality or it can change altogether but there’s a spiritual awakening that happens most of the time. That’s something else that we can grab onto when we feel like, “How are we ever going to survive much less thrive?” We can look to those five pillars and start looking for areas of growth.
I’ve got my sticky tabs with OASIS. This is called The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook. These are the research that researchers came out of at UNC, University of North Carolina. There are pages in here so that you can start identifying your growth areas. If you are still in the dark, which we all are for much time, it’s okay. In this book, they give you some prompts to start thinking about ways of being.
It’s got the seeds of growth and rebirth because we tend to rebirth ourselves and recreate ourselves in a different frame than what worked for us before. Tell me about your workshops. Do you want to tell us a little more about your workshops? Some of our readers might want to partake in them. Are they all online?
I am doing workshops in conjunction with a virtual mental health platform, which is a new thing during 2020 and 2021. There’s an organization called Circles, CirclesUp.com. They have small group workshops run by therapists. It’s a wonderful way for anyone to access psychoeducational healing or be in a small group with other people who are moving through the same experience. I run workshops there for bereaved parents and the widowed community. I will open others up soon for other folks who are moving through other different healing journeys. That’s on the Circles platform. I do the occasional retreat. Back in October 2020, I did a retreat with Tom Zuba. I don’t know if you know him.
I read another book where he also provided an introduction. I haven’t met him personally yet but maybe one day for an episode.
Maybe we’ll have to get him on the show too. We did a joint online virtual retreat in October 2020. There’s the occasional retreat workshop. I do tons of work with Camp Widow and Soaring Spirits International. I’ve presented at Bereaved Parents of the USA. Some of the workshops are more informational, like this online and others are in retreat format. Others are with a virtual mental health collaboration.
Look what we went through, and what a blessing you are to so many people.
You’re welcome. You’re the programs and education manager for Starring Appearance International. It’s a nonprofit that helps Global Widowed Community. Tell us more about that. Is that widowed both men and women or it’s just mostly women?
It is every age, sexual orientation, religion or non-religion. If you are living with the death of the person you thought you were going to spend your life with, we see you as a widowed person. It could be your boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé, spouse or life partner. It doesn’t matter. We have programs that are there for everyone. We run Camp Widow three times a year in Tampa, San Diego and Toronto. These are three-day conferences at Marriott Hotel where 300 widowed people come together. You choose your workshops. We have a banquet dinner. It is like a professional conference for widowed people. It’s amazing.
We also have regional peer support groups all over North America so US, Canada and Ireland. These are widowed volunteers who run groups for peer support in their local community. For instance, here in San Diego, we have a group that has over 300 members. We meet twice a month for peer support. Maybe we’re at a coffee shop, taking a walk or virtually meeting during the pandemic. These are virtual groups that people can join. When we get back in person, they can join a group in their city. All of this information about our programs is on SoaringSpirits.org.
Susan, you, of all people in the universe, what is your crucial message about the importance of healing to share with this audience?
I believe we heal in the community, and we are all interconnected. My message would be to find your people. If someone is reading this and they don’t know where to begin, begin with someone or some organization. We’re all interconnected. Find a community. Maybe it starts with one person like Ruben taking me to Camp Widow. I’m around a bunch of widowed people.
Maybe it’s some of my friends who had a child die and they knew someone else who had a child die, and then that person introduces them to Helping Parents Heal, Bereaved Parents of the USA or The Compassionate Friends. There are nonprofits and all sorts of organizations that can help us with our healing. My message would be to find your community and people.
I’m going to give a plug for the show because you can find some of those people in your community through the show. We have many interviews with people from Helping Parents Heal and many other organizations. You could start to listen and contact these people. They’re all very happy that they’re part of this healing community. They’re all very happy to participate and help.
With that in mind, are there any other messages you have for people? What’s your overall website? What types of resources do you offer? We’re talking about the resources you offer to the bereaved community. If people, in general, are like, “I want to get ahold of Susan, find out about her workshops and learn more about her A2Z Healing Toolbox,” how do they find you?
My website is A2ZHealingToolbox.com. There’s information there for everyone. The book can be found on my website, Amazon or Barnes and Noble, anywhere you can buy a book. There’s an A2Z Healing Toolbox Facebook page. They can find me there. They can find my workshop on CirclesUp.com as well. I’d say the best bet would be to contact me through the website, and then I can guide them to directions, resources or practical tools that may help them.
Susan, what is your tip for finding joy in life?
For me, it is surrounding myself with people who are resilient, including people like you, Irene. It’s finding people that look how you want to be. If you see joy in them, go spend more time with them. If someone else is over here bringing you down, spend less time with them. Go toward the joy makers and the joy creators.
Susan, my heartfelt thanks to you. I mean it from my heart for this healing and insights-filled interview that is going to be so helpful to many in our audience. Thank you also for lighting the way for those who are journeying through their tremendously painful grief and trauma with both your A2Z Healing Toolbox and your powerful transformational guide to healing titled, A to Z Healing Toolbox: A Practical Guide for Navigating Grief and Trauma with Intention. Everybody, it truly is. Many in our audience surely want to get your book and personally connect with you. I’m so glad to bring you out to all these people. Thank you so much again.
It’s my pleasure and more to come. Here’s a loving reminder to everyone. Make sure to follow us and like us on social, @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings. Bye for now.
- Susan Hannifin-MacNab’s Website
- Susan Hannifin-MacNab’s Book: A to Z Healing Toolbox: A Practical Guide for Navigating Grief and Trauma with Intention
- Connect with Susan Hannifin-MacNab on Facebook
- Belleruth Naparstek’s Books: Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal and Health Journeys referenced in this episode
- Camp Widow
- Soaring Spirits International
- Helping Parents Heal
- Bereaved Parents of the USA
- The Compassionate Friends