2 logs for the fire…Processing death & dying…part 2

In the first part of this post, I mentioned that I had been thinking about death and dying because recently a cousin and uncle had died. I related a story about how one community uses a ritual of taking two turns to go around and talk about how the departed had hurt them and then how his/her life enhanced their own.

darknessUsing visuals to explain the unexplainable

Carefully chosen images (photographs and paintings) help people to take the unexplainable, such as death and their feelings around it, and start the process of expressing what they are experiencing.

Visuals are akin to our brains in the sense that we do not experience feelings/emotions in a linear fashion. There is a randomness to how we process information/feelings where a variety of thoughts/input, which are sometimes at odds, bounce around until such time as we can articulate them. Images mimic this process, because there are no concrete words attached to them and only the person viewing them can give meaning to the images they have selected out of the millions/billions of possible interpretations.

Images start the process of taking a multitude of hard to describe thoughts/feelings and make them more concrete by virtue of a person selecting them and laying them out before them. The images become a bridge between the subconscious/unexplainable and the conscious and articulated.

Celebrating a life

While death is sad and the grief surrounding it can be painfully raw, I prefer to see it as an opportunity to celebrate the life of a person, to make amends and to speak truths in a compassionate way. The telling of stories can create a three dimensional portrait of a life and offers the tellers a way to work out their loss in a way which can be comforting and transformative.

I realize there can be times when people do not want to celebrate a life because the deceased may have caused extensive harm to those around him or her. The telling of stories can still be a blessing to those who remain because of the potential healing they can offer.

connected heartsA gift for the dying (and those around)

I can think of no greater gift to give someone who is approaching death’s door than to share with that person how friends and family feel about them. It is an act of love to come together and tell the loved one how their life affected those she or he touched.

Asking those who want to be part of the process a question such as ‘What does ___ ‘s life mean to you?’ or ‘How has ___ ‘s affected you?’ or ‘How will you remember _____?’ can unleash a series of powerful stories about the person. Using images with the process can help people to get in touch with their deepest feelings and gives the dying person something to see and hold onto.

After someone dies

When death has already occurred, there is an opportunity to help people make sense of what has transpired. There is a need for closure and understanding how to move on. Again stories are a great way to help people honor the departed and give voice to their loss.

Adding visuals to the process can help people put into words what they are feeling, because they start the process of making the unexplainable concrete and contribute depth to the stories. The simple act of manipulating the pictures with their hands also adds concreteness to the process, which can be beneficial in helping create a bridge between the known and unknowable.

Honoring a life

Do you have special ways or rituals to honor the death of a loved one? Does your family, community or culture have prescribed ways of acknowledging death? What are they?


2 logs for the fire…Processing death & dying

I’ve been thinking about death lately. Within the space of two weeks an uncle and cousin of mine have died. This has raised the question for me of how would I help people process the loss of their loved ones either during the final days of life or after death has occurred?

fire2 logs for the fire

There is a tribe that has a special ritual for when a person dies. At night they build a fire and gather the community around it. Each person brings two logs to the ceremony. They will all take a turn going around the circle to talk about the deceased.

The first round of talking is devoted to saying everything about the person that they did not like or how the person hurt them. When they finish talking, the speaker throws a log on the fire. The second round is devoted to telling all the good things about the person who passed. What that person meant to them and how he/she impacted their life. When they are finished, the speaker throws the second log on the fire.

Most of us are neither complete saints nor complete sinners. We reside somewhere in the middle having lived lives where we have both hurt and helped others. In the story above, the intention is to create a true picture of the deceased. Not one where the person was either completely wonderful or completely bad. A balanced accounting. This allows people to air their hurts and acknowledge their love and respect, which makes it easier for them to grieve and accept the loss of the departed.

What is death/dying?

In my mind, there are two parts to death. There is the person and how his/her life impacted those around them. And then there is death itself. What is it? What happens when we die? Is that it, or is there something more?

These questions are answered in various ways through religion, spiritual practices and personal belief systems. Even if someone believes in a specific religious or spiritual explanation, there could be infinite variations on these beliefs when it gets down to the level of personal interpretation.

What this all adds up to for me is that death is not only unknowable but also inexplicable. There are no words in any language that can fully explain it. And so to help process death, whether it is impending or already occurred, I would want to help people put into words what the person’s life means to the loved ones and to help them understand death in whatever way makes sense to them.

What’s next

In part 2 I’m going to talk about a way of giving a gift to the departing or to those who remain that can be healing for everyone involved.

What do you think?

What happens when we die? Is it OK to say things about the departed that may not be flattering?


Using images to get past the small talk

Are you looking for a way to help you get past the small talk stage and to what matters most to your clients? A method that is fast, fun and doesn’t feel invasive?

It’s the get-to-know-you phase, which is sometimes referred to as doing an assessment or intake. Your new client is telling you about her life and goals. He may be running down his list of accomplishments to give you an overview of where he’s been so that you have a better understanding of his desired next steps. All of this is important information.

But at some point, you’re going to want to dig in a little deeper. Your client has told these same stories over and over to many different people but if that were all it took to figure things out he/she wouldn’t need you.

Digging without prying

People are most receptive to divulging more personal information about themselves when they feel someone isn’t prying or trying to get them to say things they don’t want to say. It is the art of asking that helps people share the things that you need to know to help them along their path. And using visuals can help you accomplish this without your client feeling pushed.

Be the Sherpa

Sherpas are the rugged guides that help mountain climbers scale the peaks of some of the world’s largest mountains. They carry huge loads, make camp, cook, and get injured climbers to safety. They are often the unsung heroes but without them there would be no glory for the climbers.

You as a coach, counselor or therapist are very much like the Sherpa. You act as guide and help people carry the load until they are ready to solo. You provide the base from which your clients attain new heights.

Help them to visualize the path and know the terrain

Here’s a method to get you past the small talk and into the juicy stuff that will help you to meet your clients’ goals. There are 2 steps you need to take to prepare for the process. The first is selecting a good question to ask the client and the second is to select a group of images that will help leap the conversation forward.

What do you have to make the climb?

The question you ask is one of the keys to knowing your client. In a sense you are asking them to unpack all of their climbing equipment and spread it out on the ground so that you both can see what they have brought to the task. Are they missing anything? Do they have an abundance of something they can utilize to make the trek more fulfilling? Does their compass match up with the route they said they want to take?

The question should be broad enough so that people have a number of directions they can take. Give them the freedom to express themselves fully.

Try these questions:

  • What matters most to you?
  • What has the most importance in your life?

Didn’t I already cover this?

You may be asking yourself if these questions are redundant. You most likely got some answers to these in your initial conversation. The beauty of using visuals is that they will take your client far deeper than words alone. Your client is going to add more to what they have already told you by divulging things like some of their core beliefs, values and dreams.

Getting to know the trails

The other important part to this process is choosing the best set of images for the desired outcome. If you are using the ImageCenter, try either the Visioning or Exploring Passion image decks. The printed VisualsSpeak image products could also be used.

When your clients do this exercise they are setting out on an explorative journey. There are many paths that they can take. The combination of the right question and the images will help reveal the information you and they need to choose the right ones.

Listening deeply

Tell your client the question you want him/her to explore. Have them choose images, which relate to the question. Tell them to not over-think the images they are selecting. Five minutes is plenty of time to do the exercise.

When the client is done arranging the pictures, have them tell you the story of the images. Listen deeply for anything they didn’t tell you before. Did you hear any core values mentioned? Are these values in sync with their stated goals? What are the beliefs they have about themselves and their goals? These are the kinds of things you want to pay attention to as your client speaks.

How do you help people past the small talk?

Have any suggestions for helping people get past the small talk? Share them in the comments section below.



Your client is overwhelmed…What do you do?


We’ve all had the experience of feeling overwhelmed. It’s not a pleasant state to be in. There are a million things to do, but we can’t seem to be able to pick one and get it done.

Watching a client go through this is frustrating. He may sit there quietly not being able to describe what is going on at all. Or she may be talking so rapidly that the sentences run together in an ever increasing blur, which only increases the overwhelm.

There are different approaches to dealing with a client in this situation. Using visuals can help people quickly get past the overwhelmed stage and back on track. Let’s talk about just one approach so that we don’t get, err, overwhelmed with ideas.

Before we begin to talk about the method, there is something you can do to help your client get centered right now.

Just Breathe

Breaking News…Humans need to breathe! Yes it’s true, people need to breathe. What is also true is that by having your client take a few slow and deliberate breaths will help them begin to calm down. This is a good first step and helps prepare them for seeing things in a new light.

Start at the End

A good way to help people get past feeling overwhelmed is to direct their attention to a more hopeful scenario. Think of it as a process for creating the magical fairy tale of their life. You can accomplish a few things with this approach.

  1. Distract them from their current situation
  2. Get them thinking about the bigger picture
  3. Incentivize them to work through what is bogging them down
Finding Center

Once upon a time…

Now that your client is taking some calming breaths, you’re going to set up an exercise using visuals to help them see past their current chaotic state. If you are a VizPeeps member try using either the Exploring My Options or Exploring Passion image deck. If you don’t own any VisualsSpeak image decks, you’ll have to rely on whatever you have on hand.

Next, you’ll need to choose a prompt that gets your client to think in terms of their ideal future scenario. Try these or create variations of them:

  • What would your ideal life look like?
  • If you had no other concerns, what would a perfect life look like?

Tell your client the prompt and give them five minutes to choose and arrange their images.

Listen closely as I tell you my story

Have your client describe to you the story they created around the prompt and images they chose. You need to listen closely for the key points and any of your client’s core values that arise from this conversation. These are going to be the clues you’ll need to get them out of feeling overwhelmed.

Go back to the beginning

The images will work their magic in helping your client see a better future. This is the part of the process where you get the opportunity to work your magic in helping them break down the steps they need to take to get past feeling overwhelmed and heading towards their ideal future.

How do you help your clients get past feeling overwhelmed?

I would love to hear your ideas on how you help people get through these difficult situations. Please share them in the comments section. Thanks