Dealing with Grief During the Holiday Season

The holidays can be a hard time for anyone. But those who are dealing with grief have it just a little bit harder. Dr. Travis Johnson knows about this personally and professionally and provides valuable tips on how to navigate through it.

Dr. O:

Hey, Hey, Hey,
Welcome to the Black Marriage and Family Therapy Matters Podcast where we connect black families to black therapists. today. Our guest is Dr. Travis Johnson. Hi, Travis. How are you?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

I am here and doing well.

Dr. O:
That’s great. I’m so excited. Yay.

All right.

Dr. O:
Let me introduce you to our amazing guest. Travis Johnson is from Norwood North Carolina. He is a recent graduate of the Couple and Family Therapy doctorate program at Michigan State University. He received his Master’s of Arts degree in marriage and family therapy at Syracuse University. He received a Bachelors of Science in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Travis’s academic studies and work incorporates several concentrations, including the following couple of therapies, psychotherapy, counseling, psychology, chemistry, African American Studies, grief counseling, affirmative therapy for LGBTQ i a populations, Human Development and Family science. Currently, Travis is a fully licensed MIT in Michigan, a clinical director and assistant professor at Pfeiffer University. He is a dedicated member of the Delta Kappa fraternity. He is a previous executive board member of the American Association of marriage and family therapy, influenced by experiences abroad, various research experiences a social justice lens and clinical experiences. Travis is dedicated to building a career that incorporates contemporary counseling techniques, research in familial social policy advocacy. As an insight oriented therapist, Travis believes change starts with the individual and he pushes his clients to be inwardly focused. chavis brings a warm, optimistic perspective to every project he engages in. Amazing Travis.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Yes, I didn’t even realize you’re talking about me. I’m so used to living to think about the product.

Dr. O:
Travis your humility and sense of humor is always so warm to be around. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about this a little bit about why you kind of got into this work.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So I found my way into this work in what I think is such an odd way, I was working in college, at an assisted living place where I was actually working in the cafeteria, serving food cleaning tables and what started to happen over the years of working there is that I would be called upon to help resolve conflicts.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Okay.

So, you know, I don’t I think sometimes you have this impression that elder seniors can not be feisty. But where I was working, these seniors were fired up. And so anyway, save it often call on me to because I had a really good relationship with them to help, like resolve that conflict. And one day, it just hit me. You know, a call that Tim, this is what I needed to be doing. Wow, I need to make a career out of it. And so I dropped all of my chemistry class.

Dr. O:
Wow. Wow.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

And I switched to psychology.

Dr. O:
Wow.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

And it doesn’t stop there.

So that’s how the switch happened.¬† But after I finished college, I actually worked in a police station as a 911. operator. Okay.

Dr. O:

Okay, now that I did know that, just let me let me throw this in real quickly for our audience of the people that are going to be listening. Most of our guests, I don’t really know. And Travis is not one of those. Like, I’ll be transparent. Travis is one of my best friends from like, years ago. Yeah. So we got way back so you’ll probably hear a lot more laughs Yeah, so I don’t appreciate you never telling me about this assisted living facility because I didn’t know anything about that. Okay.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

You might just not remember like high school?

So it was

Dr. O:

Okay, but I do remember.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Do you remember that I used to drive back and forth from college all to all the way toour home town. Snd you were like “why are you driving back to work?” I was working at the time and I was also part of that band.

Dr. O:
Okay.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Yes, right. Yep. I was also one. So I would go, I would schedule Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes on on Monday and Wednesday nights.

Dr. O:

Yes. I was like, “Are you crazy? Why are you going home so much?”

Dr. Travis Johnson:

It was so crazy.

Dr. O:

No. Okay. Okay. Also,

you know, or I would do the opposite take Tuesday, Thursday classes. Okay, four day weekends, and

Dr. O:

Well good. Well, whatever it was. Because it got you into this. Sorry I was cutting you off. I do remember you doing the 911 operator. So why don’t you tell us a little bit more about that.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So I did that for about four years, I want to say and then I decided that I wanted to go back to school, I finished my chemistry degree. And I took an elective, okay, family study scores. And on my first day of class, I was like, This is exactly where I needed to be like, no one had ever swept me in the way that family study study. Yeah. And so I dropped chemistry courses again. And I, I took tons of family studies courses, and then it just sort of led to
Just hearing that story, Travis, is that people think that they have to have this in advance, but people people are so afraid to just jump out there. And and try things. And sometimes you try things and you realize, okay, well, this doesn’t work, or this doors closed or whatever. And we sometimes don’t we get so afraid to try that we don’t even we don’t do anything. I mean, if you what would have happened if you would have never taken that assistant living job. Or if you never would have taken that 911 job, you wouldn’t have found your way to this work.

Absolutely. And and what I’ve learned over the years is that it’s okay to have a person, it’s okay to do something new. I don’t ever want to be in a place where I’m like, stagnant or fearful doing anything. I just don’t think it does a search for Yeah,

Dr. O:

There are so many times we tell ourselves, well, I don’t want to put myself out there. But you forget. But if you don’t put yourself out there look at all the people that you need to be serving that you can’t serve.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Yeah.

What’s one thing that you wish black families knew in general about, about grief and loss? Because that’s really what I want our topic to be today about grief and loss during the holidays? What do you want them to know about it?

Dr. O:

I think that it’s important to know that grief is a part of our lived experiences, we will experience loss, and it’s okay to talk about it. And to embrace that as something that that is a part of life. I think that a lot of times what I’ve seen is that we get in spaces where we’re fearful of talking about things because we’re worried that it’s gonna make things worse, you know, and I just with grief, it doesn’t work that way. All those feelings that that are associated with it, the rage, the helplessness, the disparate, all those things are, like they need to be talked about, we don’t do well when we hold those things in. And more than any other group of people, like, we have so much resiliency. And in some ways, these are great. Sometimes so be one of our, you know, giving ourselves permission to, to deal with what,
I’m glad you said that Travis because, you know, we as black people, I mean, we’ve been through some stuff you know what I mean like, and we carry these things on generationally. And what happens, I think is that we think that because life is so hard and and because of the racism and the other variables that make our lives challenging. We don’t know we don’t give ourselves permission to feel. And we also do we also do that I think I’m just a little desperate moment my audience knows that I recently lost my dad. What they don’t know is that you lost both of your parents. And I know that it’s really sensitive. But how can people offer support in a healthy way? Because I find that in our best of intentions, and I think you even got more than this than I did when your parents died, but but the comments like, “Well, God doesn’t make any mistakes”, or “they’re in a better place.” I mean, how can we kind of damage people when we, when we say things like that, or do you think it’s damaging?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So I, I want to first say that I think the damage comes from when we’re, silent. You know, grief, doesn’t always show up in ways that you might expect. But it’s most of us, if we’re not already going grieving, we’ll be in a state of grief. And I think it’s so important to have that courage to talk about it more. As far as what I think could be harmful, when it comes to like different actions, invalidating each other, you know, minimizing that, that we’re feeling what we’re feeling. I think those sorts of things are harmful. And I think if you’re trying to find ways to talk about it, thinking about ways to encourage that person, to show them that you’re available for support, and that you’re willing to honor, whatever.

Dr. O:

So if I hear you correctly, you’re saying that being present and being available for what they need is the best way you can be supportive?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Absolutely.

Dr. O:

Well, yeah. And I think that’s great, because you mentioned silence. And I think the silence is typically for the person. Not the person who’s grieving, but the support, you know, they don’t want to hear it, I guess, because they feel helpless. Like, you know, when you lose a parent or something, there’s nothing a person, you know, they can’t bring the parent back. So I think there’s a tendency for people to just not want to talk about it. But what I’m hearing you say is that, no, it’s better to talk about I can identify like, I love talking about, you know, my dad, I love opportunities, especially people who knew him and people who knew me and knew, you know, whatever. I mean, these are things we want to talk about. And it sounds like you’re saying that, that to be supportive. People do need to offer opportunities to talk about it.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Absolutely, absolutely. So in talking about it you want to avoid things like “just move on.”

Dr. O:

Yes. Yeah.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

And I also think so I think there are tons of spiritual references that can be really helpful for orienting ourselves as we create. I don’t think that is helpful to suggest that it is a part of God’s plan or God’s purpose. regardless of if it’s true or not. Always sense and that person from talking about their experiences, and just sort of writing that in mind. I think one of the things you can do is show people love in the way that you would want you know, when we’re hurting, the last thing you want to do is to tell you that forget about it or move on. Most of time you want to talk about going

Dr. O:

Wow, um. So what advice would you give someone who is going into this holiday season for the first time without a loved one?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So there is a verse that I really love Isaiah 41:10 and the King James version of Bible is fear thou not

Dr. O:

Okay. I can’t wait to hear this verse.

You want me to google it real quickly and read it for you?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Well, let me try it. Let me try it first. I got one my eyes closed. I want to get this right. Okay. “Fear thou not for I am with thee. And be not dismayed. I am your guide and I will I will strengthen thee. I will help you. I will uphold you with with the right hand of my righteousness”

Ah,

oh, that verse right there. Okay, I think it’s Isaiah 41:10. But that verse right there? Yes, it will get you through some things.

Dr. O:

Wow.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Yes. So that’s one of the things that I, I, I think is helpful to say to yourself, I also think that it’s appropriate to honor your grieving process. So if you need something, allow yourself to need it. Don’t push yourself to do more than what you’re able to do. You know, think about what you need to comfort yourself. Now, for me, I like to, I’m kind of like a ritualistic person. So I like my customs. I like, I like celebrating birthdays. I like being around my identify me for like holidays and things like that. So part of our grieving process is to allow myself to do those instead of sight. Sounds good. But but but, you know, everyone has their own process. So, wherever your process takes you, I think this is okay.

Dr. O:

Okay, Travis, cuz I’m the exact opposite. I don’t really want to be around people, you know, and sometimes I feel pressure, you know, to meet other people’s expectations. Um, so is it? I mean, is it okay, if you’re not naturally like that to kind of withdraw and not go to the family? You know, holiday party if you don’t want to?

Yeah.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So we haven’t really talked about all the stages of grief, but isolation, especially in the early stages of grief. It happens, like, it sometimes is the body’s natural way or natural response. If it’s a continuous, it can make grief worse, too. So it is important to stay connected in ways that are really mean. Yeah. But but it’s complex, you know, if you’re not bored, I think that’s okay, too. But just being mindful of if it’s because of this pattern of isolation. Yeah, this, you know, for your audience, for all of us is important to note that you will feel a complex emotion that can change rapidly. And so it’s okay if, if you’re not able to stay connected to people if you want to sort of take time for yourself. self care. Look, Before we continue, I
have some more questions I want to ask you, but I just want to clarify and get your feedback on this as well. When we think of grief, especially when we think about the holidays, a lot of us think about the loss of a family member per se, but we don’t think about that grief can come in other areas, like some people, you know, might have lost a career and now they’re not allowed to go to the, you know, the holiday Christmas party anymore. Or, you know, heaven forbid someone I mean, this is a family member. But you know, if you had like a miscarriage, okay, or even an abortion, even if it was a choice doesn’t mean that you won’t grieve the loss of that, or heaven forbid infertility, which I’ve spoken about many struggling with, you’re grieving the loss of a family member that you want to be there that’s never even, you know, been brought into the picture or divorce, you know, maybe the person’s still alive, but you’re no longer a family and the capacity that you used to be or your kids graduating and leaving the home. You know, grief can look like so many different things. And the holiday reminds us of that, heaven forbid, if you’re single, and you’re 30 you know, and you don’t have a partner, everybody’s going to be asking you Well, when you get married, when you haven’t children, you know, things like that. And that’s Greek, whether it is something that you chose, or if it’s something that you want, and it still hasn’t happened, you still grieve those processes.

Dr. O:

Absolutely. So when anytime you experienced a loss, you can experience a grieving kind of response to it. And yet loss can come in a lot of different ways. So I, I think that it can show up in as far as how the loss might affect who you are, what you’re going through who you are like it can affect your emotions. It can affect your memory, your ability to multitask, it can affect organization can disturb sleep, loss of appetite, anxiety, and all of these things can be in responses to even minor losses, or significant transitions.

Dr. O:

Yeah. So are there any resources that you can think of off the top of your head that you could share with people who might be grieving this holiday season?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So, a lot of times we talk about the stages of grief. And the Kubler Ross model for grief is the cycle that I adhere to in my practice, and also in how I think about it. And so I think that can be a really nice resource. There’s also tons of books and podcast like this one. Yeah. Like what we’re doing today, they can be really helpful in trying to orient how to like, think about grief, how to deal with it, how to support other

Dr. O:

What about, what about myths? Are there any myths that you want to kind of like, debunk real quickly about grief?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Let me see.

So I think the idea that grief happens in a linear cycle. So the idea that, so with the stages of grief, we talk about you feel like denial and anger in the beginning, and then it moves towards acceptance. And so I think there’s sometimes this idea that, once you’ve moved past the denial or anger stage, think should be done with it. And usually, it doesn’t work that way, like you might be what made your way into the bargaining or acceptance stage, and it’s something happens and pulls you back to one of those previous stages. You know, with my own experience, I was I lost both my parents. I lost my mom in 2016. And my dad 11 months afterwards, in 2017, January, and yes, in my PhD program,

Dr. O:

I remember that was that was hard to watch you go through Travis.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Oh, it was, it was unbelievable, to sort of be working on such an important milestone. And then, like, two of your pillars of support, it’s just and I remember going through that experience, also being a therapist doing clinical work, and you think that you’re good. And then a comment happens, or you see some my triggers, we’re seeing more children. And, and that, you know, it pulls you back into some of those other pieces of like bargaining or anger or denial, even if you have done some of the grief work. And so I want to deep bunk that myth, that grief processing you can just get through Yeah.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Well, that no, that was that was a very good. Others, I love to share, I love you to share it, but I think I just really want to keep in on this one as well. Because, you know, people, I think we do think that things are just final. And, you know, it’s like an ongoing linear process. And, you know, well, I just want to echo what you’re saying, I think is true. Do you have other ones? Or should I continue?

Dr. O:

Well, they let me go throw this in there. Cuz when you started talking about your parents¬† being your pillar of support. I mean, they were the pillar of everybody’s support. You know, you all had about a, you have eight older siblings, correct. And then so so how many grandchildren?

Dr. O:

Do you even know?

Too many? over 80 and yeah, if you mix so they have grand and great grand. Yes. And it’s still growing. I’m just, I just found out that I had two nieces and nephews yet better, hard two great neices and nephews that I didn’t even know about.

Still going to get up.

Dr. O:

But, but I just want to remind you This story real quickly, and it was when we were in high school. And my situation was it wasn’t as good. But we were supposed to go together to UNC Chapel Hill. And we were doing the tour and Travis and I were the only black people who were invited. And I was supposedly responsible for getting this there. And I could not. Oh, no, do you remember this? And, yeah, and we called your dad and I don’t know if I was like, Really? I think I was like, I don’t I think I was embarrassed. I think I was ashamed. But, you know, we both went to UNC. And it was really big deal. And I just felt like I have let us down so bad. And I just remember asking and telling you, and I guess you’re the one who asked your dad. And your dad was like, “Well, I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to find him. But we can try.” And so we were at UNC, and he couldn’t take us all the way through. So mom, we had to try to get on the bus. And we found them. I don’t want to tell you the specific location but the bus had pulled over at a McDonald’s. You don’t remember any of this, Travis? You

Dr. Travis Johnson:

I do remember it, oh my gosh. So in my head he had drove us that’s such a my dad. You couldn’t drive us the rest of the 50 minutes? Trying to save that gas.

Dr. O:

It’s funny, you thought like that? I saw it like, Oh my god, what an amazing person to just drop everything he’s doing to to make something happen. That that we couldn’t do on our own. You know, we didn’t have Uber back in that day. So you know, so I was very grateful in both of your parents have always just been really, really good people.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Yes, I feel like I didn’t get to know them until I knew them. But I knew them even fuller when people share stories. Like the most amazing stories of some of the things. Yeah, I was like, Oh my gosh, like, so there’s this whole other layer of like loss in hearing people like share how much they prize in my peers. Yeah, they really yeah, to the community. Um, my dad was a pastor, and my mom was a first lady and also a deaconess. And so they both were really like, rooted, and in the communities that they were part of that we were part of, that did not know that fully into, like, even now I’m still learning about.

Dr. O:

Well, great. Thank you so much, Travis, for sharing that. with us. We’re gonna transition now to a point in the show that’s called what’s good. And what’s good is where, yeah, this is a part where we provide a hypothetical situation. And that could be relevant to our listeners, and we asked you to provide your feedback. So are you ready?
It’s gonna be nice to

Dr. O:

Meet Sasha.Sasha lost her only child last year due to a brain tumor. She can barely manage to deal with her birthday in private, let alone see all the Christmas photos of other people andyour children on social media. How would you advise her to spend her time over the holiday season?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Okay, so Sasha, I think that is absolutely important to recognize that she is having like she’s grieving. So I think she could plan an activity to honor that grief. And maybe, I don’t know, like, it could be really too much to do like a memory book. But something that some sort of ritual that honors her relationship with, with that child,

Dr. O:

Good. Awesome. Can you can you tell us what it is just in case somebody would like to do this.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

So a memory book is, so it’s subjective, but it’s how I think about it is you taking pictures or you’re trying to make art or something that acknowledges like a really important time in your relationship with that person. So a memory book can include like real pictures or art that you create Let’s see an example of it could be like, for me, if I was doing my own memory book, I would want to tell my age, but I may be great. And I would do something like K through five. And that would be like, one chapter of the book. And then I would try to pick out like really important things that happen during that stage of my life that related to my parents. Love it.

Dr. O:

Love it.
Love it.

I’ll try this. We’re coming to the conclusion of every of this show. You have been I know you’ve been such a wealth of knowledge and information for us. Before I go, I don’t know if you I know you do like a lot of things. But if you wanted our listeners to find you online, how could they connect with you?

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Okay, well, you can connect with by.

Dr. O:

Okay, okay. Okay,

Dr. Travis Johnson:

Email me. I have an Instagram but yeah, okay, I’m not good at using it. You can email me at Travis.Johnson. Oops, sorry. Let me say this right. Travisjohnsonlmft@gmail.com. l as in Larry M as in Mary @gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter.

Okay, very good. Hope

You can find me on Psychology Today. And you can run and tell that!

Dr. O:

Travis, thank you so much.

Dr. O:

It was a wonderful interview. I honored that you joined the show today and I wish you an amazing holiday season. Thank you so much.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

All right. You take care so much.

Dr. O:

It’s been an honor.

Dr. O:

All right. Bye bye.

Dr. Travis Johnson:

You too. Bye.

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