1. Why did you write You Are Not Alone?
My husband Jim died suddenly, in my arms, from a heart attack, when I was thirty-six years old. I have experienced a lot of loss in my life, but nothing prepared me for losing him. I was devastated and felt broken. I survived thanks to the constant support of family and friends, and my therapist, who was crucial to my healing. I became a therapist because I wanted to help others like she helped me.
I wrote You Are Not Alone, A Heartfelt Guide to Grief, Healing, and Hope so I can help more people than I can one-on-one in my therapy practice. This is the book I wish I’d had when I was newly grieving and feeling hopeless. My story, coupled with my professional experience and training, offers healing insights to help guide the reader, and those who want to help, through grief and healing, along with simple suggestions of things to do that can be helpful along the way. I want to instill hope at a time when there may be none.
I share my story because it helps grievers to know they are not alone in how they are feeling. Many of the experiences and feelings from my personal story are similar to the ones I’ve heard repeatedly from my clients and many others who are grieving. It helps to hear other people’s stories and how they coped and survived. It gives the hope that they will survive too. When my husband died, I couldn’t find a book to speak to the part of me that needed to know someone else had felt this way and had survived. I wanted to read a book by someone who “got” what was happening to me. And I get it. You Are Not Aloneis about hope. With the connection of a shared experience, I gently guide the reader through grief to transformation and a new beginning.
2. What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of working with clients who are grieving?
No one is born knowing how to cope with the wave of grief that follows the death of someone we love. As a psychotherapist who has worked with many grievers, I know that when faced with overwhelming grief, many people feel like they are alone in what they’re experiencing and can feel like they’re going crazy. The death of someone we love shatters us, yet in our grief-phobic society, we don’t often talk about death until our own world breaks apart with the loss of someone we love.
People often feel hopeless and believe they will never feel better again. In the beginning, the most helpful thing I can do is hold the space with them. A space where they can cry and rage and know they are safe in doing so. And in the beginning many of us are inconsolable. It takes time to learn how to cope, to heal, and to hope again. You can see the sense of relief wash over someone when they realize they aren’t alone in their experience, that their feelings are a natural response to loss.
3. You talk about a concept called “forever love”, what does that mean?
Forever love is the continuing bond of love. The love we share with someone never dies. We carry that love in our heart always. And our loved ones who have passed often offer us signs to let us know that they are okay and are still with us energetically. The law of conservation states energy continues always—it can’t be created or destroyed, it just transforms from one form to another. When we are open to signs, the experience can be incredibly comforting.
There are many ways signs can come. Through dreams, songs, scents, finding something special in odd places. And in nature.In my book I share my own experiences of signs because it’s so important to “normalize” this common occurrence. Beginning to heal and adjust to your new life doesn’t mean having to let go of the person you love.
4. How do you help people find gifts in their grief without invalidating their pain?
If you’re grieving that means you’ve loved and have been loved. Queen Elizabeth said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And being with Jim, sharing the love we had for each other—it was the biggest gift of my life. But when we’re in the thick fog of grief we can’t imagine any gift ever coming from our loss. I’d heard about people overcoming huge obstacles and calling them gifts, but never really “got it” until a few years after Jim’s death.
Discovering the gifts of loss is something that comes with time, as we heal. Gifts of growth. Gratitude. Compassion. Wisdom. Resilience. An ability and desire to help others through similar experiences. By helping others to heal, we help heal ourselves. If you’ve gone through grief, you can help others through their own struggle. You can be a ray of light for someone who can only see darkness. They might think, “Look what she’s been through and she’s okay. Maybe that means one day I will be, too.”
The gifts of loss don’t invalidate pain—for many people, including me, the pain doesn’t go away, but you do learn how to live with it. We seek to make meaning out of loss and often our great pain can become a catalyst for change. Everything from starting charities, to parents who have lost children and gone to Washington to change legislation, to volunteering to help those in need, and so much more. Look at what’s happening with the teenagers from Parkland. So much good coming out of so much pain. All of it shapes who we become.
5. What do you mean by grief is not a linear process?
Most of us are familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these stages, or phases as I like to call them, are helpful terms to describe reactions we may experience, grief doesn’t follow an orderly progression. There is no timetable. We all grieve in our own way, in our own time.
I went back and forth through these phases for years. At times you may feel like you’re in all the phases at once, bouncing from one phase to another in a minute, an hour, or a day. You may feel like you’re progressing and feeling better, and then one small event or memory can tear the thin membrane growing over the wound in your heart and you feel like you’re back at the beginning.
6. What’s important to know for someone who’s really hurting because someone close to them died?
We all grieve in our own way. Grief is not linear. Take all the time you need. It’s okay to cry, to be angry, to have the myriad emotions that come with loss and grief.
Let people help you. Surround yourself with those who will listen and be supportive.
It’s okay to be a griever.It’s okay to not be okay. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself.
It’s not about you, it’s about them.People will often do or say inappropriate or hurtful things. It’s because they don’t know what to say and/or are uncomfortable with grief. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Be open to signs. Let small miracles help guide and comfort you as you adjust to a new reality.
The importance of rituals.Rituals offer comfort and a path to healing. They are a way of honoring and connecting with your loved ones who have passed. Find whatever helps you to feel connected. The continuing bond of love does not end.
About Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC
Debbie is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she has specialized in trauma, grief, and loss. Her husband, Jim, died suddenly in her arms when she was only 36 years old. He had been healthy and vibrant – the doctors compared the probability of his death by heart attack to being struck by lightning. That lightning strike ended her life as she knew it and thus began the “baptism by fire” that brought her to her new future.
Debbie’s book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope (May 2018), is the book she wishes she’d had when she was grieving, and wishes she had now to offer clients experiencing life-altering losses. With the connection of a shared experience, Debbie guides the reader through grief to transformation and a new beginning.
Debbie has as Master’s Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. She has completed a two year post graduate Advanced Trauma Studies program from the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy and is trained in various modalities that inform a holistically based practice including EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Energy Psychology, and Hypnosis. In 2012 she received the NYU Steinhardt Award for Outstanding Clinical Service.