S4 E11: Josh Ulrich on Grief and Loss

Released December 7, 2021

How we deal with loss, whether it be the loss of a job or a loved one, can look many different ways. Josh Ulrich, Virtual Therapist for Meadows Behavioral Healthcare’s MBH Connect, says that whether you cry or don’t, get mad or don’t, as long you feel it or grieve as you live, then it’s perfectly fine. But what happens when we don’t feel it and we don’t address what we are feeling? 

Podcast Transcript

If you have a friend or family member that has lost someone and you wonder what to do, because you’re like, I don’t know what to do. They lost their brother. They lost their whatever. Listen: That’s all you do. Just let him know you’re going to listen and not be judgmental. You’re not going to try and cheer them up. You’re not going to try and change the subject. You’re not going to try and give them some weird, you know, statement or, you know, “they’re in a better place.” Just listen.

Welcome to Beyond Theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare that brings you in-depth conversations with firsthand insights from the front lines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m Dominic Lawson.

How we deal with loss, whether it be the loss of a job or a loved one, can look many different ways. Josh Ulrich, virtual therapist for Meadows Behavioral Healthcare, says that whether you cry or don’t, get mad or don’t, as long you feel it or grieve as you live, then it’s perfectly fine. But what happens when we don’t feel it and we don’t address what we are feeling? 

Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go Beyond Theory.

Dominic Lawson: I wanted to ask you about week six, grief and loss. You talked about earlier about your experience in working with family members who are dealing with grief and loss. Kind of talk about that part because I know a lot of people, especially with everything going on, are having those types of conversations. Kind of talk about that week six a little bit more, if you don’t mind, in depth.

Josh Ulrich: Yeah. For week six, grief and loss, it’s not just death. I know you asked me about actually the time that people died.

Dominic Lawson: Right.

Josh Ulrich: We lose everything. If we lose a house, we lose a car. Sobriety, you lose your drug. You lose your old habits. We all grieve in loss. If anyone wants to go on YouTube, look up the Robot Chicken giraffe. It’s really hysterical. Giraffe who gets exposed in a quicksand and he goes through the whole five stages of grief before it hits the bottom.

All right, so the stage of grief are, you have denial. which is, “they’re not dead. It didn’t happen.” You’re bargaining. Which is, “if I only I was there. If only didn’t go out that night. If only they took a vaccine.” You have anger, which is anger, and then we have depression. The depression and sadness. Those four things you have to feel, you have to go through. And finally you get to number five, which is acceptance, after accepting that they are dead. If you don’t go through all four, you’ll never go to acceptance. The keys are actually through all four. You go through, you can flip flop between those throughout the day, throughout the week, but eventually get to acceptance. One of the things we talk about both in hospice and here at Meadows is you have to refer to the person as dead, has to be that acceptance.

They are dead, okay? They’re not “passed on.” They’re not “in the better place.” They’re not just, classic, “a farm upstate.” They are dead. Once you get that in your verbiage, you’re talking about their death, then it’s the process that takes a good year. And the reason it takes years, you need to go to a full calendar year to go through all the major holidays, anniversary of their death, their birthday, anniversary if it’s a marriage. You need to experience all the calendar year before you can really get through grief. One of the things I like about week six but also extending to grief therapy is most of the time, when someone experienced a death, their emotions are a roller coaster.

They’re crying, they’re happy, they see things, they feel things, and you feel you’re going nuts. You feel your world is completely crumbled because it has. You’re on a single path. By the way, I’m condensing my whole summary of grief to like two minutes here.

Dominic Lawson: Got it.

Josh Ulrich: You’re on the single path and the path has changed. You’re going down the road. Your dad died. Now you’re on a different road because your life doesn’t have your father in it or your mother, or your sister, or whoever. And your life has changed. It just can’t be the same that it was yesterday when they were alive. It changed. You have to accept you’re on a new path.

Going to the calendar year, you accept that and go to grief therapy like week six or a grief group. You talk to others who experienced the same emotions since we’re only validating and listening because you need to tell stories about the person that died. You tell the good stories and a bad story. You need to feel that, the anger that you have. The anger could be at God. The anger could be at the other driver. The anger could be at yourself. It’s normal. The sadness and the feeling you can’t move on is normal. The feeling crazy and you can’t remember where you put something is normal.

The whole point is you need to realize you’re not going insane. Everything you’re feeling is normal. And the more people around you are having the same thoughts and feelings, you go, like, “wow, it is normal. The therapist says it’s okay to feel this way.” Wow, and I tell my stories. I talked about a loved one who died. Wow. I feel better cause I’m not stuffing it. I can cry and no one judges me. I could yell if I need to. No one judges me. I can laugh, even though they are dead and you’re supposed to be mourning, and no one judges me. The grief therapy really helps, and in the outside world usually about six to eight sessions they also might need to kind of get through their life. Not that they don’t miss their person that died, but they can actually function. They can get dressed. They can get out. They can go to work. They can do their daily life.

I also like to say that death is a hole in the heart and your grieving loss becomes a scar. It never goes away, but it will heal over time if you actually process it. If you stuff it, you don’t talk about the person that died — I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to think about it. No one cries. I can’t cry. I don’t want to feel anything. I don’t want to feel pain. I’m going to numb with drugs, numb with alcohol — then it will never process it. Then it will be a hole. A hole never heals. You have to feel those emotions. Going back to telling the stories. One of the most important things when you lose someone is tell the good stories and the bad stories. We tend to either put people on pedestals or we make them demons.

The pedestals make them God-like. Like your father was the greatest man in the world. He’s the greatest guy in the world. There is nothing wrong. He was always there, and I’m like, “Did he ever fart? Did he ever belch? Did he ever scratch his butt?” Oh yeah, we’ve got to make him human. We make him human, he’s real, and it hurts. Or the boyfriend that cheated on you. He’s horrible. He’s a demon. Then why did you date him? Why were you with him? Oh, he was cute. I like his hair. Okay, well there is something about him you liked. 

And the key is you have to raise the demon up to being normal. You have to take the godlike angel to be normal, because when they’re normal they’re human. You feel it, and they’re real, and that’s painful. But you have to get through that pain. The initial pain that hurts in order to grieve and process. Otherwise, again that hole in the heart will stay. That’s why a lot of people want to numb out.

One quick phrase as far as grief and loss: The saying is, “We grieve as we lived.” So, everyone grieves differently. Some people cry. You’ll never cry, shed a tear, that’s okay. Yet there is no right or wrong way, as long as you process it and actually feel.

The way we grieve as we live is, if you’re a person who doesn’t like to be around people, a little shy and you suffer a death, you’re not going to want to be around anyone. If you’re someone who wants to be around a lot of people. You never want to be alone. That brings me to the story of when I’m at hospice. There’s a man where he was, it said pull the plug, but he’s on life support and they’re choosing to end the life support. It just got to that time. This daughter-in-law was there, but the son wasn’t. Daughter-in-law was telling me that she was very upset that her husband wasn’t there for his father’s last moments. And I asked her: “Where is he?” And she said, “He’s out golfing.” Okay. I asked her, “Well, when he gets stressed or really upset, what does he do?” She said, “He always plays golf.” I said, “Okay. I guarantee you, at his father’s last moments he’s on the golf course and that’s what he’s thinking about.”

It’s when we avoid the pain and use the drugs, use the behavioral addictions, that’s when the pain lasts forever. You have to feel it. You have to acknowledge they’re dead. It doesn’t work otherwise. But when you do it, it works. It’s one of the  few things, like I said in six to eight sessions, then one week we burn letters. You say goodbye letters. We burn them at the end of the week. The process of mourning. The process of talking. The process of feeling is how you get through it. It’s painful but it works. And the last thing I leave you is if you have a friend or family member that has lost someone and you wonder what to do cause you’re like, “I don’t know what to do.” They lose their brother; they lose their whoever.

Listen. That’s all you do, just letting them know you’re going to listen and not be judgmental. You’re not going to try to cheer them up. You’re not going to try to change the subject. You’re not going to try to give them some weird statement or they are in a better place. Just listen, cause that’s all the person needs. They just need to be able to share the story and cry, or not cry.

So, the best thing you do for someone who has suffered death in their life is be there for them and listen. Don’t talk. Inside, it’s like, yeah that’s horrible or something. You’re really missing and they’re really wonderful or that was a really crappy thing they did. You just listen and be present. That’s the best thing you can do.

Dominic Lawson: When you hear a story like that young lady and others of people that you helped? What does that mean for you, like, personally, that you was able help her or the countless other people that you have helped on your journey? What is that mean for you personally, Josh?

Josh Ulrich: Oh, it’s wonderful. As I said, sales, there is a thrill: “Hey, I got the big sales, I got the deal!” But it’s fleeting, and there is nothing of real value to it. When you help someone like this young woman to out, you really feel you made a difference — in society and life. My work in Gila River Indian Reservation says, just planting seeds that, no I’m not going to change the entire structure of society, I’m not going to [produce] this massive change. But if it affects one person, if one kid, if one adult now knows how to interact with someone in a more appropriate way, how to reach in and process their emotions and know that they need to call their sponsor cause, “wow, this is what a craving is and that’s what I need to do,” or even just have one last night of nightmares, that’s huge.

I love to say curing someone would be awesome, but we don’t cure. We treat, we help, we plant seeds, and I just, hopefully, long term, they just grow and improve.  That’s all analogies, but it just feels awesome. If you want, like, a few words, like, “it’s awesome. It’s great, dude.”

Dominic Lawson: Josh, awesome, to hear you say that. Let me ask you this really quickly because you talked about it earlier and just now about your background in sales and stuff like that. Has that experience helped you become a better therapist, or were there some attributes from what you learned from business and sales that has helped you be effective in what you do now?

Josh Ulrich: Yes, it has because you can. I even met salespeople before. Whether they were — I’m going to date myself here — a Best Buy or like on a car lot, where the idea is: I got to get you in, get the item, get you out. The bigger ticket, the more commission I make. Usually, when you buy something, you walk out wondering: Oh, did I get a good deal? Did someone stiff me? Do I really want this? Anything that big and unsure, you’re not really happy. And I had too many times in sales where customers would come back with issues, and they weren’t satisfied. But if you really listen to them, if you find out, what do they need? Why are they are calling? Why are they in the store? Why are they on the lot? What is their actual need? And if you can meet that need, then not only did you achieve your purpose and they’re happy, but they keep coming back happy and keep coming back here because they have more needs. They have more issues, and they feel that you can solve it, and if you can’t, they trust you to point them in the right direction, just in order to get long-term sales, and more sales, and more referrals. You have to treat your customer like a human being, that you actually care about them.

And so that is something I transfer to counseling because I can sit there and just tell you, “Stop drinking, don’t drink. You’re an alcoholic, don’t drink.” Well, man, that isn’t going to really make you want to stop drinking, is it? But if they find out why, what’s going on, you want to stop drinking because you’re not really present for your son, having issues with your wife. You’re fighting a lot. You’re staying out. You don’t want to go home. Let’s talk about that. What’s going on? What is your mission to your son? Cause it’s the way you’re treated, and you don’t know how to be a dad, and you feel too much pressure, and you never really learn to communicate your feelings.

So, you’re saying things you think your wife wants to hear, and she knows you put up walls. What’s the deal with that? And what do you know? The desire to drink really isn’t there as much. So now I’ve touched his feelings. We looked at your issues. We’re dealing with those, and your sobriety is going to be more long-term. You still need support, you still need a meeting, but you’re not going to fight it. You’re not going to be sitting there denying that alcohol has no impact in your life. So that’s how I use sales.

Dominic Lawson: Josh, lastly, I just want to say thank you so much for coming on the Beyond Theory podcast, for sure. Last question, man. If there is somebody out there listening to this episode and they’re trying to seek help but they’re not sure how to move forward, they’re not sure they even want to, or they’re unsure about the entire process. Kind of speak to that person right now, if you would, Josh.

Josh Ulrich: Oh man, that’s going to trip me up. If you really want help and you don’t know what to do, if it’s an addiction, go online, type in “AA,” type in “Cocaine Anonymous,” “Heroin Anonymous.” There’s depression. Start with a meeting. It’s free, doesn’t cost you anything. You’ll see people that have your same issues. You can go in there, you can talk, you can listen, and probably listen is probably the best thing to do. And from there, you can find more meetings and more places to talk.

If you’re looking for more help, maybe it’s trauma. Maybe you have gone to those meetings, but you know you need more. Then the key is to look for your psychiatrist, therapist. If she wants treatment like at The Meadows or here for the Virtual IOP, you can contact the intake department. If you go on our website, I think it’s like meadowsbh.com, there’s a number. Give them a call. They’ll walk you through the process. If you don’t want to do Virtual IOP or our program, there are other programs out there throughout the state, throughout the other states. And you can seek out help. I would go online, Google, there’s a Psychology Today [guide] as well, and you can type that.

If you have insurance, go to insurance and type in, you want therapist counseling services, and find out who you have in your area. Reach out. There’s plenty of different sources out there, that people can help you. Do not feel ashamed. Everyone suffers. Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or you’re a professional basketball, football, tennis player. People have massive depression, anxiety, trauma. Movie stars, presidents, senators, everyone suffers from something that is happening in life. No one had a perfect life. No one has, like, no addiction.

You may not be addicted to chemicals or drugs, but it’s food or it’s gaming, it’s sex or it’s shopping, or whatever. What do you need? If you need help, ask for it. Reach out. There’s no shame in getting help. There’s no shame at all.

Josh Ulrich is a virtual therapist for The Meadows Outpatient Center’s MBH Connect. He runs the Arizona Virtual IOP group, working with individuals from all over the state, leading them through processing their emotions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Find out more about his work at https://themeadowsiop.com/locations/virtual-iop/.

Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me, Dominic Lawson. You can discover more, including videos of some of our conversations, at BeyondTheory.com. Finally, thank you for listening and I hope you join us next time for another episode of Beyond Theory