295 Relaxing into the Pain – How to Grieve Loss – Dr. Mekel Harris

Psychologist Dr. Mekel Harris' Story and Lesson on How to Grieve Loss

  • How a Dying Child Changed a Psychologist
  • Learned to “BE PRESENT” 
  • “Grief is a journey”…
  • How to Deal with Pain and Grieve Loss

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More about our featured guest Dr. Mekel Harris

Mekel Harris, Ph.D., NCSP is a licensed psychologist with expertise in child health and grief/loss. She has presented at over 25 national and international conferences , targeting child health, over the past five years. Apart from academia, she is completing a memoir, emphasizing her grief journey following her mother’s death.

Book (coming soon!)

  • Relaxing Into the Pain: My Journey Into Grief and Beyond

Full Transcript

[00:02] Joel: Welcome to ReLaunch, your daily dose of inspiring stories, fresh ideas and practical solutions to build a business and life that you love. And if you are a daily listener, welcome back to the show and thank you for tuning in and joining us in the conversation. And if you are new here, here is what you can expect: Unique insights and actionable information from self-made successes who share their trials, tribulations and their come from behind victories. And joining us on the show today is author of “Relaxing Into The Pain: My Journey Into Grief and Beyond,” Dr. Dr. Mekel Harris. Dr. Harris, welcome. Welcome to ReLaunch.

[00:51] Dr. Mekel Harris: Thank you so much for having me, I just really, really appreciate the opportunity to be on your show today.

[00:57] Joel: Well, thank you for joining us. So, Dr. Harris, as you know, this show is all about the relaunch, and I generally ask our guests to zero in on the launch or the relaunch that has been the most significant for them, or that has been the most transformational in their lives. And then just kind of unfold the story from there, and we'll do that with you here in just a few minutes, if that's okay.

[01:21] Dr. Mekel Harris: Mm-hmm.

[01:21] Joel: But before we get into that, let's get into some quick solid content for today's show. Now, you are a licensed clinical psychologist, and you have a speciality in children's health, as well as a speciality in grief and loss. And a lot of parents, Dr. Harris, are listening to today's show, so can you share just a quick tip that will help parents help their kids?

[01:49] Dr. Mekel Harris: Sure. I would say to absolutely listen and honor the moments that your children provide. It's not uncommon when experiencing grief and loss, that when we get so caught up with all the things that are happening, with regard to the death of our loved ones, that sometimes it's hard for us to be present for our kids. And so, just to really be available and really honor those moments where your child may be opening up about how they're feeling, so that they can feel like they are a part of the grief process, and feel understood and heard.

[02:24] Joel: Feel understood and heard. Honor the moment.

[02:27] Dr. Mekel Harris: Honor the moment.

[02:28] Joel: Love that, very good, honor the moment. Okay, thank you for that. And let's go ahead and jump right into today's show, now how do we introduce you, if we're talking about the launch or the relaunch that has been transformational for you in your life, how do we need to start?

[02:47] Dr. Mekel Harris: My journey actually started probably about 15 years ago, I received my master's in counseling psychology and I was working with children in a pediatric cancer hospital. And so…

[03:01] Joel: That's gotta be a tough job.

[03:03] Dr. Mekel Harris: You know what? It was tough, but at the same time it's one of the most rewarding experiences that I've had. I learned what resilience was every single day on the floor.

[03:13] Joel: Okay, tell me about it.

[03:16] Pei: Yeah.

[03:16] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah, just watching kids who face such tragic situations, with regard to their health and just change in their families, it was really eye opening to see just how resilient the human spirit is. To watch these kids, despite going through chemotherapy, and feeling sick, and missing their friends, to be able to get up and engage and to really participate in their lives day-to-day, despite what was happening, really helped transform my life and how I viewed the experiences that I have on a daily basis.

[03:51] Joel: I definitely wanna hear about what you learned about yourself during that experience, can you think of a story, or maybe a situation that you saw unfolding in the ward that just… It really uncovered something within you?

[04:10] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah. I had an opportunity, I had worked at this facility for about four or five years, and I had an opportunity to actually be with a child who was actively dying. If would have asked me 20 years ago, if I'd work with children at end of life, I would've said “Absolutely not,” but I had a moment to be with this one particular child. And it so happened that his parents were not available in the hospital at that moment. So, I was really there, along with other staff, to hold his hand and be present with him.

[04:40] Pei: And as strange and as morbid as it might sound, it was such an amazing experience to be able to be with someone who was transitioning from this life to the next. And it really taught me just the power of literally being in the moment and not thinking about what was next, because we couldn't control that, but just really honoring that space, its really helped me be able to be still and just really grapple with what's happening in the present moment, and be okay with that. So, that probably was one of the life changing moments for me.

[05:21] Joel: I can imagine. So, what did you learn or relearn about yourself and your own possibilities, potential, your value? The reason I ask you that is because when Pei and I are either working one-on-one with someone, or speaking in front of a group, there is a phase of time where people learn or relearn about their own possibilities, and the things that they can actually get accomplished, professionally and personally. I'm just curious, what did you uncover about yourself?

[05:59] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah. First of all, I learned that I actually could be in the moment. I am kind of, I'm definitely a identified doer, and I love to kind of make things happen and have always been very active in different realms in my life, professionally and personally.

[06:15] Joel: Got it.

[06:16] Dr. Mekel Harris: And so, to actually be able to be still in that moment was life changing, and like I said, it helped transform the way that I do my clinical work, as well as the training that I offer students. So I think that it really helped me be still and realize that there's actually more power in being than doing. And that things are actually more attracted to you as long as you're able to kind of be in the moment, and not necessarily wrestling around trying to do, and make things happen for yourself.

[06:47] Pei: This… I just realized this when you were telling the story, 'cause I resonate with you, Dr. Harris. It's like, I can be busy and I'm so good at multi-tasking, and I can easily get myself overwhelmed. When you were sharing that story, I can definitely see how that transform anybody that's in… That was present in that situation. So how would you teach students this concept? Did you share this story as you were teaching them?

[07:29] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah. So I worked as a professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and part of my role there is helping train our health psychology students. So part of what I want them to understand is that when you're in the room with a patient or a client, your presence is just as important as your patient. And what you bring to that can really help shape what happens within that hour-long session. So I do share several stories of my clinical experiences, this being one of them.

[08:04] Dr. Mekel Harris: And I really help students kind of close their eyes and really take in the moments in class where they're experiencing the sight that they may be having in their mind's eye, what they hear, what they feel, all of their bodily sensations. And I think it really helps keep them aware of that present moment. And I think the more present you can be with a patient, the more engaged you are, and the more cheerier you are as a professional, which in my experiences with families is really what they are wanting from a support person.

[08:38] Joel: Talk a little bit more about curiosity. You used the word ‘curious', and I love this word because one of the things that I believe that has helped ReLaunch just catch fire as a show, is because Pei and I oftentime, we let curiosity be our guide as we're taking people through the show. And some hosts, they wanna follow exactly a certain template or something like that. And a lot can be said for that and that fits in certain situations, and in certain formats. Absolutely, it fits. But in a ReLaunch when we're talking about something that's deep and personal and it's not just textbook, step one, step two, step three, we found that trying to script out the show, just doesn't work. At least to get to the real story.

[09:42] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah. I think that's an excellent point. Obviously, as a professor, I teach my students theory and as a professional myself, I've learned a lot of theory. My experience with this one particular child many years ago really helped me recognize that textbook knowledge can only go so far. And when it comes to being with someone and experiencing loss, a textbook can't train you for what to say. And so, I think that it's really important that we take a curiosity stance, and really investigate with the family, allow them… Asking them to be part of their journey, so that we can really kind of experience their grief journey with them. And it really is kind of a path that we're both on. It's not something that I'm coming into the therapy session saying, “Here's where we're going.” It's following the lead of the family and the child and saying, “Gosh, is it okay if I journey alongside with you?”

[10:40] Joel: Oh, I love that. “Is it okay if I journey along… ” This is a great conversation because really, when people come to you with challenges or struggles, I think it's human nature or at least I do this, I quickly think back to, “Okay, what book did I read? What diagram fits this situation,” right? You too, right?

[11:01] Dr. Mekel Harris: Mm-hmm.

[11:02] Pei: Or, “How can I Google?”


[11:04] Joel: Or, “What flow chart, what lecture was I sitting in, the doctor so and so, or… ” right?

[11:11] Dr. Mekel Harris: Mm-hmm.

[11:12] Joel: And then… Yeah, those can be some great principles that you draw from. But really, it's the compassion that you can share following that curiosity.

[11:25] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah.

[11:26] Joel: That, in and of itself, one therapist to another, can itself be curative. Okay, fast forwarding a little bit, and gosh, we could go on for a long time on this, but I want to respect your time and I definitely want to respect our listeners' time. Talking about your book, “Relaxing Into The Pain.” Now, this is a book that actually kind of chronicles your journey as you went through the grieving process of losing your mom. Is that correct?

[11:59] Dr. Mekel Harris: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

[12:00] Joel: Okay, so let's kind of approach it a little bit in a different fashion. Let's talk about the theories and the framework and the structure that went out the window when you were experiencing this at a very, very personal and intimate level.

[12:19] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah, I think that… I had trained for almost 15 years in health psychology and counseling people through very tough situations, and then, the past few years, with the grief and loss. And my mom died in December 2012, and it really was, “What textbook? What theory?” When you're immersed in dealing with grief and loss yourself, it really is different. I will say that it absolutely transformed the work that I do with my patients, because I truly understand all the silly things I was probably saying before, and all of the misguided information that was…

[13:00] Joel: Well-intentioned.

[13:01] Dr. Mekel Harris: Well-intended, yeah, well-intentioned, but not really appreciating kind of what the experience is, and how it truly impacts not only your emotional health, but your physical and spiritual health as well. So, Relaxing Into The Pain came to be, in my own journey of my grief work, and I was sitting across the room from my therapist, and she said, “You know, Mekel, it's kinda like when you go and get a shot, and the doctor says the worst thing you can do, when we're about to insert the needle, is to tense the muscle. The best thing to do is actually relax into the pain.” And a light bulb went off, and I thought, “That's the title of my book.” Because that's literally what this experience felt like for me, was I knew what was coming, after my mom's diagnosis, and from her diagnosis to death was 30 days, and…

[13:53] Joel: Wow, was it a… I haven't yet read the book yet, so humor me here, was it a cancer diagnosis? Or was it a…

[13:59] Dr. Mekel Harris: She was… Yeah, she was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

[14:03] Joel: Okay.

[14:05] Dr. Mekel Harris: Now interestingly, I shared that I had worked at the Stanford facility. The funny thing is, my mom and I, and my brother had all worked all the same institution, at one point in our careers. So I already knew, at the time of her diagnosis, what that meant. And so, as I'm sitting across from the therapist going, “The only way for me to actually approach what I know is coming, is to relax into it.” Which sounds so counter-intuitive, and of course I wanted to fight. The analogy that I like to give is, you're sitting in the front row of a roller coaster, and you see you're about to go over that ledge, and you're pumping the brakes and trying to grip and stop it, but you know that you can't. And so you literally gotta just relax in the seat and let it kinda flow. So that was really the inspiration for the title of the book.

[14:57] Joel: Pei, did you have your hand up? Or did you want me to…

[14:59] Pei: Well… Wow.

[15:01] Joel: Yeah, I know, right?

[15:03] Pei: When you… But how does this look like to you when you describe emotionally or physically to relax into the pain? For you?

[15:19] Dr. Mekel Harris: For me, it was kind of surrendering… Again, this was against the backdrop of my professional knowledge, and so, it was me surrendering all of my experiences that I had gained through working with patients and families. It was surrendering anything I had learned in school, and saying, “You know, this is gonna be something new for me. I have got to let go of anything that I think I know about death, and let go of anything that I think I know about grieving, and just open myself up.”

[15:53] Dr. Mekel Harris: Thankfully, my mom… It's so funny, she was always very comfortable talking about her death, and so I feel like we had been preparing for her death a decade before. She was just that person that was just really comfortable with it, and so that really helped prepare not only me, but my brother, as she went to hospice, and then subsequently died. But yeah, it really was a complete surrendering. Which is hard, again, for a doer, to let go.

[16:21] Joel: Okay, talk… Sorry to jump into the conversation here, but you're using a word that I cannot not touch. And the word is ‘surrender'. And a lot of times, when I'm working one on one with people that are setting themselves up for their own relaunch, and you might have a similar conversation in your office, we talk about, not only is it important to understand the season that you're currently in, but it is very, very important to surrender to that season, whatever it is. If it's a season for planting, surrender to it. If it's a season for harvesting, surrender to it. If it's a season for rest or recovery, surrender to it. So for you, personally, in your journey, was there a pivotal moment, a moment in time that you can kind of point to that, triggered your surrender, when you just decided to fully relax into the pain?

[17:23] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah. I think for me… My mom, she was living in Texas, I lived in California. And she called me the day that she was diagnosed, and we shared that moment. About a week and a half after that… I actually had a dream. As corny as it might sound, I had a dream, and in the dream, the date, December the 7th, was kind of resonating in my mind. And so, I didn't know what that date was, but I knew, deep down, that my mom would die in December. And my mom was diagnosed in early November, so I had already kind of wrestled with the fact that “Yes, we're gonna have a very short amount of time to deal with that, to deal with her passing.”

[18:05] Dr. Mekel Harris: And I think in that moment, after I had this dream, I really felt like it was a gift from God, that He just gave me a date. And at that moment, I knew that I had to embrace and kind of surrender. And surrender, to me, really, was focusing in on the moment. So, obviously, as a doer and as a caregiver and as a professional, I was forecasting, “Okay, what are we gonna be doing when my mom goes to hospice? And what's the next step?”

[18:36] Dr. Mekel Harris: Surrender, to me, was focusing on each day and really trying to center my mind, my heart and my body in that moment, every single moment that I had with her, and trying not to get too far ahead. So that's really what I mean when I say “surrendering to the moment.” Its just embracing second by second and not thinking too far ahead because I knew for me that would be to my detriment, and I would probably miss some of the gifts, the longer the wait, with my mom in those last days.

[19:10] Pei: Wow! You know, you shared that story earlier, the dying child while you were there that taught you the lesson of being in the moment. And after experiencing the passing of your very own mom, how did that change overall how you do therapy or teach your students?

[19:37] Dr. Mekel Harris: Part of the training that I offer my students is really helping them get in touch with themselves.

[19:42] Joel: Okay.

[19:43] Dr. Mekel Harris: And obviously there's still a sense of being a therapist and interacting with another person but I think first and foremost, you really need to be attuned to yourself. And when it comes to talking about death and dying, it's not a comfortable subject for most people. And so part of what I do is really help the students wrestle with their own experiences of death and loss. What does that bring up for them, physically, emotionally, spiritually? And really delve into that. Because if we're not dealing with that, it's really hard to be present for another person when you're wrestling and battling your own emotions inside. So that's really a huge part of the training that I try to offer my students.

[20:27] Joel: Wrestling with yourself. Yeah. You're right, it is hard. It is practically another obstacle that you can overcome.

[20:39] Dr. Mekel Harris: Yeah. When I review the course syllabi for some of my classes, and we get into the palliative care, the end of life, you can literally hear a pin drop, and you can feel the air being sucked out of the room.


[20:52] Dr. Mekel Harris: Because it is a very awkward topic, that we really don't discuss in general society. And so, I try to approach that delicately as the semester goes on, and then, like I said, engage students in activities where they can really be aware of themselves. So that they are more comfortable when they do approach a client or a patient dealing with the same thing.

[21:13] Joel: Very good. Thank you for sharing that with us. Dr. Dr. Mekel Harris is our guest today. Mekelharrisphd.com, the place to go. Another place to go is to the blog article that accompanies this episode and of course we'll include all of the social media hotspots. Plus, the place to go to get the book, “Relaxing Into The Pain: My Journey Into Grief and Beyond.” Dr Harris, got about 30 seconds left. I'd love for you just to share a parting word or a thought about the grief journey, if you'd like, or also about the children's health. I know that that is another passion of yours. And we just appreciate your time on the show today. How would you like to end it, Dr Harris?

[22:12] Dr. Mekel Harris: I would love to just highlight the reality that grief is a journey. I think we tend to think of grief, and we often conceptualize the stages and the phases. The reality is, it's a very cyclical, variable process. And that, despite how long it's been from the time of your loved one's death, that it really is a journey, and that journey will look very different from child to child, from parent to parent. And so, really embracing that it's not a, “Okay, I'm gonna… I've grieved,” and there's a stopping point. That it really is a lifelong process, and one that can be… One filled with excellent memories and a lot of meaning-making throughout the process, and a very transformational process, if your heart is open to that transformation.

[23:03] Joel: I love that. “If your heart is open to the transformation.” Very good.

[23:06] Dr. Mekel Harris: Absolutely.

[23:07] Joel: Dr. Harris, have a wonderful, wonderful rest of your day. Thank you for being a part of the show today.

[23:12] Dr. Mekel Harris: Thank you so much for your time and I absolutely appreciate just the opportunity. I just so appreciate it. Thank you.

[23:18] Joel: You're very welcome. Bye-bye.

[23:19] Pei: Thank you.

[23:20] Dr. Mekel Harris: Bye.

Connect with Dr. Harris on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and her website.

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Joel Boggess

Keynote Speaker | Corporate Trainer | Award-winning podcaster I help teams ignite their courage, take bolder steps, and get greater results. Together, we create possibilities that bring empowerment, meaning, and financial impact.

1 Comment

  1. Eric Thomas on April 26, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    In wake of the death of my family I welcome the embrace of death.

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