Becoming a Grief Ally with Guest Aly Bird

When someone close to you loses a loved one it can be hard to know what to do or how to help. This week we are joined by guest Aly Bird who experienced the loss of her husband at the age of 30. Through this experience, Aly was driven to do something about the way we treat the bereaved. Aly joins us to share her experience and talk about her book, Grief Ally, which defines Grief Allyship and teaches people how to show up and support their grieving loved ones.

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Tina: Hey everyone, I'm Tina.

Serena: And I'm Serena, and we are the Mental Health Mamas.


Tina: Welcome to No Need to Explain. We are so glad you're here.

Serena: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Tina: We come to you not as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents will lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Serena: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You'll find a variety of resources in our show notes, and on our website

Tina: Not many of us can likely imagine the unfathomable experience of losing our spouse at a young age. Today's guest, Aly Bird did just that. She says in her book, Grief Ally, “On an average day in November, my husband, Will, woke up, told me he loved me, kissed me goodbye, and then never came home alive. I became a widow at 30 years old, instantly, unintentionally, and without any experience or knowledge about what living with a devastating loss looks like.”

Serena: We are looking forward to an open conversation with Aly. Aly, welcome to the podcast.

Aly: Thank you, Tina and Serena. I'm really happy to be here and have this conversation with you.

Tina: We are glad you're here as well. It's honestly a heavier conversation than we normally have, and we are so glad that you're willing to share this, I would say unintentional knowledge that you've gained. We usually start by asking people to tell us their story, and in this case, we know your story. You've lost the love of your life, so tell us a bit about the days and weeks that followed, and specifically around how you were supported by the people around you.

Aly: Will died in a hiking accident, and instantly my friends and family rushed in to support me, but given that it was a shock, his death, I was also in shock, and my survival response in those moments, we all have fight, flight, freeze, fawn response in those situations. I am definitely a person who fawns, so I wasn't feeling anything, but I was acutely aware of all the emotions, all the feelings, all the helplessness that was written across the faces of the people who loved me the most. I could see them wanting to be helpful, but I could also see them because they were a little bit further removed from the situation. They knew how bad this was, whereas I didn't quite feel it instantly. Instead of taking a step back or just pausing for a second, recognizing what they were feeling, they just took all that energy, that anxious energy that they had inside of them and did like, I am going to cook for you, I am going to clean for you, I am going to sleep next to you, and to be very honest, it was overwhelming. But the good thing was, is that they were showing up, they were showing up, despite being afraid, despite not knowing what the right thing to do in those moments. None of us had really ever experienced a loss like this in most of our lives. People died when they were old, and people died from cancer or something. Accidents didn't happen to people like us, but they stuck with it. I never felt abandoned or misunderstood or forgotten. I quickly realized that that experience was quite unique in our culture, a lot of people get forgotten, or people show up for the funeral and the days before that, but once the rituals happen, then support starts to disappear. My people didn't do that. They have remained close to me, and I am very, very grateful for that.

Serena: So you are what we refer to as an Expert by Experience. You're thrown into this, into a very different place in your life. You've written a book around your experience, and what you've seen as supportive and not supportive when it comes to grief. It's called Grief Ally. So I'm curious how you got to this place of wanting to write this book.

Aly: Yeah, so the idea came to me quite quickly after Will's death. An expert in kind of a grief therapy community told me to go find a community outside of my own, and so I did. I tried. I joined nearly 13 different Facebook groups, and before I started sharing my own experience, I listened to the stories of others, and the stories that they were telling me were 70% venting about the support that they weren't getting outside of these communities. I felt very privileged and realized that I was having a bit of an outlier experience, and the support that my community showed me. I attribute a lot to my post-traumatic growth that I am able to be as okay as I am, because I was not abandoned, and I wanted to give people the opportunity to have that as well, the bereaved that opportunity as well. But I recognize that even my own community, who they are the smartest people I know, they are the most empathetic people I know. If there was a resource out there for them to go to, when they got the news that Will had died, and they were looking for guidance about how to support me through the long haul of my grief that they would have found it. In reality, all the resources out there are written or designed for the person at the epicenter of a tragedy, but yet we know that when people are in a crisis in a state of shock, our brains don't work as well as they do when we are regulated and in a safe place. So it's actually people in our support networks who are a bit further removed from the epicenter, who have the capacity to learn new skills, absorb new information, and then apply it. So I wanted to create a tool which ultimately became the book, Grief Ally, that would teach people in a really short, clear, succinct way that you can't fix this, but you do have agency in this situation, and here's a roadmap for what you really need to know. And that's how the book was born.

Tina: Yeah, that's amazing that you have the foresight to do that. Clearly, you were a smart person who was able to somehow do this. So this book's about how to be a better ally, and part of that is understanding. So you say in the book, “When you understand that grief isn't a problem to be solved, but a truth to be integrated into your person's life, you'll change the way that you show up to help.” And then you go on to say something ever so important. “Instead of moving on, getting over or healing grief, your person will move forward with it, carrying it, growing around it, and relating to it as they age through everything they experience after the moment their beloved died.” So say a little bit more about that if you could.

Aly: Of course. So first, let's take a few steps back and just really talk about what grief is, and to understand what grief really is, we have to understand that as human beings, we are wired to attach. We are biologically programmed to attach to other humans, you know, as children, children biologically attached to their primary caregivers to get the nutrients they need to grow up to be psychologically and biologically healthy adults. We also attach to other people, places, things as just a way that our species has survived. So we attach to other humans, whether they are good for us or bad for us. And grief is what happens when there is a change in that attachment. And that change in attachment creates an energy, and then that energy is the grief, and it can be expressed as any emotion on a feeling wheel. It's not exclusive to, you know, the five stages of grief, the depression and anxiety or whatever, like grief can look like anything. But to fix it would mean that that attachment has to go back to the way it was. And if there is a like a death related loss, the only thing that would replace that attachment to put it back to its original state would be for that person to come back from the dead. And we can't make that happen, so we can't fix grief. So what I advocate for in the book is that instead of trying to fix anything, you should just try to focus on making the person that you love more comfortable and their life easier. And that approach changes everything. And in terms of living with grief, that change in attachment of that one person, it's not only that one attachment. That person has an impact on so many other things in your life. I talk about the metaphor of an earthquake in the book about how losing that person might be the seven points on the Richter scale kind of earthquake, but an earthquake comes with aftershocks. And those can also be all these secondary losses that happen. Another great metaphor is like losing your car keys. So sure, if you lose your car keys, like maybe there's a great keychain on there that you really love that had some like, you know, you're emotionally attached to, but your car keys also get you into your car. And your car gets you to all these places and all these people that are meaningful to you in your life. So not only did you lose your car keys, there are all these secondary losses that happen. So you don't have to, you don't just grieve one thing. There are a multitude of losses that come with the death of one person. And then as more things happen in your life, say there's a concert that you want to really go to that happens, you know, five years down the road from losing your car keys and access to your car, then you have to grieve the thought of like, oh, I can't actually go to that concert either. So it just kind of snowballs. And instead of being able to fix any of that, you carry it with you, you recognize and you relate to it as time moves forward. And the best things that we can do instead of trying to resolve any of that change and attachment is to be able to adapt to it and work with it and learn to survive with it.

Serena: Yeah. Yeah. I love, I love your message around, you know, sort of fundamentally how you're changed when you, when you experience a loss, I think anybody who has experienced a deep loss gets that, right? But people on the other side don't always understand that in terms of, you know, like expecting you to have a timeline, right? Or return to quote unquote normal, right?

Tina: Well, and even the concept of being the same person, like that, for me, was just a line that I couldn't look away from, right? That's why I wrote it, wrote it in here, right? I couldn't look away from that. I think we do expect people to kind of bounce, we hear the term bounce back, right? You're going to be a different person because half of you, I mean, you're very invested in this person. And yeah, it's, it's, it's just interesting. Yeah.

Aly: Yeah, I like to say, you know, you don't, we don't get better. We get different.

Serena: I like that.

Aly: And in different, we can be okay. But we will never be get better as if grief was a sickness or something or a, you know, a broken bone that got a cast and rehealed. Right. Yeah.

Serena: Yeah. So this is a, you know, your, your book is, is beautifully written. It's really practical and accessible for anyone wanting to be a better ally. And I'm not, I'm not, I don't know of any other books that kind of, you know, focus on this area. So I think it is an important book and very needed. So can you share maybe some practical tips with us?

Aly: Absolutely. Um, and thank you for noticing that it was, it was very practical and accessible. My intention in writing it was that so you can consume it when you are, you know, anxious and maybe afraid. Um, I think about my friends who I lived on the opposite side of the country. Um, when I had to call them about the news that Will died. And my thought was that someone reading this book would be sitting on a flight and trying to consume it. Um, so it's also available as an audiobook too, if that's a better way for you to consume information. Um, but in terms of practical tips, um, I think the, the message that we get culturally is that when someone dies, you send food, you send flowers, you send a card and you go to the funeral. And beyond that, the messages don't disappear. Um, but in terms of being really specific, I share with folks in the book that to really focus on the skills, assets and resources that you already have. If you are not a person who really likes cooking or is about food, you don't have to do the food thing. Like you have other skills and resources that you can rely on. So maybe you are really great with administrative tasks. Like you're good with note-taking or making important phone calls or finding information or you have every Wednesday night free and you're willing to either run errands. If your friend or this person that you care about needs errands run or they just won't company, you're willing to just sit on the couch and watch TV with them. Um, maybe you're willing to, you know, stay at home with a cat, uh, if they need to travel somewhere. Um, there are so many things that you can do just based on what you have to offer rather than trying to learn new skills or be everything for your person. I think it's really important that folks recognize that, um, they are part of a team. And in a team setting, you know, everybody has their strengths and that is the power of a team, um, that you get to work together and really leave a beautiful net to hold your person, um, as they learn how to, you know, live around this, uh, this loss in their life.

Tina: I love that. That's, uh, and I wrote it down because it's important, right? I will also want to highlight the part when you said basically, you know, the beginning, people are so supportive, right? And it's the kind of afterward. And I, I agree with that totally. I think it's, um, the grieving goes on for so long. And I mean, yeah, it goes on for so long. And it's never, um, in that, I don't know that it's ever going to go away. I mean, I don't know. I'm just speaking from my own experience. But anyway, I love that we can be helpful. I love that this book is, um, is so practical. And you really could read it. I'm so glad it's on audio because that is like one of my favorite consumables. Um, and we couldn't wrap up this interview without pointing out chapter three, which I have to say was one of my favorites because we are all about the self care. It is literally entitled, you can't take care of your person. If you aren't taking care yourself. And I feel like I could read that 50 times, some people, and they wouldn't hear it. And you are dedicating your work to take care of others. So I'm going to put you on the spot here and say what are the things you do to take good care of yourself, Aly?

Aly: Mm. Yeah. I at a basic level, I really prioritize my sleep.

Tina: Yay.

Aly: Yeah. If I don't get the rest that I need, um, and I have been known to just like, you know, it's two o'clock in the afternoon and be like, sorry folks, like, I need more sleep and I will go back to bed. Um, because yeah, I just, I'm a better, better person, um, when I am rested. Um, I also, I've recently gotten into yoga. Um, and I am a big fan of of yoga for whether it's doing restorative and, you know, letting my brain do the yoga, um, or, you know, a yin class where my body moves and it's an outlet for my anxiety. Um, and then you might also expect this answer, but I am a big writer, a big fan of the journal. Um, and that's a, yeah. Oh, and walking my dog spending time with my dog. She's, yeah, my, my companion forever.

Tina: I love those answers and dogs. And I don't know, if you've listened to much of our podcast, I am like, sleep is key to my entire existence. Yes.

Aly: You need sleep.

Serena: So I can imagine that our listeners will want to buy your book and, and what I want to say is I feel like this is a book that you need to have on your shelf so that you're ready. Um, so I encourage people to check out your book, um, and maybe, you know, they'd like to connect with you. So tell us how they can find you in your book.

Aly: Yeah. So you can find me on social media at theAlyBird or on my website, And the book is available at Barnes and Noble, uh, if you're in Canada, Indigo or chapters, as well as Amazon, um, or from your local book, retailer, if you request it.

Tina: And you are Aly A, L, Y?

Aly: Yes, not Aly with two L's, which I pronounce ally.

Tina: Right. Okay. Yes. Or, or IE, which sometimes that happens. So just, yeah, just clarifying there.

Aly: So, A, L, Y Aly? Yes.

Tina: Aly, A, L, Y. Thank you so much for joining us today. Um, and for doing what you do, I'm not sure… we talk a lot about, um, pain to purpose. And I think that is what I see in this. And you have created this amazing resource for people. So, um, we totally appreciate you.

Aly: Well, thank you. And, and thank you for having me and, and sharing this, uh, this message and this work with your audience. Um, it all, it all helps the cause. Um, yeah.

Serena: Yeah. Thanks, Aly. And so podcast friends, we are as always grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple podcasts. Leave us a review while you're there. Subscribe and please share the podcast with others. You will find more content on our website, You can find us on the socials. Uh, and we would love to hear from you. We have a voicemail number. You can leave us a message, share a bit of your story, uh, give us ideas for the podcast or just call to say hi.

Tina: And this is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you are also taking care of your people.

Serena: Thanks for listening.

Tina: Bye.