PYXISCARE EXPERT PROFILE Q&A: Dr. Tonya Cunningham Life After Loss

There must be an understanding of the language of grief, such as learning the difference between grieving and mourning. Everyone grieves but not everyone allows themselves to mourn.”              

Dr. Tonya Cunningham, Certified Life Coach and Grief Counselor

Tell us more about your work….what is a grief counselor?   I am a Speaker, Grief Counselor, Transitional Life Coach, and Author with emphasis on loss and life transitions. I’m the Bereavement Coordinator for Bristol Hospice Pathways. I’m also a Grief Counselor/Grief Coach for Tonya Cunningham Ministries, LLC. A Grief Counselor is one that is skilled to help people cope with the emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and cognitive responses to loss.

Why is grief such an issue around the holidays?  The holidays are generally steeped in tradition and customs surrounding family and friends. It’s a time when we express love towards one another as well as remember those who are less fortunate and partake in acts of service to other people. If you’ve suffered a loss, especially the death of a loved one, the holiday season may intensify the pain you are feeling. Some refer to this season as a time when one will experience ‘the holiday blues’.

What are the phases of grief?  Elisabeth Kubler- Ross is the grief pioneer known for the five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She was careful to make clear that not all survivors move through these stages in sequence. Some vacillate between stages as well as experiencing emotions from all 5 stages simultaneously. Some theorists argue that there are more stages. Nonetheless, Kubler-Ross gives us a foundational framework to build upon in understanding the unique grief experience.

How can people process grief?   There must be an understanding of the language of grief, such as learning the difference between grieving and mourning. Everyone grieves but everyone does not allow themselves to mourn. Grief is an emotional, internal response to any kind of loss. Mourning is the external expression of grief. To process grief, one must first be willing to acknowledge they are experiencing grief and the need to process it. Everyone grieves the same because it’s an emotional response. However, our expression of grief through mourning is different. The basic form of processing it is acknowledging it, journaling about it, seeking help through counseling/therapy/support group, and other channels.

You’re known as the Grief Doctor – what motivates you to specialize in this area of helping people?  It’s a calling, a ministry. I set out in life to be the best female embalmer on earth. Well, that didn’t work out! I was an Instructor at Dallas Institute of Funeral Service and was given the course, Grief Psychology, to teach. The passion for grief education began at that moment. As a new Instructor, I noted that at least one student would walk out of class each session. What I learned is that I was teaching a subject that was uncomfortable for those who had not processed their grief. My passion for helping others in grief grew from there.

Anything else you would like to share with our readership?   Covid-19 leveled the playing field, turning our world upside down, forcing us to address taboo subjects such as grief, depression, anxiety, etc. I encourage everyone to take care of their mental health.