Written by: The Circles Team

June 27, 2021

This week we’d like to put the spotlight on Emma Payne, Founder and CEO at Grief Coach. Emma spent two and a half decades leading mobile and online development projects. Following the loss of her husband, and a decade later the loss of a dear friend, she came up with Grief Coach, a text messaging service that is now supporting thousands of grievers and supporters globally

Before we get started talking about Grief Coach, can you tell me a little bit about you and your background, and what led you to create Grief Coach?

I had been working in mobile and online development for about 25 years when my friend died. It was a very difficult time. He was father to my godson, and I was with him when he died. Before he died, he had asked if I would deliver the eulogy at his funeral. And I said, sure, of course, anything you want. But after he died, I really was nervous about it, because he was the best friend and second cousin of my husband who had died 10 years prior by suicide. So essentially, what I agreed to do was fly across the country and speak in front of both friends and family who I hadn’t seen, and oftentimes hadn’t heard from, for a long time. So it was nerve-racking. But I did it, and as soon as I sat down in my pew, the person next to me asked my name, and I said, “it’s Emma,” and she just started crying. “Oh, my goodness, are you Barry’s widow?” and I said, “Yes, I am.” She said “I’ve always wondered how you were. I’m so sorry we didn’t reach out back then, we couldn’t think of what to say.” I essentially spent three days hearing some version of that: “I’m sorry I didn’t reach out. I really wondered about you. How have you been doing? I couldn’t think of what to say.” So on my plane ride home from the funeral, I started thinking in my “work” head. I’ve used mobile and tech for all these other things, and it just seemed like there must be a way to make sure that people don’t have that experience because it was crappy for me to not hear from people for 10 years, but it turned out it was pretty awful for them as well. They spent a lot of years feeling really uncomfortable, awkward, guilty, and ashamed of themselves, and instead, we could have been connecting and supporting each other. So I used my plane ride home to map out Grief Coach, I assumed that as soon as I landed and got on WiFi I’d see that it existed already. But then once we were taxiing into the airport I couldn’t find anything like it online. It didn’t exist. I was shocked that there weren’t already tools for supporting not just the griever, but the people around them who don’t know what to say.

Wow, that’s amazing. I cannot believe you did that on a plane ride. I saw on your website that Grief Coach is entirely text-based, which caught my attention because as you know at Circles we’re mainly video-based to emphasize the human connection. So I’m curious why you went the text route?

I actually think it is the best decision I made. I spent lots of years doing mobile development and I wanted something accessible, affordable, and digestible. So as soon as you require high-speed internet or even a certain kind of phone, you’re drastically limiting the number of people who’ll be able to access what you’re providing. So I see Grief Coach as an accessible, scalable, affordable way to get grief support into everybody’s hands. That’s also the reason that we support the griever and the friends and family who are around them. It seems kind of obvious to me that that’s the only way that we could ever make sure that everybody gets supported after death. There’s never going to be enough therapists, and even if there were, most people can’t afford it. There never are enough support groups in everybody’s towns, and even if there were, a lot of people don’t want to sit in a room with strangers. I have yet to talk to a single person that doesn’t want their husband, or best friend, or colleague, to understand a little bit more of what they’re going through. So for me, that had to be text. I actually think text is underutilized. It’s just so easy.

Awesome, and from what I understand people have a lot of customization options, it’s very much a personal experience. People aren’t talking to a generic bot or anything like that. How does it feel on the user’s side of things?

One of the things that is, in a way, surprising, is how people find it to be very private and personal, just for them. A girl, who was a teenager when her mom died, said, “Oh, I just love that they’re just for me. I wait until after third period to read all the messages about my mom. I haven’t deleted any of them.” She said, “I don’t even use the web. If I try to do a search for ‘grief after your mom dies’, you just get a barrage of generic information and resources, and you’re grieving, so you can barely read, so you can’t even think about wading through all of it.” She said that she’s an introvert and she couldn’t imagine talking to strangers about it. So for her, it was very private, personal, and specific to the journey that she’d been on. We customize messages based on lots of things, but notably age. Messages for a young widow would be different than someone in their seventies. We have messages based on the cause of death, so everything from stillbirth to suicide tracks of messages. We have a COVID series that we added last March. We also customize based on relationships, so sibling loss versus spouse versus child versus parent versus grandparent. The messages are short, digestible, and specific to the loss that you’re experiencing.

Wow, that’s incredible. And that leads me to my next question, which is twofold. The first is what would be the best advice you could give people who are grieving, and on the flip side of that coin, what’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone who has a loved one who is grieving?

I love the question. It is to me, every single day, astounding how crippled we are when someone we care about is hurting. But also, how much wisdom there is about what to do is just putting those two things together. For the supporters, what resonates every single time, no matter how many times we do it, is that the grieving person wants you to talk about the person who’s died.

“Oh my gosh, remember when your dad took us out for ice cream? That was hilarious, right?” “Oh, she was so little, that beautiful smile she had when she was a baby”

The person is always in the mind of the griever, but yet as supporters we worry that we’re going to somehow upset the griever by bringing them up. No, it’s in there already, constantly. So in a way, it’s like a release valve. If you don’t know the person, just make it a question.

“What grade would Sam have been in going into this year?” “What did you usually do with your dad on Father’s Day?”

When someone dies, our relationship with them as the grieving person changes, but it doesn’t end. It’s almost like, pretend they’re still in their world, and just talk about them. And it actually gets easier and easier. It feels kind of weird the first time and maybe the second time, but then you see the responses and you realize that that’s just the thing that you can do. So that’s my advice for the supporters. And that’s, I mean, there’s a million things, but that’s a muscle that we all need to flex. Let’s just get better at it. I have a real pet peeve at the moment about all the things not to do, like “Top 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone Who’s Grieving.” I think the absolute last thing we need to do is make people feel fearful that they’re going to say the wrong thing or cause pain. We have to come in on the side of the supporters because it is hard, it is super hard to sit with someone who’s in the depths of grief. So making them feel that they might screw up or say something wrong is not helpful at all. It’s hard to do. It takes some practice, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling and connecting and can be appreciated. And if someone starts crying, you know, we always hear, “what if they start crying?” If they’re crying, they’re healing. It’s okay. It’s not your job to make them feel better, because you cannot. You cannot make a grieving person feel better. So let go of that idea. That’s not going to happen, but you can listen to their pain.

Yeah, absolutely. You can give them momentary catharsis, but you’re not changing their situation.

You can’t change it, you can’t fix it. It’s terrible what’s happened. For the griever, I think my top one really is about just letting go of timelines. This is, I feel, the biggest mistake I made and something thousands of people tell us. “I should be feeling better by now” or “it’s already been three months. I don’t know why I’m still crying.” Society or our friends and family want us to feel better, or be doing better, because it’s hard for them to see you in pain, so you try to apply some sort of arbitrary pressure on yourself. Time is healing, but it’s time, it’ll just happen. You don’t need to really think about it. It’s a thing that happens. And that’s not your job. But it’s more about slowing down than it is about getting back to work or finding someone new to date. Just be in it and the time will happen anyway. Try to just be more gentle with yourself in terms of your expectations for what you should or shouldn’t be feeling at any particular point.

Yeah, as they say, “time heals all wounds,” but it’s not linear. It’s just this rollercoaster of a line that’s progressing but not in a step-by-step process that you think it is or want it to be.

Yeah. Megan Devine has a great line where she says, “Grief is not something to be fixed. It’s something that we carry.” It’s not going anywhere, but we do get better and better at carrying it. And there’s a visual that’s been kicking around social media the last couple of weeks, where there’s a black ball inside a jar. So the idea of grief is that the jar stays the same size and the ball changes size, like it gets smaller over time. But in fact, the ball stays the same, and the jar gets bigger. You will not find somebody whose son died in a car accident when he was 16, who 30 years later says “time heals all wounds, I’m feeling better now.” But that’s not really true. The pain of losing their son is always with them. They always know what was going to be the birthdays and the weddings, and they wish that he was at this event and that event, and they can relive that night when the police came to the door forever. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not learning to carry the grief. They’re not fixing it, but they are carrying it and finding joy in other things.

Yeah, absolutely. Given the year we just had, what this year saw was a lot of tragedy, a lot of death, and a lot of grief. How has this year impacted Grief Coach?

The CDC in July put out a number saying that for every COVID death, an average of nine people are left grieving. I think it’s informing people’s understanding of the scale of grief because that’s just COVID deaths, we also had an increase in pretty much every other cause of death in 2020, so we’re talking about tens of millions of newly bereaved just in the US. COVID has shined a very hard light on grief in a way that we just can’t turn away from it anymore. So I think what the pandemic has done is there’s been a ton more media coverage. One of my grief experts was in Rolling Stone. I can tell you that bereavement professionals who’ve been doing this work for years and years and years were never in Rolling Stone before. So there is a sort of public willingness to look with open eyes at a thing that has always been true, it’s just that now it’s so true and so pervasive, that it does seem to be getting more play, which I think is good. We all want to be getting better at sitting with grief and talking about it. What do we actually do to support people when someone dies? Because we know that grieving is bad for us with lots of negative outcomes. When you’re grieving, you’re more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, illness, more hospital visits, higher suicide rates, sleeplessness, substance use, etc. So we know that grief is a time when we’re at risk for a lot of negative health outcomes. But because it’s so hard to talk about, we have no policies and procedures. We don’t understand that bereavement care is health care, even though it is. So grief is now getting the airtime that it should have been getting many moons ago. In terms of the business, our subscriber base has picked up, but we were only a year old before the pandemic hit, so I think that would have happened anyway, hopefully. We did have to stop everything to add COVID as a cause of death. I think our whole program for employers was really triggered by a big piece of coverage last April. Before we even had a package for employers, we were getting approached by everything from a police station in Florida to a flooring company in Washington, and really amazing managers trying to figure out how to support grieving employees who are coming back to work. That led to a program for clinicians, so healthcare providers who experienced all this grief at work, and helping their hospitals and hospices support them, their grieving employees, as well as the family members they care for. I think that the employer and bereavement benefits space has really opened up because big companies have taken the lead like Facebook, Airbnb, and MasterCard in expanding bereavement benefits for employees. We obviously need to support grieving employees coming back to work, not just to be nice, but because we’re also going to see less attrition, more loyalty, and fewer workplace accidents.

Just to hear all the changes that are starting is quite incredible. Obviously, we wish things were better, but it’s important that we’re learning and adapting.

Yeah, and we are. It’s the same as what you hear from environmentalists who’ve been fighting for climate legislation forever. It would be better if we didn’t have to wait until our backs were against the wall to make a change. But having said that, our backs are against the wall and we are doing it. Things are happening.

On that note, I just have one last question for you. What has been the most memorable or meaningful story that you’ve heard from one of your Grief Coach members?

Oh my gosh, we got some really good ones this week, but I’m going to share one of the very first ones I got because it was amazing to get this feedback early because right out of the gate I was like, “Oh, Emma, you built something good. This is going to work.” This was a woman who was a banker, and her son was stillborn. Her first child, stillbirth, and she was just devastated. She was also preoccupied with how alone she felt because her husband wouldn’t talk about the baby at all, and her best friend, who had flown across the country to help with the baby, said, “I don’t know how to be with you when you’re like this” and left. So this woman, who’s supposed to be with her new baby, doesn’t have the baby, but also doesn’t have her husband and her best friend by her side at this incredibly painful time. She was one of the very first people to ever buy a Grief Coach subscription. She signed up for herself as the griever, but she was also allowed to add up to four friends and family. She added her husband and the friend, the friend who got on the plane. A couple of days later, the friend writes to us and says, “Thank you for understanding this is hard for me too. I don’t know what to do.” It was the truest thing. I feel like that friendship cemented when it could have fractured. A really important situation was supported in a way that it clearly wasn’t going to be. So I always talk about that one, it’s just so poignant to hear from both the supporter and the griever. I mean, I’m definitely happy that we support grieving people. That’s what we do. But I think the fact that we’re also coaching the friends and family around them is the magic. It was so early, and I was so lucky to get that story early.

Yeah, wow. I feel like my heart skipped a beat when you were saying it. That’s amazing. It’s probably the most rewarding thing you could have received right at the get-go. And it really goes to show how meaningful your platform is and how beneficial it is for people.

People say, “Oh, your work must be so depressing.” It’s not. Every day my inbox is full of gratitude. Because I believe, and I see it every day, that people are good. We want to support each other.

I’m really blown away by everything you just said, I think you’re really making a difference in people’s lives. This has honestly been the highlight of my day. Thank you so much for taking the time.