Two side-by-side headshots, from left: A white woman with platinum blonde hair staring into the distance and a smiling South Asian woman with glasses against an office background with the words "Finding Community and Growth Amidst Grieving" above them.

Finding Community and Growth Amidst Grieving with Dr. Sunitha Chandy – Episode #28

How do you define and process grief? Over the next three episodes, Care Work is exploring grief—the collection of emotions and experiences we have with any loss. Essential within this work is inspecting how we process and continue to live within this universal experience.

Episode Show Notes

In this episode, Alida is joined by Dr. Sunitha Chandy, a clinical psychologist specializing in helping transform both individual lives and communities through mental health services. Sunitha shares her insights on the interplay between community and grief and the importance of accepting both the inherent difficulty and the cathartic potential of the grieving process.

Listen to learn: 

  • How COVID impacted how we understand grieving
  • The behaviors with which grief and mourning are intertwined
  • The detrimental effect of our American taboos against public grief
  • Why the grieving process is an ongoing healing rather than a cure

Important resources from this episode:

Connect with Dr. Sunitha Chandy:

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


SUNITHA: It’s impossible to move through that without grief because you have to recognize the injury. If I have a stab wound, I can’t move forward healing any of that without noticing the injury or the pain. The pain is part of the process to move me towards correcting that. But I also feel like the grieving process actually isn’t one that ever ends.


ALIDA: Welcome to Care Work, a podcast about what it means to offer care for a living. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. For most of my career, I’ve been a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging practitioner focused on teaching, love, healing harm, and scaling belonging. In my books, Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations That Last and The First Time Manager: DEI. I explored what care inside of organizations means. Join me as I continue this journey with guests who take meeting the needs of others on as their calling, both inside of organizations and in any other way.

As listeners of this podcast know, I have been in a grieving process since May of last year. 2023 was absolutely the hardest year of my life, and I spent much of the year losing people, places, relationships, hope. And that’s really what guided the arc that we’re coming into now, starting with my first episode of this grief based arc with Dr. Sunitha Chandy. In this episode, we really spend time defining grief and understanding what it takes to process grief in a fundamentally liberatory and cathartic way. If you or anyone you know is going through grief today, you know how intensely difficult of a process it is. And what I love about this episode is how practical Dr. Chandy is, about talking through how you can lean on community specifically to really unlock the transformative potential of that process. Last year was essentially my year of loss. So I had two people that I’m very close to pass away within two weeks of each other, both unexpectedly and both from cancer. 


And I would love to just start the conversation with a simple question that maybe isn’t so simple, actually, which is, how would you define grief? What is it?

SUNITHA: I love that we’re starting with that question, because I think it’s really easy to jump in and just talk about grief, but I think it’s actually good to start with the basics about what exactly it is. And grief is just the collection of emotion and experiences that we have whenever we experience a loss. And so it can really be all encompassing, can take over our experience, but our grief processes can be really diverse depending on what the loss is. And I think typically, just like you just shared with your story, and I feel like even as you were sharing my heart goes out to you, because I do think you’re probably still in that grieving process, even now, a year out from those losses. We think about death, people who’ve died, but there are lots of things in our life that we often grieve, either consciously or unconsciously.

ALIDA: And I want to dig into that because this idea that grief goes beyond the personal, that it goes beyond, I’ve lost a loved one or someone I care about, seemed to gain a lot of traction in the COVID era. I remember there was an essay that David Kessler put out that was basically about how what you’re experiencing in this pandemic is grief is the loss of all of the things you used to do in the way of life that you had. And I wonder what you think about that. What does that actually mean?

SUNITHA: Yeah, and I think it’s really interesting when you think about different communities and different cultural contexts, because I think sometimes when we hear people talk about grief, we’re really used to talking about individual grief, the stages of grief, that’s a really popular topic, but it becomes something really different when we start talking about communal grief. And that was, I think, going back even to the early stages of the pandemic. As a therapist and a practicing therapist, our team really spent a lot of time talking about how are we grieving and mourning through this process. And not just the COVID pandemic, but all of the social strife that started to happen, landing on top of one social situation at a time. I think that there is something really key of whenever we’re experiencing this major loss, like you just described, all of a sudden, everything that I would do normally in my life has been taken from me, and I’m feeling this absence. And there are ways in which we enact or show up or express those feelings. And many of us didn’t have a way to do that. And so for some of us that came out in numbness or anger, and some of us started to feel really guilty for the levels of sorrow that we felt without having the framework of, like, no, it was really normal to have this grief over change that was happening in our world, because we don’t actually ever get to go back to normal. That was a big discussion that was happening. I feel like last year, it’s like, oh, now we get to go back to normal. And it was really hard because it’s like, no, there’s actually no going back to a world where these events haven’t happened. So it’s been really interesting recognizing there’s a confusion of events and anger and sadness and grief is oftentimes the behaviors that we do to express that. And I often talk about grief and mourning together, because mourning is often how we choose to put that out there in the world, how we choose to gather together to express those feelings that are showing up for us, which oftentimes, words don’t always express really well for us.

ALIDA: What I think is interesting in what you’re saying about how we express grief and behaviors, whether internal and external, is how different those behaviors seem to be depending on the context of the grief. Can you talk a little bit more about how these behaviors show up and why we choose the behaviors we do in the different contexts of grief?

SUNITHA: Yeah. And I think this is where we can get into Kübler Ross’s stages of grief, which is really built for very much an individual process. Right. You can talk about, we have denial, you have bargaining, which is oftentimes a part about, like, okay, universe. If I give you these things, will you bring back the person or bring back the situation for me? You have depression, you have anger. We also have consolidation, which doesn’t always fall into the five, but that’s often where we come to a place of coming back together and acceptance. I think it only hit five there, so I’m missing one. So we’ll see if they come back to my mind. But when we think of communal ideas, of forming and dealing with grief, I do think that despair, maybe that’s the one that I missed with Kübler  Ross’s stages, because there is this acceptance of, like, I can’t change this thing that is happening. But the impact of these sort of next level, systemic things don’t just impact me, they impact many other people. And we’re also grappling with other people’s reaction to this loss or their lack of reaction. And so we start to get into this interesting relational dynamic. And this is what I love about this interplay. And this is actually why sometimes you’ll see more of that like, militant response, when you think about grief, it’s like, you don’t see this pain, and I need you to see this. 

As a therapist, I’ve worked a lot with self harm behaviors, and I think those are behaviors oftentimes that get a lot of judgment for individuals who struggle with that. And so we really talk a lot about the fact that all behavior is communication, and our behaviors always have a point. And so we can take a judgmental response and just judge why someone’s doing something, or we can take a curious response and be like, okay, what’s the what behind this? Why? And oftentimes, self injurious behaviors can be about emotion regulation. Self injurious behaviors can be about communication. I don’t have another way to communicate this pain to you. And so when I think about militant behaviors, there also can be this nihilism that can come up as well, like hope is lost. I see that in the social justice fronts for a lot of people who’ve been in that long suffering place of really seeing injustice happen in their communities for a long period of time. And I think this is actually why mourning and grieving and community becomes so important that sometimes having the collaboration of voices together, so that there can be care for those who have really run that race really, really hard and are at that point of exhaustion to be carried sometimes by those who actually have tears and still have the ability to cry in those moments. 

Because even someone who might be at that place of, like, nihilism, we aren’t actually always trapped there. That’s a point in the journey. And oftentimes, people who are at that place still might cycle through the same thing with someone who’s at a militant place in their journey. There still are ways that they might cycle through to other stages. That’s the nice thing about these stage models. They don’t actually follow things linearly. We kind of float around in all those different directions, can find ourselves in multiple stages at once.

ALIDA: So you said something that I think is really important, which is that there’s a place for grieving in community. And that is something that especially folks who are working on social justice, who are working on these really big problems and are just going through it day in and day out. That’s a place for them to release and to have this sort of communal, collective experience. At the same time, I don’t really think of the American culture in particular as being one that’s open with communal grieving. Grief is a very independent process, a very individual process. It’s something you keep to yourself. It’s almost supposed to be quiet. I always think about the films from the 1960s, from Italy, where you had the Italian widows and the all black throwing themselves into the sea and screaming and thinking to myself, there would be so much healing in that, to be wailing with other people and to really give voice. And at the same time, that doesn’t feel socially acceptable in aAmerican culture more broadly. What do you think about that? What would you say about grief in the US?

SUNITHA: I would really agree with that. I think there is a lot of fear actually around communal grieving. I think people are really worried that people are going to go off the rails. And one either that despair is going to get so bad that people aren’t going to come back from it, or that people are going to get so angry that things are going to get destroyed. I really feel like whenever we talk about grief in a mental health sort of perspective, grief is always attached to love, because we don’t grieve anything that we don’t love. And these big emotions are always tied to people and situations and experiences that we miss. And if we don’t voice it, then we’re also holding back from ourselves the depth of love we could feel. But what happens is when we don’t give space for that. And I think that’s the fear. It’s like, oh, but if we let this free, it’ll get out of hand. We put a lot of stereotypes in other cultures about being buttoned up. And I think as Americans, we’re like, no, we’re brash, we’re loud, we’re flashy. I’m like, and we’re very scared of what we’ve labeled as negative emotions. I do find in a lot of communities and a lot of cultures, I personally find that as a real gift of being South Asian and growing up in the community that I grew up in, it was really normal as a child for my parents to take me to funerals. And while my parents weren’t always the most emotionally expressive, I remember as a kid going to a funeral of another child and that being pretty formative and sitting in this small prayer meeting and just watching whole host of women and men just crying and praying for the family and sitting and eating with them, but also watching after the joy and the stories and the connection that often can come out of that. And I think there’s a lot of beautiful American traditions, because the diversity in American culture that we have here, where the gathering together and the crying and even the anger that can come out when you don’t lose the thread of why we care and why we love that allowing that release actually can lead to really productive action and actually productive care.

ALIDA: It brings me back to one of the kind of main topics of the book, Rest is Resistance, which is that, as, Hersey writes in her book, “grieving in this culture is not done and is seen as a waste of time, because grieving is a powerful place of reverence and liberation”. And she goes on to write that a grieving person is a healed person. So there’s also this element of, yes, there is the fear of loss of control in the chaotic way, too much anger, too much despair. But there also might be a loss of control in terms of this idea of liberation. I would love to hear your take on this. This idea that a grieving person is a healed person.

SUNITHA: I love that because I do think it is hard. I’m going to say hard, but I might even say impossible to heal. And it’s impossible to move through that without grief, because you have to recognize the injury. If, you know, I have a stab wound, I can’t move forward healing any of that without noticing the injury or the pain. The pain is part of the process to move me towards correcting that. But I also feel like the grieving process actually isn’t one that ever ends. There are certain forms of grief where we can get full consolidation, right? If I get laid off from a job that I love and I’m passionate about, that can be incredibly painful, and I will go through a grief process through that. But there can be healing and consolidation as I work through that. And maybe when I get a new job that’s going to be corrected. I may always feel pain when I look back at that experience, but there are other things, like losses of loved ones, certain aspects of community injustice, where nothing ever makes it better. That pain is always there. 

And I think in some ways, that’s right, that we stay in that place of grieving and mourning, because we always honor that, no, it was never okay that you were mistreated. It was never okay that you were seen as less. You always will love this person. And so when they’re not there, that love needs to go somewhere. The love that they had for you needs to go somewhere. And so sometimes that grief is going to look like tears or an ache in your heart, but sometimes that grief looks like a moment of joy when, I don’t know, you see a bucket of popcorn, and that was your favorite thing to have with the person that you miss. And the smell of it just reminds you of them. So, the ache and the hurt can shift. And that’s where I think rest as resistance is important, because we’re not fighting through the grief to get at the end. Sometimes we’re sinking in the place of, like, uh. This hurts my heart. And sometimes when I feel pain, the first thing I want to do is be like, I’m done. It’s over. Like, right now, my throat is dry, and I’m like, oh, got to sip some water. But other times, it’s like, no, this hurts. And it’s right that it hurts because I want to honor and hold the people that are hurting here with me. And that requires a pause, that requires time for me to sit in that. And I think that’s a hard part for American culture. We don’t want to sit in that. We want to go fast.

ALIDA: Well, and going back to the point that you made before, it hurts. I mean, when you have a wound, when you have an open wound, what do you want to do? You want to seal it, and you want the pain from it to go away. And so I wonder what you offer to folks who are sitting in the pain, maybe for the first time that they ever have, whether it’s at the interpersonal level or at the social level or at the global level. How can they be with their grief without essentially succumbing to despair or anger?

SUNITHA: I think one of the first places is that to feel pain is to feel human and to comfort that pain is not wrong. There’s a huge difference between running from pain and comforting pain. So, when we are feeling the heaviness of hurt, it doesn’t mean that we need to dig our fingers into that hurt. Sometimes it means that we need to put a protective covering over it. Sometimes in our first experience of loss, what we start to do is judge the fact that it’s hurting us or judge the fact that we’re crying or that we are struggling to move forward. And I feel like we’re living in a really great time period where so many people have taken the risk to write out their experiences so that we don’t have to feel alone. I think one of the worst experiences for anyone is to feel that they’re in this place of heavy emotions or difficult struggle, or feeling no emotions. 

And to think that it’s just me, I’m broken, there’s something wrong with me. And I think if it’s your first time in a place, it’s your first time there. So you don’t know how your body or your mind is going to react. And I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go through your process. I just don’t think it’s helpful for any of us to run away from what’s coming up for us. But I do think it’s okay for us to pace ourselves, right? I do think that feeling grief does not erase our ability to feel joy, to feel connection, or to feel any other feeling. And I do think sometimes you have that survivor’s guilt or it’s worse for other people. And there are ways that we can still say, like, you can feel joy for others, you can think about what others might have for you. And we have complicated grief or disenfranchised grief, things that other people may not understand, but there are communities that can understand that. So I’m a big proponent of, if it’s your first time, don’t feel like you have to walk through it alone. There are people out there who get it. And if you can’t find those people, talk to Google. Google will help you. But there are great people out there, therapists, there are coaches, there are spiritual guides out there to help really connect with you in those places of hurt.

ALIDA: I also am curious about space and how we use space, or how we are in a space where there is grief to heal. What does it actually mean to grieve in a space with other people, or to grieve in a space with what has been lost?

SUNITHA: I think there is something really key about us being embodied creatures that there are sometimes things that words can’t express. And I think in the west, we are very cognitive, and we’re very verbal, and we want to be able to like, talk and discuss our way through things. Sitting Shiva is a beautiful example. I always think of in the Torah, like the Book of Job is a very powerful book on suffering. And I’ve always been struck for anyone who is familiar with the story. God and the devil make a bet, and Job sort of gets cursed, and he’s asking God, why? And there’s this point where his four friends come and they just sit with him, and then they have a big discussion, and the book continues. But it was always that point where his friends just sit with him in his suffering. That has always stuck out to me. And there’s something about being physically present with others in that moment, and whether that’s a service where you are parading through the streets, playing beautiful music, or you’re having a wake, or going to the water and releasing ashes, sometimes we need physical movements to actually help us as we think about what is our process to move something through. You think about things like the body keeps the score. There are techniques about somatic release and where we’re holding things in our body. We can think about grieving also as a physical process. When I think about someone crying really hard, you can think about the physical body motions of how their body is shaking and heaving. But any of you have had a really distraught and heavy cry. Oftentimes afterwards, you feel really empty and depleted. There’s a reason for that, because the goal is to have some of that release. 

So I do think sometimes, even with the act of lighting candles or releasing something, those metaphors become really powerful for us when we have lost something. And I think there are places and times where even if we’re not participating in the same sort of cultural way of grieving, we can have other techniques that we use that can help us together as a group, whether it’s you know, in the restorative justice world. Sometimes you’ll hold a circle and have a moment where people can be present and share a word and connect together. Sometimes it’s just through silence and being together at a candlelight vigil. I think those moments are actually really important for us, and especially in our world now, where we’re not always physically able to gather together, sometimes even virtually holding space. To just know, like, we’re holding the space together for this purpose, I think, can be really meaningful for us still.

ALIDA: And that is a skill, being able to hold space for others, being resilient enough to be able to experience others in grief and not take it on as your own and becoming dysregulated as a result. So if we stay with restorative justice or social justice movements, I know based on the work that you do, it’s a really interesting combination of  types of work. What do you say in groups of people who are maybe working towards a cause or working towards a goal about their responsibilities to each other and how they develop the skills to uphold those responsibilities?

SUNITHA: I think that’s why having spaces to pause become incredibly important. And it becomes actually really difficult, because the nature of the issues that we’re working on and the nature of the things we want to see change in are so pressing, it almost feels like we don’t have time to stop. We don’t have time to pause. We have to push through this. And I always want to take that step back and place these pain points in time and history. And that doesn’t feel good, because some of these issues have been happening for generations, and we don’t want. And again, like we said before, we don’t want to get caught up then into the despair of, like, well, why are we even bothering with this? Because part of m why we take the time to mourn and grieve is also to protect our hope, right? Why are we hoping for something different? Why are we creating the space to pause? Why are we taking the space to recognize the weight that we’re carrying so that we carry it well and can continue to carry it? I think that’s why it’s so important in these movements for change that we do connect ourselves to the legacy of history, one so that we don’t make the same mistakes as the past, but also so that we are being protective in how we move forward and collaborative about it, because there are multiple voices. And I wish sometimes things were really easy and there was just a simple black and white, and I’m like, done. We just do this and it’s over. And it is nuanced work, and it is work that’s going to take. Caring always comes at a cost. We say that all the time. Any form of caring is going to come at a cost, which means we have to have spaces where we’re replenishing ourselves so the work gets done.

ALIDA: What you’re saying is really resonating with me and I think is so beautiful. What I will say comes up for us. And one of my colleagues does incredible work on grief and conflict and the relationship between the two, the sort of insidiousness of comparative grief, where we are in a space that’s supposed to be a replenishing space, but maybe the needs are in competition with each other, or it feels that that space can only hold enough for one issue or one experience or one trauma. But there’s so much that they have experienced that they’re unpacking. There’s so much ideology that’s at odds, and there ends up being this dividing line where if I honor your grief, it invalidates mine. And I wonder how you deal with that as a practitioner.

SUNITHA: Yeah. And sometimes it’s like, well, if you agree with that, then you don’t agree with this. And that means we can’t be on the same page. And I think it’s very easy to get into that, like, trauma comparison. And we can’t say things like, well, pain is pain. It’s like, well, no, if I have a nail in my foot, is it the same as my leg being cut off? No, it is not the same, but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t take time to remove the nail from my foot. right? If I remove the nail from my foot, I will be much more effective to care for anyone who’s lost their leg. That there is a reality that sometimes when we are in these instagroup situations, especially when the intensity level is moving really high, like we’re feeling right now, recognizing our own capacity to show up in the space is important. And this is in family systems theory, when we’re thinking about as a practitioner and in couples therapy, one thing we really look at is when are you ready to bring something forward to your partner? 

And I actually really like this metaphor because that is really what we’re trying to think about. When we think about bringing sort of reconciliation between diverse people together who have diverse claims and pain and trauma and stories that need to be honored, there are times when I think we need to hear stories and share our pain in groups that feel safer because we’re not yet ready to process this out with someone who’s more risky. Like, if I’m dealing with something personally, how’s my partner going to react to this? Or I’m shaking this up. I might need to process some of this first internally and have some space to really come to understanding, we know, with emotions, and this is going to sound really simplistic for a very difficult and painful situation. Emotions function like a wave. They hit a peak and they come back down. The problem is, in these type of crisis, there’s so many things continuing to move things up the ladder that we’re not seeing it come back down. Having space and time to really think about how are we caring for these needs? How are we putting things forward within this group becomes important. But the goal of doing that work isn’t so like, oh, I feel so much better. No, when and how do I then now bring it to my partner? And in those spaces, when we’re trying to reconcile specific groups together, that’s important. But I’d also say for anyone who doesn’t belong to those two groups, that becomes a space of like. And this again, goes to western ideology. 

How do we move outside the binary of like, there are only two options, or, uh, two pieces to the story? And this is really, I think, in America, where we’re a diverse country, where there is more than two options, there are more than two stories. And how do people, a few steps out of the conversation, start to create space of supporting those two communities and supporting both of those communities and caring for them and sitting in that tension as well. This is a big cost, too, of humanizing and connecting with people, is you will start feeling more grief, you will start hurting for your fellow others. You will also feel more connection and more hope. But it does come with a lot more of how do I take care of myself? How do I continue to hold on to joy and hope and equal measures to the pain that is in the world that I think sometimes that falls on us who might find ourselves outside of those groups to think about stepping in and bringing care as these situations unfold.

ALIDA: It reminds me of something Dylan Marron has said, which is that, empathy is not endorsement. We can make the time and expend the energy to understand someone, to be with them, um, to hold space for them, even if we don’t agree. And so I think that this element that you brought up earlier, which is a healthy grieving process, means being able to remove that self judgment or remove that judgment of others. That’s a really important part of all of this, is what I’m taking away from listening to you. What else do you want people in this process to know as they’re going through it?

SUNITHA: I think I’d want them to know that beautiful things can grow in the midst of this grief. I have this saying that “flowers grow in shit”, and it doesn’t make the crappy things that are happening in your life okay, doesn’t justify them. But there is a place that sometimes we don’t want to do this stuff because it’s just going to make us feel bad, and it’s just going to make everything else hard. And wanting people to know you are still going to be able to grow and develop while you do these things. Like ,grief does not have to waylay the rest of your life. It does not have to pause everything. 

Now some of us do need to take a pause to be able to really take care of ourselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because any care you put into yourself is going to come back out to help move your life forward. That’s the only reason why you’re doing this. The only reason why you’re putting any care in yourself is to bring that into the life you want to live. And I think that’s the part that I think is so important, because if you could avoid it, we’d let you avoid it. We’d let you not do this, we would wipe it off the table. But it’s about bringing the person you want to into the world. And I think sometimes I feel like us, uh, therapists are trying to convince people to do all the really hard things, and it’s like, no, we want you to do the meaningful things. The things are going to allow you to be proud of yourself, allow yourself to love the way you want to. And the grieving process is hard, but it’s also really beautiful because it lets you tap in to some of the most beautiful parts of yourself.

ALIDA: Those are really beautiful words, and I think a wonderful stopping point, something that folks can take with them and consider. Before I let you go, though, is there anything that you would like to close out with? Whether it’s a call to action or a point of connection, or even just a plug for something that you would like people to do?

SUNITHA: For anyone who’s struggling to find community, I just want to say that it’s sadly really normal. I think finding those spaces is really hard for a lot of us, and I think especially post pandemic, with all the shifts and changes in the world, our team is actually going to be hosting some community conversations in the coming months on some heavy hitting topics. So invite anyone who’s interested in coming to a space to talk about some different things. And we’re going to be talking about stress and sexual harassment, some of those really fun topics that everyone’s like, yeah, let’s talk about those things. So I will definitely make sure that you know about them, but we’d invite anyone to come check those out. We want to create more spaces where people can have conversations like this.

ALIDA: Well, thank you so much and what an incredible resource for folks really looking for it and not knowing where to go. I so appreciate you. Thank you for your time today.

SUNITHA: Yes, thank you for having me. This was great.


ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with your community to help uplift and advocate for more caring cultures everywhere. This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and me, Alida Miranda-Wolff, I’m also your host. Theme music, Vibing Introspectively, was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass. Audio editing and post production assistance was provided by oOrganized sSound Productions. If you want more of me, be sure to order my books, Cultures of Belonging and The First Time Manager, DEI.


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