Grief, Loss and Mental Health: Combining personal experience and clinical expertise

Jan 8, 2021

This week on Mind Tap, Scott is joined by KISU founder, Dr. Rhesa Ledbetter, and Counseling Doctoral Student, Hannah Brinser. Combining personal experience and clinical expertise, Scott, Hannah and Rhesa explore the topics of grief and loss.

Credit Dr. Rhesa Ledbetter behind the mic.


This week on Mind Tap, we are investigating the topic of grief and loss. Losing a loved one is something that most of us will experience in our lifetime, and the emotional distress that follows is our natural human response to this loss. However, grieving is a highly individual experience and there is no right or wrong way to do it.

Dr. Rhesa Ledbetter is an Assistant Professor at Idaho State University in the Department of Biological Sciences. Just over a year ago, Rhesa sadly lost her husband of 15 years to a heart attack. Her husband, Tim Magnuson was also a Professor in the Biology Department and a valued member of the ISU community.

Rhesa explained that it’s been the hardest year of her life.

“It still hasn’t completely sunk in that he’s gone- that he’s not going to be coming home anymore. There were no signs, symptoms, nothing that suggested he would just fall over and die. It was just shocking.”

Hannah Brinser, an ISU Counseling Student joined Rhesa and Scott to offer a clinical perspective on grief. Hannah started by explaining that grief looks different for everyone.

“There are five traditional stages of grief, which include denial, anger, sadness, bargaining and sadness. However, these stages are not linear and a person who is grieving should not expect to chronologically transition through these stages. Instead, people who are grieving are likely to jump and bounce between each stage.”

Rhesa continued by admitting that she had never looked at a clinical definition of grief.

“To me, grief is an intense, beautiful love, and is essentially, the way I still love Tim now that he’s gone. Grief is absolutely brutal. The sadness and pain I’ve experienced is unlike anything I could have imagined. I remember feeling like I had no idea how I was going to do life without my best friend and partner, and I still wonder. But, grief is also beautiful. In the midst of tragedy, I can see beautiful elements intertwined with all the sadness, things like feeling Tim’s presence, signs from him there were undeniably not coincidental, kindness and outpouring of love from family, friends, even strangers.

Hannah noted that it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between grief and depression because many of the symptoms are the same.  However, unlike depression, grief is not a diagnosable mental health disorder and is our natural response to losing somebody important to us. Hannah continued to describe dated medical advice, which suggested that after six months of grieving with no improvement in mood, a person was considered to be depressed. However, this is no longer consider to be accurate and that there is no timeline for grieving. Instead, Hannah suggested that a person may wish to seek medical help, such as therapy, if they feel that they have not properly dealt with a situation and that the effects are continuing to permeate into all aspects of their life.

About a quarter of widows and widowers will experience clinical depression and anxiety during the first year of bereavement; the risk drops to about 17% by the end of the first year and continues to decline thereafter.

After hearing these statistics, Rhesa said that she wasn’t surprised at all that widows and widowers experience depression and anxiety. Rhesa continued to explain that she has definitely had anxiety and bouts of depression.

“There are so many factors involved with trauma. In my case, it wasn’t just the loss of Tim. There was dealing with Tim’s estate, planning a memorial, wondering what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, worrying that Tim will be forgotten over time.”

Scott continued by asking Rhesa if it has been difficult to integrate back into what was her normal life before the loss of Tim.

“I’ve also struggled with how suppressed grief seems to be in society.  It’s difficult to find people to identify with after such tragic loss, so there’s not just the trauma of spousal loss, but also the loss of those around you, because it feels like a lot of people don’t understand or sometimes even care to. All these emotions carry so much weight that it has become challenging for me to pull apart the various facets. I understand that people may be grieving in their own way, or perhaps, don’t know what to do or maybe don’t want to think about these sad things. I’ve actually thought a lot about how we might be able to open conversations with those who are hurting.”

Speaking on what has helped her through this process, Rhesa stated that her family, friends and a support group have been key.

“I want to say that I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by incredible family and friends who cry with me, listen, take time to remember and talk about Tim, and help lift me up when I can’t, and I want to thank them. I also joined a nationally-recognized online widow support group, which is sadly full of many young widows like myself, but offers the most incredible source of understanding and compassion. It’s said to be the best worst club to be part of, and I’m so glad I found this peer-support network.”

Thanks for listening to Mind Tap. Join me, Scott Greeves, for Mind Tap, every Friday Morning at 7,35am.

Links to support groups are found below:

Useful Website to search for local support groups: National Widowers Organization. Available at: https://nationalwidowers.org/support-groups/

The Hot Young Widows Club: Aims to provide comfort and support to people who have lost their significant others. We use an inclusive definition of the word “widow” to mean someone mourning the death of their husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend or partner and believe we can all learn from and support one another, even if our relationship situations differed. Available at https://www.hotyoungwidowsclub.com/