Transcript: Player's Own Voice podcast with Dina Bell-Laroche
read- out of conversation with sports grief counsellor Dina Bell-Laroche
Transcript: Dina Bell Laroche on Player's own Voice podcast
Anastasia: After thirty years of work in Canadian Sports, mostly on the communication side, Dina Bell-Laroche has witnessed her share of lows and highs. But the event that changed the course of her career was the death of her sister, nearly twenty years ago. The grief and her sports experience led Dina to a unique discipline…she coaches and counsels athletes dealing with loss in its many forms.
With national athletes everywhere encountering the Post Olympic Blues right now, this is a good moment for some clear thinking about love and loss.
It's Player's Own Voice. I'm Anastasia Bucsis
Anastasia: Thank you so much for joining me. I'm going to butcher this introduction, so just in your own words, what do you do?
Dina Bell-Laroche: I own a company now called Sport Law, but in my heart, I'm an integral coach and that means I get to accompany people in their life transitions and one of those life transitions is helping people work through grief after they've suffered through a loss. And I have a lot to share about that with you. But yeah, I've been an advocate for a more humanistic approach to Canadian sport since I first entered in 1991, and I haven't really looked back since then.
Anastasia: We chatted about two months ago and you gave me more clarity on my future than I think I've ever received. But why sport, why sport and marrying it with grief and loss?
Dina Bell-Laroche: You know, I worked in sport for the first 15 years, right? So I served on five Olympic teams as either the press chief or a media attache and then a dozen other games. And so I've had this long standing love affair with Canadian Sport since I was nine and that was during the 1976 Olympics, right? When I watched Nadia Comaneci perform miracles. And I remember turning to my mom and saying, I'm going to the Olympics, and she didn't want to burst my bubble. And so there was my big dream.
And so serving inside the sport sector has been such a privilege. And then my sister died. And my younger sister died twenty one years ago and everything changed, and I think a big part of me died with her. And in that experience when I was grappling with my grief. I recognised there has to be a better way for us to equip athletes and coaches, the frontline people, the people we have reason to watch…. We have to give them greater grief and loss literacy, Anastasia, so that when this stuff happens at them, they're not left thinking, what's wrong with me? It's like, No, look, what's happened to you. And I believe the bereavement theory can give us more of that literacy, and then we feel more resourced to normalise that inner experience.
Anastasia: So when you say, you know, grief, are you identifying it inside sport, outside sport, what environment does that look like?
Dina Bell-Laroche: So let's maybe give your listeners a quick primer in grief and loss. So a loss is a severed attachment, so I attach to people, pets, homeland, experiences, dreams. And when I attach meaning to that, and that loss is severed, the natural experience that I internalise, it's a deeply private experience, is grief. So grief is our internal way of making sense of that severed attachment. Mourning is when we take that grief experience and we take it public. OK, so there is some grief myths like you can only grieve the death of someone you love. No, we're busting myths on this on this call.
So an athlete who spends 10 years, 10,000 hours and a coach who's supporting her big dream, if that dream isn't realised, that is a severed attachment. So the inner experience is grief. And then in sport, what I've witnessed is we have no rituals, no way of mourning that in a more public way. So we don't reconcile our loss and the word reconcile means to make something whole. So what do we do as really good, stoic people in sport?
We reward the brave or a false sense of bravery. And it might sound something like this: Don't worry, we'll focus on the next thing. Don't worry, it's just a loss. We've got all these other ones that we can, you know, all these other competitions that you can win at. Don't worry if your teammates didn't make the team, you need to focus on getting the job done, and that is what we reward.
There is no reward for speed and no attachment to outcome when we do bereavement care. So if we can use all that we know about what's right in true around honouring people who are suffering -because that's what athletes do after their dream has been shattered - they suffer and alongside them often their team-mates and their parents and their coaches. But we haven't normalised it. And so people feel shamed into silence. And that is where I think I'm coming in with a hopefully a refreshing way of just normalising it and giving people hopefully, hope that they can find their way through the experience after some people feel like their soul has been shattered.
Anastasia: So you've said you would like all athletes and high performance staff, you know, coaches, HPSs, x y z, the list goes on and on and on. To be versed in grief and loss literature.
Dina Bell-Laroche: What I'm starting to see now is athletes are finding the language, athletes are pushing back. So you look at the Russian figure skaters, for instance, who are dissolving into tears. Tears are not a sign of weakness. It's actually the brave thing to do is to express your tears, right? If we look at Naomi Osaka, right, who pushed back and said it doesn't make any sense, it's not a human centric approach to have me walk through the mix zone after I've lost a match and then put microphones in my face and expect me to not be hurt and to be stoic. That doesn't make any sense, so I think we have to honour and acknowledge that this next generation of athletes are asking for what they need and I applaud that.
We need a system that is holistic, that's based on human centric principles, that is informed by good evidence around what it takes to evolve a human being through the different, different life cycles. And remember, most of the high performance athletes, your love affair with sport began when you were a kid, so socialising. Athletes and parents and coaches from the ground up around a new way of attaching to this thing called sport and this experience called a result. You know, we could take a page off the Norwegian books.
Anastasia: Yeah, and they just won like a million Olympic gold medals in Beijing.
Dina Bell-Laroche: I would say they're not mutually exclusive because morals and medals can co-exist. They are not mutually exclusive. They are mutually reinforcing. And that's, I think, what we need to do more of.
Anastasia: You know, this whole focus on winning, winning, winning, even on kids, at least in my experience when I didn't need to achieve something that's usually when I achieved it, it's just that little reframing of being more in the moment. I mean, it can change lives, and that's what that's what ultimately we're hoping to do with sport. It's not about making the Olympics, it's not about winning an Olympic gold medal as much as I would have liked to have won one. You know, I think there's just so much emphasis on winning right now.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Yeah, I love that. So that's the beautiful invitation. So when I meet retired athletes and I don't like the word retire, we retire horses to pasture. But what about renewal?
Anastasia: I I'm no, I'm like a retired horse to pasture. I eat a lot of cheese. As I've said.
Dina Bell-Laroche: you know what I love is, OK, so I have. I have finished this experience. I grew up in sport. This is the reality for most, you know, Paralympic and Olympic athletes, right? If you make it to the top, you have spent all of your developmental years in a high performance pressure cooker. And when I hear you speak about, you know, what was that longing? Do I get out of the experience looking back over this experience that I have, enriched and grateful for, having been, for having served, for having participated, for having experienced, and too often I hear stories from retired athletes and their story isn't one of joy and feeling recognised, and complete. It's actually fractured. I remember.
So one of the athletes said to me. I lost my capacity to perform on demand. And he experienced that after he heard that he had made the Olympic team and his team-mates didn't. That's a severed attachment. He and his mates, as he called them, had dreams of competing at the Olympic Games together. And when he found he made it, and they didn't. His whole kind of attachment and what he had envisioned would have been his last games. That was a loss, but nobody, nobody was able to make sense of it. No. And he had, as you said, ists, and mental performance consultants and sports psychologists. He was working with a very supportive coach. And still, he was feeling he was feeling grief. So we can understand that grief is an internal phenomena that is deeply individuated. You are grieving and you're grieving, and that's a normal experience after what you've just been through. If we accumulate loss and then we are rewarded for being stoic, that loss that needs to be metabolised and needs an exit point doesn't get one. So we compartmentalise and we get really good and we get rewarded for that.
So what's a brave, smart athlete going to do, they're going to keep doing what they are being rewarded to do. Bravery is being able to say I'm grieving right now. Here's my coping practise. Here's what I think I'm going to need from people. And it could be just if we have a ritual like with team. So my big vision is working with athletes and teams to create a bereavement ritual.
Anastasia: Well, post-Games Blues, I mean, I can only think that we're coming up to a place that's pretty dark and pretty vulnerable for a lot of athletes, but what would you say to athletes going through that right now?
Dina Bell-Laroche: Well, I can say I experienced them right because I've been to five Olympics and the attachment I had to the people, and being inside this cocoon where I'm experienced something extraordinary and witnessing being present to the highest highs and then some pretty big lows, it does something to a human being. So when we come home to our everyday life, and then the people that I love most in the world can't really relate to that experience I had. It feels very, very similar to the death of someone that I love.
Anastasia: I've gotten it worse every single time, being on the media than being an athlete in a weird way.
Dina Bell-Laroche: But what is it about that experience? You think that that is harder for you?
Anastasia: I don't really know that's a great question, and thank you for flipping it. I get sick of my own voice on this podcast, but yeah, I think it's just everything that I do in my professional career now. I mean, obviously being an athlete, it's not even a job. It's a lifestyle. You eat, sleep, you know, do everything for your sport. But from my career standpoint, it just feels like, you know, you're so hyper focussed and then it comes and goes and it's a huge high and there's lows and you work your butt off and then you're like, OK, I'd like to be on a beach, but I also feel a little lost. You're a little bit rudderless.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Most North Americans, right, are grief illiterate and death phobic. We avert our gaze. My invitation is no, no, let's not avert our gaze. Let's dig in. So what I would share is we have to accept the loss. So you have to accept that this feeling of being there and here we call it liminal space, I'm not there and I'm not here, I'm in between. It's messy, it's murky. Give myself time and space and space to adjust to this new experience because I had this extraordinary experience, then I have to do the second thing, and this is where I think athletes really struggle. We have to accept the pain.
I've been conditioned to push through the pain.
Anastasia: Oh, it's so hard to accept. It's like the most vulnerable thing when you have to accept it.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Why does every single games experience feel harder and harder for me? You've been to how many Olympic Games?
Anastasia: Five now, two as an athlete, three with the media, yeah, I can't believe it, I'm getting old.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Exactly. So just kind of process that repeated exposure to loss, right? Three times as an athlete and then, you know, two times as media. So you're accepting, OK, there's this thing called loss. I've attached to people and stories and experiences. But have I acknowledged the pain that's causing me some internal psychic, a severed attachment? So I just want to acknowledge and be with it. No place to go, no reward for speed and no attachment to outcome, which is completely intuitive to High-Performance athletes.
We reward you to go fast and we reward you for winning medals. So being with the loss and being with the pain means I need to be curious and accepting, and it helps if I know that this is normal. So now I have to learn how to adjust to this new life without this dream in it. So if you're an athlete and you fail to perform on demand, you didn't bring home the hardware that you'd spend 10 years and 10000 hours on. I have to adjust to the reality that that dream is never going to be realised if this was my last Olympics.
Anastasia: You know, I've said that to coaches too, where I've said, I know I didn't, you know, reach my potential and that that haunts me. It doesn't keep me up at night anymore, but certainly there's a little piece of my soul that'll always kind of be attached to it. And so many folks have said Anastasia, you're the only one that thinks like that, though, you know, and they say it with a smile and they're like, you have so much to be proud of. And but I can't I can't pretend like I. I accept everything or I celebrate everything because there's a piece of me that wasn't reached.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Yeah, OK, beautiful. And so that's the work that I do. So if anybody's listening, please remove the 'at' and 'least' from your vocabulary when you're accompanying someone who is bereaved. Because those platitudes, as well-intentioned as people are, they are going to want to warp speed you through your experience of sorrow because it makes them uncomfortable when in fact you have to go through it. That's what grief and loss is. It's a process after this attachment that we've had. So this this little piece of your soul that feels unreconciled, perhaps not seen and heard and given permission to breathe. That is where, you know, trauma gets locked in. So this fourth stage or experience is about how do I create this enduring connection which that, that is deceased? If it's a loved one or this dream that was not realised.
Anastasia: I guess my follow up question then, would be what is a healthy coping mechanism versus unhealthy coping mechanism? Because there's a wide spectrum.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Yeah, there is. I'm so grateful that you ask that. So there's a couple of things that come to mind when we talk about, you know, coping. In this continuum of adaptive and healthy and, you know, maladaptive and unhealthy. We also have different coping styles. See which one feels right for you. Some people are more intuitive grievers. What does that mean? It means that this internal experience that I have needs to be experienced externally. So how I'm processing this experience, I need to see reflected back externally, which is why talk therapy, being in communion with others being, you know, being able to express my tears wailing, all of those things feel helpful to me.
Then we have the instrumental grievers. I'm an instrumental griever, so these are the kind of grievers that tend to want to work on projects, get organised, organise the funeral right or stay focussed and busy on a task. I know something is up when I feel the need to clean. Busted! Something's going on and my head doesn't know, but my heart knows. My body knows I need to process something. And in between, what we can start to see is societal kind of expectations. So men being kind of shaped to grieve in a more instrumental way and how that might be rewarded and encouraged. And women being shaped and encouraged to grieve in a more intuitive way. Look, I'll bring it back to Tracy, right? So Tracy's ongoing gift to me, my beautiful sister, who died in 2001. Her ongoing gift is that she's teaching me about my own ways of grieving and that I can carry my loss. And because I've done the grief work, I've learnt to carry it differently. Think of grief as the highest expression of our love. So the more you love, the more you're going to grieve and the prize or the reward system isn't to get over this loss. It's like saying I should get over having loved Tracy. So coping and understanding our different coping styles, and there's lots in between, right? And my more creative type right, where I might want to journal and bake. And there's lots of different ways where we can express the way in which we cope.
Anastasia: I'll throw myself under the bus. After I retired, I drank way too much. I guess that's numbing, right? Would that be the word versus coping or they're interchangeable?
Dina Bell-Laroche: So when you were in those moments and you were noticing that you were drinking, what do you think that was on behalf of? Why were you turning to alcohol do you think at that time?
Anastasia: I think it's well, first and foremost, so societally accepted. And so many folks, you know, we're picking on the Olympics or Paralympics…You finish competing. And what do you do you? You open a beer. And there can be really happy times with that as well. But I've just known too many friends, too many team-mates, you know, too many people in my life where, yeah, for that year after you, you retire, you kind of go a little bit squirrelly. And, you know, I don't know if I judged it all that harshly, but with hindsight, you go, Yep, I definitely was hiding some, some vulnerabilities and some things I probably needed to work out.
Dina Bell-Laroche: You just made the point. There's a reason why we say we drown our sorrows. You have everything that you need and I know grief and loss really well, right? Seventy five percent of people who are bereaved and the word bereaved means to be torn apart, which is what happens after I don't win this medal that I've spent 10 years and ten thousand hours working towards. If I if I had this way of being and I knew that after my career, you know, there's I'm feeling complete in that and now I want to explore what's new and what's next. People often feel they don't have the capacity to do that because they still have, they still feel the pull of something that doesn't feel resolved.
Anastasia: We've talked about, you know, the folks that didn't win the medal. What about people that win the medal and then have an existential crisis because they think: Wow, I thought this was going to fulfil something that really can't be fulfilled with anything external.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Remember, most of the athletes are kids that have grown up in a system, and you and I know that system isn't holistic. It's more it needs some improvement. We've improvement. We've agreed. So I've achieved everything I set out to achieve, and I'm twenty four years old. Now what? Who am I? So what's hard for you as you step away from 10 years of being on the national team and now you're moving into something the great, vast, unknown? So might it feel normal for you to feel like you're languishing, you're not here, you're not there, you're feeling heavy and unsure. When is the last time you know you've had freedom and flexibility to plan out your schedule? Most Olympic athletes, I know. And Paralympic athletes are saying everything has been planned and scheduled for me for the last 10 years.
Anastasia: Yeah, and then you retire and you don't even know how to book your own flight.
Dina Bell-Laroche: Yeah, all of these things that were done for you that you experienced this incredible opportunity also sits alongside this longing, especially, you know, I don't know if this feels right for you, but I've often worked with, you know, female athletes who are like, in their mid 30s now and saying, I want to settle down, I want to have a family. And they're seeing their friends live out this life on parallel tracks, and they feel like the train's left the station, too late. So being able to kind of work with all of that, normalise it and then speak to, you know, a better way of meeting the moment.
Anastasia: You said, you'd like to see certain aspects of the Canadian sporting system changed. We've said holistic about 15 million times, so I think that's a good starting point. But aside from that, where would you like to see the start of this change?
Dina Bell-Laroche: We have to acknowledge that the systems and structures that created the sector in the 1970s were never designed to bear the load of the current day expectations. We need to ensure that the people, women and people of colour and our indigenous communities who weren't really involved in the shaping of the sector, I think they need to be involved in the shaping of that new sector. So an inclusive system.
The second thing I would say is a management philosophy, so I went back to school and I did my masters in in 2009, completed in 2010. And my whole theory was about this philosophy of management called management by values. And what the research taught me is if we stay true, if in cultures we curate a core set of values that speak truth to the people we are here to serve. And if we the people have a shared definition of what those values are and then the leaders lead in a way that reflect those values, all will be well. So it might feel a little bit sport-topic, but a girl's gotta a dream.
Anastasia: You gotta dream!
Dina Bell-Laroche: You've got to dream. So now you're starting to see this foundation right? So we meet our legal requirements. We have inclusive policies. We have this generative governance system. Then we have a management philosophy called management by values. That means that athletes and coaches and the leaders of the organisation are all leading according and coaching and competing, according to a core set of values.
This is where Norway's recipe feels very similar when I look at true sport. The third piece: we need to resource people, it's not mental performance, it's not sports psychology. It's a it's an awareness of self. So I have a dream that when athletes make the national team, when a coach serves at a national team level, they have a degree of self-awareness. The final piece: we need to measure beyond medals. The minute we start to measure a humanistic way of coaching, a humanistic way of competing, a more humanistic way of leading. We are going to start to move in that direction.
Anastasia: I'm a very competitive person. I loved winning medals. I liked being on the winning team. But I think it was you who told me not all that is counted counts. Not all that counts is counted, and I think we should end this one on that quote because it's always just so enlightening chatting to you. And I really appreciate you giving me the time and I know how much you've helped my life, and I really hope that you can connect with a few other athletes because you speak a lot of truth, my friend.
Dina Bell-Laroche: It's been my pleasure.
I recorded that conversation from my home in Toronto. Dina was in her home office in Ottawa?
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