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Many of us can only imagine how deep the pain of losing a child must be. But is there life beyond that grief? What should we do with all those feelings? Is it even possible to move forward?
Join us as today’s guest, Lily Dulan, talks about her experience of losing a child to SIDS. Lily also shares how this experience caused her to formulate The Name Work method, a way of imbuing the names of ourselves or those we’ve lost with meanings that can help focus us on our journeys through grief and loss.
Lily Dulan is an MFT psychotherapist who played an instrumental role in starting the LGBTQ Affirmative Psychology specialization at Antioch University. Dulan holds a Master of Arts Degree in Teaching from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, and she’s a certified Heart of Yoga Teacher. She studied Spiritual Coursework at Agape International Spiritual Center under the tutelage of Reverend Michael Bernard Beckwith. Lily drew on her studies of both Eastern and Western disciplines to create a heart centered system of healing and moving through trauma that she calls The Name Work. After her first daughter, Kara Meyer Dulan, died at home from SIDS at 2 months old, Lily started a foundation in her childʼs memory called The Kara Love Project. The Kara Love Project has teamed with local, national, and international organizations such as the Unatti Foundation in Nepal, Venice Arts in Los Angeles, and Foster Nation to serve marginalized youth. It has also developed and supported programming to benefit the mental and physical well-being of seniors in Los Angeles county. Dulan facilitates The Name Work workshops and educational events in the greater Los Angeles area for universities, organizations, corporations, and small private groups. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. Find more at LilyDulan.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free just by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Lily Dulan. Ms. Dulan is an MFT psychotherapist with a master’s degree in psychology and a master of fine arts. After the death of her first child to SIDS, she started the Kara Love Project Foundation, which works with local, national and international organizations to serve marginalized youth. Her latest book, “Giving Grief Meaning,” is available now. Ms. Dulan, welcome to the show!
Lily Dulan: Hi, Gabe, it’s so good to be here.
Gabe Howard: I want to start off by saying that I personally cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a child. I’m not a parent myself and I don’t want to pretend to understand, but I do want to say that even thinking about this in the abstract causes me just discomfort and sadness for lack of better words. Now in your professional bio, you describe the emotion as suffocating grief, and I can relate to that again as much as reasonably possible. But in the same bio, you say that this was the impetus for helping people transform their grief into positive change. Grief and positive change don’t seem to go together at all.
Lily Dulan: Yes, I was lucky to have a teacher, Michael Beckwith. He’s best known for The Secret, but he gave me a choice. He said, Lily, you’re at a crossroads and you can grow or shrink from this tragedy. And in that moment, I chose growth. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t suck and it wasn’t dark and I didn’t feel absolutely buried. I felt buried for a long time. But as they say, the seed needs the darkness to change into new life, and sometimes we feel buried and we’ve really been planted. That was my case. It’s not like positive change just comes immediately, but it’s the willingness to move through the darkness even when we don’t feel the light at the end of the tunnel, even when we can’t see it, moving through it. The choice to move through it. The choice to get up every day, making the choice to move towards life even when it felt dark.
Gabe Howard: Transforming grief into positive change. It sounds good, I like it, but, you know, losing weight or making more money, it also sounds good, but to the people that hear this turning grief into positive change and roll their eyes, what would you say to them?
Lily Dulan: Yes, I get the eye rolling, right. Positive change, it doesn’t always feel positive. It’s messy. Positive change can be crooked and messy. And as I say, five steps forward, two steps back is still progress. I have positive change in my life, but I wasn’t feeling great last night and I succumbed to the kids’ snack food. That doesn’t feel positive, right? I mean, eating the kids’ snack food at 12 midnight last night wasn’t a very positive step, but I still lead a positive life and it’s loving ourselves in spite of. Loving myself, in spite of those poisons and pitfalls. Because I like to say that life can suck, but I can’t let it suck me under. Positive change means okay, I can feel when it sucks, I can feel the darkness, the hopelessness and move towards positive change. Yes, and. Affirmations have gotten a bad rap these days, but affirmations don’t mean that I pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t. It means that I have the willingness to sit with everything that I’m feeling and out of that place affirm for the positive, to look towards the hope, to look towards the light, to look towards the healing, to look towards all of it, even when it feels hopeless.
Gabe Howard: Everybody has heard of grief, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually discussed a clinical definition of grief. So for the purposes of this podcast, how do you define grief?
Lily Dulan: That is a great question. When we think of grief as people, many people think that grief is the loss of a person, and while losing Kara is definitely a part of my story, that was our infant daughter’s name, Kara, who died of SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Losing Kara is part of my story and losing people before and after the pandemic is a part of many of the people who are listening today. It’s a part of their story. But for me, grief is not just the loss of a person. We grieve for many reasons and we can grieve over a divorce. The loss of a relationship, loss of a job, loss of opportunities due to addiction or mental illness. There’s so much that we grieve over and the society we try to put on that smiley face and pretend that all is OK. That’s sort of like the acceptable way to go about things. We ask, Oh, how are you? When we don’t really care to hear the answer. And I believe we need to move into a more authentic way of being as people and talk about the difficult feelings because we’re all suffering and I think we all can give voice to that through the pandemic. There’s something good that can come out of this tender time. We all suffer, and it’s what I choose to do with my suffering that can determine the course of my day is like the quality of my days. I may not be able to control everything, but I can control my reactions and I can keep my side of the street relatively clean and put the locus of focus on myself and just be tender towards myself.
Gabe Howard: What advice would you give to somebody who is in the early stages of loss?
Lily Dulan: When I was in the early stages of the loss, I didn’t want to breathe. I didn’t want to breathe, but I took deep breaths and I breathed anyway. I would allow myself one day in bed and then I would pick it up, you know, and I’d make the bed anyway. I would do the dishes anyway. I’d walk the dog anyway. A lot of being in the early stages of grief is contrary action or opposite action, moving through the events of the day anyway and acting as if. And then countless people have come to me. Why can’t I cry? What’s going on here? Why do I feel so foggy? I want to tell anyone who’s listening in the early stages of grief that to feel the fog of grief is a natural occurrence. It’s normal to feel foggy.
Gabe Howard: In many ways, the foggy, as you said, that’s how we’re supposed to feel. It almost seems disrespectful to experience joy after the loss of somebody we love. So the foggy, and these are my words, please correct them if I’m misstating. But the foggy is a protective factor. It fits the way we’re supposed to feel and while that’s negative, it keeps us in a place that we should not be in or that we need to move past. It still feels right in the moment, and I imagine that makes it difficult to move forward.
Lily Dulan: That is a very wise perception, way to look at it. I’ve never really thought about it in those terms that the fog of grief prevents joy, as well as feeling the gravity of the situation. But it is normal. I think some people and I would include myself in that number, be like, why can’t I feel the pain of this? Why can’t I cry? You know, it can be frustrating not to feel. I did have an experience personally where that fog lifted and I felt the pain, the intense pain. It was more intense than any pain I could ever describe. And then the fog descended again. And in that moment, I understood that it was there to protect me. It was my nervous system’s way of protecting me from feeling too much.
Gabe Howard: You’re a big proponent of self-care, but how do we incorporate that into our daily lives?
Lily Dulan: Well, people tend to think that self-care involves sitting on a mountaintop in some yoga position, but it’s not. Self-care involves how we move and groove in our day to day lives. Self-care can be as simple as just taking a moment to check in and take three deep breaths. Self-care can involve saying OK, like during the pandemic, for me, my self-care was like, OK, everybody out of the kitchen. I’m going to use this time of doing the dishes as a sort of meditation, and I would put on music with affirmations or chanting music and do the dishes. And for me, what I name becomes self-care. If I’m just grunting and groaning and doing the dishes, that’s not self-care, but if I name it as a time of restoring the balance of my home, I can feel good about it. And if I put on music that’s pleasant, I can feel good about it. So it’s really approaching my day, approaching my day mindfully, because what I name is important. It’s actively seeking out methods, seeking out groups that support me on my journey and also letting go of people that may not be able to meet me where I am. In the early stages of grief, I had to say no to a lot of social engagements that just didn’t feel right.
Gabe Howard: You mentioned being able to say no when people invite you out, especially after a terrible loss or when people are going through grief, or even when people are sad and depressed. Which grief loss, it’s a lot of emotions rolled into one. People, they think that you can’t be alone and they’re very aggressive with their invites. And more importantly than that, they believe that they’re right. They believe that when you say no, that you’re in danger being at home and they work very, very hard to get you to come with. What do you say to those well-intentioned people that honestly believe that they’re doing what is in their loved one’s best interest? But again, you’re setting your boundary and saying, no. They feel that that’s dangerous. And here we are at this impasse.
Lily Dulan: Yeah, we all have our own thumbprint. We’re all individuals, and solitude is important. There’s a difference between being in solitude and being alone and ruminating, connecting with my heartbeat, my breath. You know, what’s moving through me and my internal landscape? And befriending whatever it is that is moving through me and greeting it. The great teacher Sharon Salzberg talks about greeting our sadness as if we would a friend, greeting the fog as if we would a friend. The only way I can greet my feelings is if I’m present for them. Maybe going to out to a picnic in the park or a concert or any activity is not productive for me. But maybe joining a support group is. Maybe joining a meditation group and we don’t want to isolate too much. So I understand the concern of family and friends. We absolutely need support, but we also need time for solitude and it really is a balancing act. None of us can get through this alone. Support is different than being dragged out to places and events that may not feel comfortable.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back with the author of “Giving Grief Meaning,” Lily Dulan. When we think about grief and openly discussing grief, the thing that pops into my mind the most is discussing grief with our children. I am not a parent, but there is a part of me that thinks, well, I want to shield children from this. I don’t want to discuss about death and loss with children. I don’t. It just feels wrong. Now I know that that is one how many people feel, but I also know that that’s dangerous. It leaves children unprepared. How do you talk about grief and loss with your children?
Lily Dulan: There is no easy way around, around any of it. I can’t tell you that I’ve been right or wrong. But for me, having an environment of openness, my children know that they have a sibling that passed and that death is a part of life. And while we want to put rose colored glasses on our children, I think studies are showing that children are less and less resilient when we’re taking care of their emotions for them. Children just need to feel their feelings, they need to be able to label their feelings. That’s all we can do. Adults, we’ve been taught to cover our feelings until we don’t even know where they are. Kids are more in touch with who they are. We don’t give them enough credit.
Gabe Howard: Are there any words or phrases that you would recommend using or not using when discussing grief and loss with children?
Lily Dulan: Well, we never want to tell children how they should feel or impose our feelings on them. We want to make sure that we don’t lead with the word you should with our kids. We don’t want to impose gratitude on our kids. Kids are naturally grateful and we don’t ever want to say, don’t be sad, or you should be over this by now or think of all the things that you can be grateful for. Kids need to feel sad, and we, as parents and caregivers, we need to allow them that experience and we need to allow them their anger.
Gabe Howard: Let’s touch on your story for a moment. After the loss of your daughter, what were the first things that went through your mind in the initial moments in the days and weeks that followed? How long did it take you to really decide that you needed to transform this grief into something else or move forward? Because I imagine it was not a quick transition?
Lily Dulan: No, no, it was not. Things move at their own speed, at their own pace, in their own time. Sudden loss is not something that I or anyone else can move through quickly. Waking up in the middle of the night to hear my husband’s screams and calling 911 and seeing the fire truck at our driveway, I can see that right now as if it was yesterday. There’s no easy way to move through that, and part of the grieving process involves rumination, telling ourselves the story over and over again, especially in sudden loss. Many people feel racing thoughts. There’s no easy way to move through, but I had to make a choice to move through no matter what. And there’s something about making a conscious choice to grow and not to shrink. And that is what ultimately saved me, making that choice. And it doesn’t mean that it didn’t feel dark and bleak and awful for so, so long. Gradually out of that very dark place, these qualities in Kara’s name began to emerge very organically.
Lily Dulan: Her name is spelled K A R A. And the first quality, kindness, the concept of kindness became clear in my mind’s eye, I knew I had to be first kind to myself before I could be kind to others in the environment. I had to love myself and kindness to self meant letting go of people who couldn’t support me in my grief, letting go of toxic relationships. When I got stronger, I could ask myself questions around kindness, like, was my childhood a kind one? When have I been unkind and how can I be kinder in the world? But I really believe for everyone that, in grief especially, that it starts with kindness to self and then begin the process of exploring other qualities as they relate to the individual. We all suffer. No matter what it is. Each person’s story is so different. And the work itself, you know, my work as a therapist is about helping people to find what it is within themselves that they would like to treat lovingly or with care. We all need to treat ourselves with love. And then gradually, very gradually, as I gained more strength over the years, I realized that I could help other people work with their own names or the name of someone they loved and lost by really going deep into the qualities in their name.
Gabe Howard: Now I understand that you started a project called The Name Work. Now, if I understand Name Work correctly, it’s where you take a name and it stands for something, for example, Kara has a meaning. Can you tell us what the letters in Kara stand for?
Lily Dulan: Yes, the K in Kara is for Kindness, and the A and Kara’s name, Alignment. Then I had to act as if I felt the world was aligned, and by doing that, I would take time to feel my heartbeat and breath and go inside. Because we breathe, we don’t make ourselves breathe, we breathe. And that’s how tethered me to life. And then regeneration meant the R in her name. Regeneration meant committing to practices of regeneration, even if that was looked like making the bed, doing the dishes, just simple acts of care for my myself and my surroundings, and then taking that out into action, which is the A in her name. And these qualities in her name became my north star for living. I really used the qualities to inform my life, and I want to teach others to do the same. Is it OK with you if we do your name, Gabe?
Gabe Howard: Oh, I would love that, yes, please.
Lily Dulan: Ok. So, Gabe. I am generous, I am generous and giving of myself, and in turn, people are generous and giving of me. I use my platform to bring light and learning into the lives of others, so that would be a G. And A, we’ll say alignment, I move into alignment as I live my purpose. I take time to pause each day. And just be aware of my heartbeat and breath knowing that I am internally aligned. I don’t have to effort. I breathe and I am alive, and that is enough, OK? The B, B is for breath. As I feel my inner alignment, I take time to pause and take three deep breaths each day and then E is for Energy. By taking time to pause and restore, I reconnect to my internal energy. And that’s what I have for you, I’m just riffing a little bit that was impromptu, but there’s a dictionary of qualities in the back of my book, that would allow you to find qualities that would feel authentic for and to you.
Gabe Howard: Oh, thank you so much, and I love that, you know, when you got to E, and you said energy, I was like, Ooh, I thought it was either going to be energy or enthusiasm and both would work. And I see the power in this. And it’s like a mantra almost. Is that sort of a way to look at it? It’s like creating a mantra out of your name.
Lily Dulan: Yes, yes, and a reminder. You know, mantras help remind us of what, they help remind me of what is important.
Gabe Howard: Beautiful, thank you so much. I always like it when people do things with my name, I like that. I like that a lot. Thank you.
Lily Dulan: Right? Because our names are close to us, our names are almost as close as our breath, we put so much into our names, so to be able to work with them, it feels natural. It feels right. It’s my mission to teach other people how to use the letters in their name or in the name of someone they’ve loved and lost, and move through stuck life circumstances of all kinds. So it’s a great blend of all the tools that I use as a therapist in addiction, as an individual who is recovering from addiction and just a fellow human being on the journey of life. I feel so lucky to be bringing it out in the world that came of great suffering. But Kara, losing her, it brought me to a crossroads and I really feel like I’m shining the light that was her life to make a difference in the world, to not squander my life. Before she came and went, I was often stuck in my own, my own sadness and was not living my best life. I was in recovery, but I don’t know that I would have stayed sober. I believe she’s the angel that’s kept me sober and on a better path. I believe she informs so many aspects of my life. She really is my angel.
Gabe Howard: I think that’s beautiful, thank you so very much for sharing. Where can folks find you and your book online?
Lily Dulan: You can find me on Instagram, Lily Dulan, L I L Y D U L A N. I have a website, LilyDulan.com. We have a Giving Grief Meaning collective on Facebook. And I’d love to stay in touch. And oh, this is really important, Gabe. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the book “Giving Grief Meaning,” and when I say one hundred percent, I mean one hundred percent. One hundred percent of the proceeds from “Giving Grief Meaning” support the work of our Kara Love Project. It’s really a great dynamic organization. And when you buy the book, you’re supporting the work that we do.
Gabe Howard: Thank you. We were very, very happy to have you here. Thank you, thank you. Thank you.
Lily Dulan: Thank you for everything that you’re doing. Seriously.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you are very, very welcome and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon because, well, everything is on Amazon, or you can get a signed copy with free podcast swag or learn more about me just by heading over to my website, gabehoward.com. Please follow or subscribe to the show wherever you downloaded this episode, it’s absolutely free. And hey, recommend the show to your friends, family and colleagues. You can send them an email, a text message, social media and word of mouth is absolutely still a thing. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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