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Susan Robinson

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Grief Myths

Saturday, December 26, 2020 6:47 PM

As a society, we hold remarkably specific beliefs about what grief is. Many of these are fancifully wrong, based more on what we wish were true than what actually is. These myths aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon, particularly since we disengage from community mourning more and more every year. 

However, a community that distances itself from mourning and grievers discounts the very importance of its members, and in the process slowly loses its humanity. It is crucial for us to dispel myths that pull us apart and return to the practice of honoring those who die and offering empathy and care to their loved ones.

In my more-than-two-decades-long affair with grief, I have discovered these eight harmful myths about grief and loss:

Everyone grieves in the same way. There is a right way to grieve.

According to George A. Bonnano, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia, reactions to grief fall into three patterns: prolonged grief, recovery, or resilience. Prolonged grief affects one in ten mourners, who never “get over it” and for whom things may get worse over time. Another one in ten are recovering grievers, who experience intense emotions for several months to a year, then return to normal functioning even though they still feel the hurt. Most grievers are resilient, experiencing acute pain for a few weeks, then putting the pain aside and “moving on.” I would have predicted that I would fall into the last group; instead, I am entrenched in deep, prolonged grief.

Even within these three patterns there are unlimited variations. I like to say that grief is bespoke—customized for each individual. Some feel it as physical pain, others as fear, guilt, anger, or fatigue. It may feel omnipresent for a few months or for decades. Even those experiencing the same loss, say parents of a child, respond in their own ways. And every individual reacts uniquely to distinct types of loss. The death of your friend may leave you bereft, while you may barely shed a tear over your sister, even though you were close to both of them. The death of my beloved father hurt but didn’t change my life; the death of my son, however, brought an avalanche of grief that changed who I am.

Because our society allows women to cry, women may grieve more visibly than men. That doesn’t mean men don’t feel loss as deeply. They just channel their feelings in a different way—stuffing them away, distracting themselves with work or hobbies, or lashing out in anger. The same is true of children. They may not cry a lot or even talk about the person who died. Instead they may lose interest in friends or activities, become irritable, or engage in risky behaviors. My son stopped going to his college classes, and my daughter had flashbacks of her brother’s accident.

There is no right way to grieve—and no wrong way. Whichever pattern of grief you find yourself experiencing, don’t try to fight it. Whatever gets you through the day (and night) is right for you.

Grief and mourning are identical.

Many people assume that grief and mourning are the same thing. They are not. Grief counselor Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition, writes that grief is internal, our thoughts and feelings of being torn apart. Mourning is external, society’s shared response to loss. For example, grief is an individual’s feelings of despair after the death of her lover. Mourning is her friends bringing meals, sitting with her, listening, crying together.

One needs the other. People who grieve need family and friends to acknowledge that pain and honor and remember the deceased through gestures of shared mourning. Mourners need to embrace their opportunity to express empathy and compassion.

Grief is just sadness or depression, so antidepressants will cure grief.

This would be laughable if so many people didn’t get blindsided by it. Grief is so much more than sadness. It is actual pain. Physical pain in the head, chest, or gut sometimes leads to somatic illnesses like cancer or heart disease. The emotional pain of fear, anger, loneliness, or guilt can cause anxiety or depression. Questioning existential beliefs and searching for meaning can cause spiritual pain. Grief affects cognitive functioning such as decision-making and messes with memory. It affects behavior, as people avoid trigger situations or shut themselves off from others.

Grief and depression are not the same. Both may show up as sadness, insomnia, and increase or decrease in appetite, but grief is more likely to come in waves, triggered by distressing situations, whereas depression is more pervasive. The tricky thing is that grief can trigger major depression, and the two can coexist. Trust me on this.

Antidepressants assuage depression and can be useful to numb raging emotions and smooth outward functioning, but they will not heal the pain or dysfunction of grief.

Grief progresses through orderly stages with a predictable timeline. The first year is the hardest.

Thanatologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory that there are five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) was a boon to people who liked their grief predictable and measurable and wanted to believe they were “doing it right.” However, the idea was a huge disservice to those whose feelings didn’t adhere to those rigid guidelines. Yes, most people will experience some or all of the stages—but in their own order. And there is no standard timeline—one person may stay angry for years; another may skip it altogether. Although most grievers agree that their pain is most continuously severe during the first year, all sorts of triggers will spur periodic thunderbolts of pain, confusion, or questioning forever after. These grief tornadoes touch down out of a clear sky, devastate you all over again, and then disappear.

Children should not be exposed to grief.

We fear the unfamiliar. Those insulated from death become frightened when they eventually must confront the complex feelings and rituals. But if we are ever to improve how we deal with death, we need to stop shielding people from it. In earlier times, the dead were laid out at home for the funeral. Preparations and tears were on full view, and children learned that death is a normal, if painful, part of the cycle of life.

Children take their cues from those around them. They won’t be afraid as long as those they love and trust model behaviors that say expressing sadness is OK. Just as we teach children manners, respect, and good study habits, we also need to teach them how to deal with death. And attending a funeral and witnessing expressions of grief can help a child say goodbye, something that can be critical for a child who thinks the deceased might come back tomorrow.

Wallowing in grief is bad. You should get over it and move on as quickly as possible.

No one wants to experience deep grief. It is painful, debilitating, soul-sucking misery. And it makes others uncomfortable. They don’t know what to do or say, and they miss how they used to interact with the “old you.” To make themselves feel better they want you to get over it as quickly as possible. But having someone cluck that you’re wallowing, not trying to get better, adds guilt to the package.

Grief is a powerful dictator that demands what it needs. It is the way your body and soul process loss. Sure, it might be great to snap your fingers and break up with the overbearing boyfriend, but trying to thwart it or stuff it away eventually results in a backlash—an emotional breakdown, physical illness, spiritual angst. The only way out of grief is through, and even then, there may be no exit.

This does not mean you should lie down helpless before grief. Deep breathing and meditation can help you deal with acute pain. Creative pursuits like writing, art, music, or dance can channel roller-coaster emotions. Physical exercise releases endorphins that help you feel calmer. Developing a daily routine will provide comforting structure. And reading will help you come to terms with the questions about life and death that swirl in your brain.

Just don’t try to force grief into your timeline (“I should be over this in three months.”). And don’t feel like you’re a terrible person if grief moves in and creates chaos like the roommate from hell. You don’t need fixing, just love and comfort. As John Lennon wrote, “Let it be.”

Time heals all wounds, including grief. Grief eventually ends and things return to normal.

I cringe every time someone talks about “healing.” The word implies that the pain and scar are all gone and everything is back to normal. In reality, neither will disappear and you will never feel normal again. The pain will abate but flare up periodically, and the scar will be a constant reminder. Even if you find a way to return to a more even keel, it will be a “new normal,” not the life you knew. Finally, I’m not sure I want everything to heal, as that would feel like the love never existed. Grief, for all its torture, connects me to my child.

God never gives you more than you can handle.

Platitudes like this offer comfort—except to those who don’t fit into the saying’s neat little box. The sheer number of people who die of what the American Heart Association calls “broken heart syndrome” belies this one. So does the number of people who commit suicide after the death of a loved one. A Danish study found that bereaved parents were more likely to die from natural and unnatural means than those whose children did not die. Beyond those extreme examples, many people are forever changed by loss, and not in a way they would consider positive. That we still breathe doesn’t mean we have survived. I lost my career, have trouble maintaining friendships, fight profound lethargy, and exist in what Austrian Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl calls an “existential vacuum.” I’m alive, but I struggle every day. This is more than I can handle.