I’m no stranger to grief. I’ve experienced a number of personal losses that have changed my life. Every change we experience involves some form of loss but when this loss involves a heavily meaningful and significant transition, we experience symptoms related to grief (Murray, 2001). Grief is the natural emotion, physical, and psychological response to a loss. The ‘natural’ is bolded because I want to rail home that it’s a perfectly natural response for people to have.
But if it’s such a natural thing, why do we have such a tough time with loss?
In western society, death/dying/loss and grief all freak us out. We have no idea how to handle them because we spend most of our time avoiding all of these topics as best we can. When someone dies, we teach our children to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The first response isn’t necessarily to go into an in-depth discussion about what death means and how it can impact them. Even when the loss isn’t related to death, we tend to sweep it under the rug.
Pet dies? Get another one.
End a relationship? Cut the ties and move on as quickly as you can.
Lose your job? Hunt for a new one and don’t think about the old one.
Experience a life-altering medical issue? Heal it and don’t discuss what’s happening.
And some losses barely even get recognized, even though they’re deeply impactful for the individual who has experienced the loss:
Watching an older parent struggle with dementia or Alzheimer’s
Experiencing a miscarriage
Receiving a terrifying diagnosis
Experiencing food or housing insecure
Losing your independence
Safety in your home or community
Larger community losses due to violence or oppression
Thinking globally about the messages we send folks about grief can be eye-opening. When you experience a death in the family, most companies will only give you bereavement if they are a close relative. “Close,” in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean “close relationship” but “nuclear family.” Even if they are part of your nuclear family, a lot of places will give you a week or two and expect you to be back at work, functioning like you used to. We don’t have bereavement cards for losses unrelated to death. Folks won’t even get living wills and directives while they are alive because we want to avoid the whole idea of death and loss.
Now, I’m a grief enthusiast. It’s always been one of my favorite counseling topics and I always love taking this walk with someone through their grief journey. I wanted to share some myths that I experienced as a griever myself rather than from a clinician’s point of view.
If you heal from grief, it goes away: Nope. First of all, there is no, “healing from grief.” There is time that you spend addressing the loss, identifying and working on how you grieve this loss, and caring for yourself intentionally surrounding the experience of grief. Grief doesn’t “go away,” but becomes more manageable the more you work on it. Grief won’t become manageable if you avoid it or refuse to discuss it, either.
Just Keep Busy: “Keeping Busy” is a great way to avoid the grief that will absolutely be there, waiting for you, once you run out of things to do (believe me, I tried). If you need to keep busy for a short period of time (a few hours or a day), that’s fine. But you will eventually have to turn back to it.
Everything Happens for a Reason: Please don’t say this to folks who are grieving. Sure, things do happen for reasons. But this isn’t a comforting thought for people. They’re trying to make sense of their life in the midst of a loss that’s impacting them.
Wait for Them to Ask for Help: Offer your assistance. Bring dinner to their home so that they don’t have to worry about cooking. Offer to pick their kids up from an event if your kid is going to the same place. Invite them out to eat so that you can support them as best you can. Grieving people don’t always know what to ask for and can feel like their grief is a burden to others. Offer them your time, help, and support and it will absolutely be appreciated.
They should be over it by now: Grief has not set end date. It’s ongoing but everyone’s journey through grief is different. Some losses take longer for the person to address than others, and that’s ok. We want folks to move forward with their lives (always comes from a place of love and care) but we also need to give them the grace and space to address their grief in healthy ways.
To grieve, you have to go through the stages: The 5 stages of grief were developed by Dr. Kubler-Ross for folks who were in hospice/with terminal illnesses and can’t really be globalized to every griever. People grieve in so many different ways, even those whose grief stems from the same loss (i.e., my brother, father, and I all grieved differently for the loss of my mom). Grievers must figure out what healthy methods of grief work for them.
If I let it out, I won’t be able to stop: Let out your emotions and thoughts related to grief in pieces. Give yourself time to release the emotions that have built up. I’ll write letters to my mom and grandma, cry while I do it, and by the time I’m done with the letters, I feel less heavy. Letting it out can help you feel lighter and you will eventually stop.
Everything will be the same as it was before: I’m sorry to have to tell you this but…it won’t be the same. Sometimes, where you end up is still pretty darned good. I went into my grief journey, telling myself that I was going to have my life the same as it was when my mom was alive. Twelve years later, my life is completely different. And you know what? It’s a pretty good life and I always keep my mom close to my heart.
Take it from a griever and beware of the grief myths that keep us trapped in a dark place!
Kubler-Ross, E. (2022). 5 stages of grief: Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation. Article
Murray, J.A. (2001). Loss as a universal concept: A review of the literature to identify common aspects of loss in diverse situations. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 6, 219-241.