Although the word “grief” is sporadically heard in conversations, or sometimes even in the media when there’s a tragedy in the news, the actual topic of grief, or people’s reaction to loss and what to do about it, is not usually addressed directly. In a highly digital world where almost nothing is off-limits anymore, and where our most private thoughts and feelings are now openly revealed on talk shows and social media, why are we so compelled to keep the actual topic of grief under wraps?
Grief is the normal and natural reaction to a loss of ANY kind. Unfortunately, as a society, almost everything we learn about grief is not normal, not natural, and not healthy.
In The Grief Recovery Handbook, John James and Russell Friedman, expose us to the six myths about grief that limit us in our ability to deal with the inevitable losses that affect our lives. These myths not only affect our own grieving process, but they also keep us stuck and hinder us from recovery or completion of what was left emotionally unfinished for us.
There are over 40 types of losses that we can experience in a lifetime, and while grief is an experience that we will all share at one point or another, most of us are taught to acquire things, but we are not taught how to respond to, and what to do, when we lose something or someone.
Major losses resulting from death, divorce, and other causes are not common occurrences. Therefore, we are generally not familiar with the thoughts and feelings we experience following losses, so it is inevitable that we fall back on whatever information we have learned in the past to try to deal with our emotions.
If you have found that the available information and support have not been adequate in helping you recover from your emotional pain, it is not because of what’s wrong with you, it’s because there is a lack of correct information.
In this piece, we will unpack the six myths about grief and provide some examples of what we can do to see past these myths in order to acknowledge our true thoughts and feelings.
Myth #1: “Don’t Feel Bad”
This is a major myth that often begins to take root in our childhood years as early as pre-school. Imagine watching a frightening movie with your family as a child, and afterwards hearing one of your parents say, “Don’t be scared!” when you felt afraid to go to bed. Or perhaps you dropped the last bite of an ice cream treat and began to cry until someone said, “Don’t be sad, it’s just ice cream!”
While these types of comments are intended to be reassuring to children, it also teaches them that they should “control” their emotions. In other words, children learn that something about the way they are feeling is wrong or inappropriate. For both children and adults, being told not to feel a certain way does not resolve the root of the emotional need.
Now imagine the same instance of the child who watched a scary movie, but instead the parent responded by asking why the child was feeling frightened, and they discussed what might make the child feel safer. If we take this example and connect it to the concept of grief, we can begin to see how saying “don’t feel bad” is a superficial and somewhat dismissive response to the needs of the griever.
Myth #2: Replace the Loss
Anyone who has been through a breakup has probably heard the old adage, “There are plenty of fish in the sea!” If you have, you probably know how frustrating that is to hear. While the intention may be to cheer you up, it often has the opposite effect. There may be many other people out there, but maybe those people aren’t the one you want to be with, and they certainly aren’t the one you shared many hopes, dreams, and expectations with.
You may even revert to certain temporary behaviors to try to numb the pain you’re feeling – like overeating, exercising, sex, alcohol, shopping (aka retail therapy), workaholism, to name a few. However, these behaviors only serve as short-term numbing agents, and eventually your emotional pain will resurface.
Simply put, you cannot replace relationships, or any of your other losses for that matter. Through Grief Recovery, you can regain a sense of well-being in order to open yourself up to new possibilities, but even when new people come into your life, they are not meant to replace those you have lost, because that would be impossible to do!
Myth #3: Grieve Alone
Early on in our childhood, there is often an emphasis on the false idea that if we are feeling sad, we should deal with it on our own. Parents might say something like, “Nobody wants to be around you when you pout like that”. This is a myth that we then carry with us into adulthood; tears are shameful, and nobody wants to hear about our problems.
Social media has had a significant effect on perpetuating this myth. Many people will post about their successes at work and share pictures of their happy relationships, but the topics of grief and loss seem to be muted on these platforms. Some of us may even feel that sharing a painful sentiment on our Facebook page may appear “needy”, or we may feel that “nobody cares anyways.”
If you want to offer support to a griever, one of the best responses is to be a good listener (what we like to call a “heart with ears”) and let the person know that they are not alone, and reiterate that you care about them and that you are there for them.
Myth #4: It Just Takes Time
We often hear the question, “How long until this feeling of pain goes away?” Time alone does not heal heartache. Many people come to us with broken hearts over losses that happened 20 or more years ago. It’s not time that heals, but what you do in that time.
An analogy that comes to mind is physical therapy after an injury. The patient may ask, “How long until my knee is fully healed?” The doctor replies, “It depends on how much work you put into the exercises and how your body responds”. Grief recovery is precisely the same, and we strongly encourage you to address your grief as soon as possible. Similar to a serious physical injury, grief is an injury that requires immediate attention so that you can address your emotional pain and get on the right path to healing.
Myth #5: Be Strong (for Others)
Imagine a family loss in which a child loses a paternal uncle. The child is “too young” and the parents decide to have the child stay at home with a babysitter while the parents attend the funeral. When the parents get back home, the father heads to the garage and stays there for many hours. “What is Daddy doing out there?” the child asks. “He will be back later, and we need to be strong for Daddy because he is going through a lot right now” the mother replies.
The misconception of having to refrain from thinking or feeling certain things to appear strong for others is one that is prevalent. Parents will often isolate themselves after a loss so that their children “don’t have to see them get upset”. And yet, children are also being taught that they should not acknowledge their own emotions, because they need to “be strong” for someone else, and there are usually no specific instructions on how to do that.
“Be strong” or “Be strong for others” are expressions that sound good, but have no real value. As is very wisely stated in The Grief Recovery Handbook, “You can be strong or you can be human – pick one!”
Myth #6: Keep Busy
Keeping busy shows up in many forms, but the outcome is the same – it does not help you acknowledge and work through your pain, it actually distracts you. Keeping busy keeps you stuck because you bury the pain of your loss under an avalanche of activity.
There’s a misconception that keeping busy will make you feel better, but busy-ness is just a distraction, and it certainly does not change the fact that the loss occurred. In order to move beyond the pain, you must acknowledge the pain and take direct actions to put you on the right path to healing.
These six myths about grief can wreak havoc in our lives and keep us stuck in our pain, because this is often the only information that we have had access to for years and years, and we believe it to be right. Most of us begin to learn these myths early in our childhood as our parents are a very important source of information when we are young. We then carry those myths with us for the rest of our lives, and in doing so, we perpetuate the idea of using misinformation to process our grief.
However, all is not lost, and there is a right path to healing if you are willing to see these myths for what they are – incorrect information about grief that keeps you in status quo and prevents you from stepping into a life of new possibilities. Just like you can choose to believe the myths, you can also make an intentional decision to seek the right support and learn the correct information that will help you discover and complete what is unfinished between you and others, living or dead. To do this, you must take action and be willing to learn and practice what you learn.
If you are feeling stuck and overwhelmed with your grief, we invite you to contact us to learn more about The Grief Recovery Method and how we can help you move beyond loss and grief. You are not alone, and we are here to help!