Grief is all around us.
I used to think that grief only related to someone physically dying, but it is much broader than that. I’ve experienced grief over a relationship that changed, a job change, moving to a new home, going through infertility and miscarriage, and losing a loved one. We’ve all likely experienced grief this past year as the pandemic has wrought many changes in our lives. The increasingly fraught national political landscape and the relational division it has caused might also be a cause for grief. Our personal journeys with grief have, in many cases, been magnified by these social and cultural challenges.
In spite of its presence in so many of our lives, however, grief is still often misunderstood. In my personal experience with grief and in my work as a counselor, I’ve come across a few myths, beliefs, and natural reactions to grief that can prevent us from talking about it—and in turn, from moving forward with our own healing.
Understanding the range and impact of grief
First of all, I think it’s good to talk about what sorts of events can cause grief. Here are a few examples:
- Death of a loved one
- A relationship ending or changing
- Change in health status
- Change in financial status
- Change in occupational status
- Death of a pet
- Loved one’s serious illness
- Loss of safety after a trauma
- Loss of a dream
Grief also affects each person differently. While the death of a pet, for example, may aggrieve one person to the point where she experiences difficulty functioning in daily life, another person may not experience that same difficulty. That doesn’t mean the latter person is unaffected; she may simply show or process that grief differently.
This can cause tension in relationships. You may think that your partner or friend isn’t experiencing the same level of grief as you are, and you might in turn assume that the person/idea/thing lost was not as important to them as it was to you. This is not necessarily the case: each person internalizes and processes feelings uniquely. Having a conversation about this might help to clear up confusion and also allow you to express your feelings about it.
Debunking myths about grief
We also have likely heard several myths about grief that are often offered as platitudes to help us feel better, but in many cases they do not help. Many common responses to grief—our own and other people’s—are also more harmful than helpful. Here are a few of them, and I’m sure you can think of others you’ve heard or perhaps that you’ve said yourself.
Myth: “Time heals all wounds.”
Truth: Time does not heal all wounds. The passing of time may cause pain to feel less acute, but it does not make a wound go away. Grief is something that can come in unpredictable waves or small currents. It can creep up on you unexpectedly during your day or it may be a heaviness you feel all the time. This is normal for the grieving process.
Myth: “I could have done something to prevent this tragedy.”
Truth: It’s easy to blame ourselves and wonder what we missed or could have done differently when we experience a loss. But in many cases, what happened was not your fault. I encourage my clients to be curious about why they might feel this way and what they can do next—either by acknowledging that they are not to blame or (if applicable) to identify what can help them make a different choice next time.
Myth: “I don’t want to be a burden on others due to my grief. I won’t talk about it.”
Truth: Those who care about you don’t see your grief as a burden. In fact, they most likely want to support you but are not sure how to bring it up. Allowing yourself to share the roller coaster of emotions with others will help them feel like they can talk about it with you.
Myth: “Crying means I have a weak spirit/soul/attitude.”
Truth: I’ve worked with countless clients who are damaged by this belief; as a result, many suppress their grief so much that it turns into anger. Not expressing your feelings can truly be detrimental to your physical health as well as your emotional health. The key is to learn healthy ways to express yourself.
I encourage you to be aware of when you experience grief and consider how you would like to respond. Consciously becoming aware of our emotions when we feel them is a necessary start to changing and improving how we process our own grief, and how we can help others do the same.