Loss is a fact of life, and so are the reactions that follow, but the grief that accompanies significant loss is frequently misunderstood.
Here are some of the more commonly held myths and misconceptions about grief, along with the facts to dispel them:
When someone dies, grief is felt only by that person’s family members and friends. In reality, grief is felt by anyone with an emotional attachment to the deceased, whether we know the person well or not. As we saw with the deaths of Whitney Houston and Steve Jobs, for example, we may mourn for public figures we like or respect and admire, even though we’ve never met them personally.
Grief is what we feel only when our loved one dies. Grief is a normal response to the experience of loss of any kind, including unusual and secondary losses. Such grief often goes unrecognized and unacknowledged. (Examples include disenfranchised losses such as loss of a cherished pet, and losses stemming from major life transitions such as graduation, moving, marriage or divorce, job loss, incarceration, disability or alteration in health status.)
*Grief is felt only after a loss occurs. Grief also can be experienced in anticipation of an expected loss, whenever there is a threat of loss and we begin to imagine the worst. As soon as we become aware that a death ~ or a significant loss of any kind ~ may happen, we can experience anticipatory grief and mourning.
Grief is an emotional response to loss. In fact, grief can affect us in every dimension of our being: physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, social, financial and spiritual.
Grief and mourning are the same. Grief is our own private, inner response to a loss. Mourning is the outward expression of grief, the social response that we openly share with others. Everyone grieves, but not everyone mourns.
Grief occurs in orderly, predictable stages. Grief and mourning are highly individualized, according to our own unique personality and life experiences, as well as the nature of our relationship with the deceased, how the death happened, the support system we have available, our own past experience with loss and our particular religious and cultural background.
Tears are a sign of weakness. In fact, crying at the death of a close loved one is a normal human response that is universal and occurs across cultures throughout the entire world. Studies show that tears contain toxic chemicals created by the stress response, and crying is a natural and healthy way to release those toxins and the tension associated with them.
Medication is necessary for relieving the pain, anxiety, and depression associated with grief. Grief is not an illness to be cured, and the emotions attached to it are normal. Medication may be indicated in some cases, but the work of mourning still needs to take place. Facing grief, moving toward the pain, and openly expressing what is felt on the inside is what leads eventually to healing. The normal symptoms of grief also serve as signals to others that we are in need of their compassion, patience and understanding.
Most people recover from grief and eventually return to normal. Grief is not an illness from which we will recover; rather, it is a gradual process of transformation. It may seem that when our loved one died, a part of us died, too. Every aspect of life is different and forever changed, and a “new normal” must be found, as we learn to integrate this loss and live in a whole new world without the physical presence of the one who has died.
Time heals all wounds, and eventually grief comes to an end. Grief is an adaptive response that is not bound by time. It never really ends; we don’t “get over” grief. It is something we learn to live with over time, as we gradually adjust to the physical absence of the one who has died. Grief softens and erupts less frequently as time goes on, but it can revisit us at any time, and in varying intensity, whenever we are reminded of our loss.
Those who mourn are weak in their faith. Grief often brings on a crisis in faith, because a significant loss challenges all of our basic beliefs about the nature and fairness of the universe, the existence of a higher power, or even the very nature of God. Others cannot compete with this process; they need to wait with unconditional love, patience, and compassion as we find our own way, and mourn in the manner that is best for us.
The first year of grief is the hardest, and the time when support is most needed. For some, the second year is even harder than the first. The reality is that we will need ongoing compassion and support.
The goal of grief is to let go of the one who died and move on with life. The bonds of love are never severed by death, and if cherished memories and legacies are intentionally tended and nourished, it is normal and healthy that a close relationship with the deceased will continue and endure throughout our lifetime.
*My sincere thanks to my friend and colleague J. Shep Jeffreys, EdD, FT for reminding me to include Anticipatory Grief and Mourning in this list.
Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing Newsletter. Sign up here.