Grief is an experience nearly everyone has or will experience. Despite it being widespread, grief is often misunderstood. These misconceptions about grief can make the affected person feel hopeless, confused or push them toward depression. Family and friends may also be left feeling confused and upset by the unexpected feelings or behaviors on the part of the bereaved.
Learning more about the myths about grief and focusing on the facts can help someone before and during the grieving process. Understanding grief and the grieving process can be a real comfort to those impacted by the condition.
Myth 1: Everyone grieves in stages.
Fact: Grief doesn’t follow the rules.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. What many people don’t know is that those stages were never meant to be applied to the grieving process, but to the person facing death. They come from the 1968 book On Death and Dying. Author Dr. Kubler-Ross interviewed people facing death and the five stages emerged based on how they coped with their certain death.
This hasn’t stopped people from using and comparing their own grief to these stages. When their grief doesn’t follow the pattern, many begin to question themselves and feel bad about something that is out of their control. Grief doesn’t follow the rules. Everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. For this reason, many researchers and clinicians now avoid using the term “stages” when it comes to grief.
Myth 2: Grief and mourning are the same.
Fact: Grief can produce many behaviors; mourning is one of them.
Grief is defined as the emotional state related to the loss of something or someone, most often the death of a loved one vs mourning, which are the actions that come from grief. Grief includes all of the emotions that the bereaved feel; the numbness, acute emotional pain, anger and so on. Mourning is how the person going through the grief process expresses it. For example, a person that is in mourning may choose to wear black clothing, fast for a certain period, write in a journal or follow certain cultural rites. Mourning is, therefore, an outward expression of grief that is visible to others.
While grief can take many forms, researchers have been able to notice some similar components of grief associated with major losses. They are listed as:
- Numbness: The phase immediately following a loss, numbness consists of muted emotions as a means of self-protection and can last for many days.
- Pining: Pining is characterized by desperately missing the lost person and experiencing anxiety while performing normal activities without them there.
- Disorganization and despair: In this phase, the grieving person will replay events leading up to the death of a loved and experience feelings of guilt and anger.
- Reorganization: Also called recovery, in this phase the grieving person returns to a new state of “normal.” This is seen as a form of coping with the loss.
These components are generalizations of what a grieving person might feel and experience. The actions of mourning are often seen during the phases of numbness, pining and disorganization. The actions of mourning are consciously chosen, while grief is often a mix of emotions that changes from one moment to the next. Mourning is considered an essential part of the grieving process. It allows a person to act on their emotions in a beneficial way that will help them to heal.
Myth 3: Women grieve more than men.
Fact: All people grieve differently.
Stereotypical ways of viewing men and women have spilled over into the grieving process. In general, women are viewed as more demonstrative of emotion, including grief. Although men may want to cry to demonstrate their grief, many erroneously view it as unmanly for men to cry and therefore the grief may manifest or be expressed in a different way.
Both men and women experience grief and while each individual processes grief differently, most, including both genders, tend to go through similar phases. Some people, due to personality, gender or cultural norms may grieve in a more expressive way, while others may grieve in a more cognitive way through problem-solving and taking action.
Myth 4: If you’re not crying, you’re not really grieving.
Fact: Crying is not essential to grieving.
There are many ways to express grief and crying is not always one of them. Sometimes people may cry due to happiness, frustration, anger, exhaustion or any number of other emotions. Others may feel those same emotions without crying. The same goes with sadness; a lack of tears is not a sign that the person isn’t grieving.
There are many reasons why a grieving person may not cry. In some cultures, crying is considered to be something embarrassing that should be avoided. Some may have learned from an early age to not express their emotions with tears. In many cultures, men especially are expected not to cry, but to be strong and bear heavy burdens. For this reason, many men don’t show sadness through crying.
Furthermore, a person who is going through the grieving process may experience many kinds of emotions. One of the first phases most grieving people enter is characterized by emotional numbness. A person that is numb or in disbelief may be unable to cry when grieving; in fact, they may act contrary to how friends and family would expect them to act. Many that go through this numb phase carry on with their lives as if they hadn’t experienced a tragic loss. Even this period of numbness is considered to be part of the grieving process. If someone cries a lot, a little or not at all, it has no relationship to how much they’re grieving.
Myth 5: Ignoring your pain will help it go away.
Fact: Ignoring your pain is a temporary solution at best.
Like a physical trauma, emotional trauma won’t go away by being ignored. If a runner broke a bone, we would expect the runner to face the situation by getting help to treat the injury and start the healing process. We wouldn’t expect the runner to ignore the pain and wait for it to go away. Grief avoidance is just as counter-productive.
The sudden pain of losing someone can stir up many emotions in addition to the sadness, including anger and guilt. If someone is plagued by such emotions, it is important not to bottle them up.
Trying to ignore grief has led some to find other ways to cope. Some have turned to the use of substances to numb their pain when they can no longer ignore it. This is a dangerous alternative that creates more problems and solves none. It’s a certainty that pain cannot be avoided, but there are ways to cope. Some have found that giving themselves permission to grieve is the first step and that it requires time and patience. While alone time is often necessary, isolation is not. Seeking out friends and family that are supportive is important.
Myth 6: The first year is the hardest.
Fact: Grief is hard, period.
Simply said, there is no time limit on grief. Humans generally like to know what they can expect from a certain situation. It is no different with grief. Some say the first year of grief is the hardest, some say the second year. Often these words are said to comfort or bring hope as if the time period following the “hard” part will be easier to bear.
Some have described the process of losing someone as a relearning process. Similar to a person that loses a body part and must relearn how to live and do once normal activities, a grieving person must relearn how to live without the other person.
While grief doesn’t follow the rules or have a time limit, many report that the most intense emotions related to grief will be felt within the first year. Some physicians note this as “pangs of grief” that interfere with normal functions like eating, sleeping and carrying out other basic responsibilities. This emotional state can induce physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, weight loss, diminished memory and concentration, irritability and depression. Other complications of bereavement can include:
- Impaired immune response
- Sleep disorders
- Endocrine changes
- Anxiety or panic disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorders
Myth 7: Grief gets better over time.
Fact: Grief doesn’t follow a set timeline.
The old saying “time heals all wounds” speaks to the enduring power of time and change. But this adage is better used in the context of a break-up rather than in the loss of a loved one. While the passing of time has been noted to decrease the intensity of pain felt over bereavement, it does not truly heal the pain. Time and sometimes distance from the thing that is causing grief can be beneficial, but this alone doesn’t guarantee grief will get better. What’s important are the steps the bereaved take to overcome the acute grief, which may take a considerable amount of time.
The passing of time can diminish the intensity and frequency of grief. However, certain occasions or times of the year such as anniversaries can reopen emotional wounds. Grief can come and go over the course of a lifetime.
Myth 8: Grief has an endpoint.
Fact: Grief doesn’t end but it changes.
Grief is not something that simply goes away. Though one may wish it to go away because of the emotional and physical tolls it causes, it’s simply not possible. The face of grief is ever-changing. Just when someone feels like they are coping and handling life well after loss, a memory can be stirred by an object, a song or even a date on the calendar.
Grief is often triggered by these kinds of external reminders. During these especially difficult times, when reminders of the person who was lost are strongest, it can be helpful to seek the company of friends who will support you or participate in some activity that can provide relief.
Removing the taboos that surround grief and the pain of loss is essential for understanding grieving. This includes the idea that grief is something you will eventually get over.
Myth 9: The goal of grief is to find closure.
Fact: Finding closure is important but it doesn’t close the book on grief.
The goal of school is education and a career. The goal of marriage is companionship and family. The goal of exercise is good health and strength. What is the goal of grief? That is a question that really doesn’t have a clear answer. The goal or objective of grief should be determined by each individual. If grief never goes away, what exactly does it accomplish? Grief is the reaction to loss, and loss is not planned nor is it desired. Thus the goal is to navigate the feelings of sadness, anger, loss and guilt while moving forward.
One dictionary defines closure as “a comforting or satisfying sense of finality.” Many will never find satisfaction at the loss of a loved one, even years later. The same goes for other losses. Therefore, closure in that sense is not the end goal of grief. Grief travels a road in the heart that only that person can traverse and steer. Sometimes there are crashes, turns and twists in the road, inevitable construction and long waits, speed bumps and road closures, but there will always be beautiful things to see along the way and ones to ride along with us.
Myth 10: People struggling with grief just need to get over it
Fact: You can’t just move on from grief and sometimes, professional help is necessary
The words “get over it” should never be used with a grieving person. After the first year, after 5 years, after 10 years, after 50 years, it’s never okay to say that. Julia Samuel, the author of the book Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviving shared the words of one bereaved mother who explains, “You never ‘get over it,’ you ‘get on with it.’ And you never ‘move on,’ but you ‘move forward.’”
Some things individuals can do to cope with grief include:
- Accepting support from friends and family
- Maintaining a good diet and exercise
- Getting enough rest
- Avoiding destructive habits like alcohol or substance use
- Being balanced with their time spent grieving and recreating
- Having a routine
- Not making big decisions after a loss
- Remembering their loved one
- Making time for a getaway
- Helping others
Sometimes grief can become chronic and introduce other health problems that make it impossible to function, even after many months. Grief treatment and grief counseling can be an option for someone struggling to overcome grief on their own. No one should be ashamed to seek professional help for grief. Physicians and therapists can offer suggestions to improve coping skills and evaluate an individual for secondary health problems stemming from grief.
If you or someone you know is currently struggling with grief and using alcohol or other substances to cope, contact The Recovery Village. One of our caring representatives can discuss a treatment plan to address a substance use disorder and any co-occurring mental health conditions at the same time.