Human society is a collection of myths. These myths are often helpful, and can also be limiting. These myths about grief are an exposé to what may be holding back your or someone you know’s progress in grieving.
Myth 1: Everyone grieves the same
If you have considered this, you are perhaps thinking about the “five stages of grief.”
The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were synthesized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross from informal interviews with hundreds of dying patients in a hospital in the late 1960s. These five stages have been applied to all sorts of situations : from the variety of emotions that happen immediately after a loss, to a giraffe facing its demise. The theory has even been meme-ified. Clearly, many people resonate with this orderly view of grief based on commonalities. Understandably, it is comforting to know the roller coaster of grief is normal and shared by others.
It is important to note that the stages were descriptive, not prescriptive, meaning that they are labels put on collections of common experiences, as opposed to required moments that happen, in sequence, to each person. The five stages of grief are not required in grieving. In fact, nothing is required in grief! Grief is in the eye of the griever.
The stages were not intended to be applied to the way survivors grieve; they were descriptive of the experience of people who were dying (a specific kind of grief directed at losing one’s life), not those who remain after they were gone. There was also no scientific interpretation given to these stories, simply attention and synthesis. It was/is a theory.
Whether or not someone goes through the specific stages described by Dr. Kübler-Ross, the paradigm of changing emotions – one experiences all kinds of states when grieving – is supported by all accounts of grief. Grief, like life, is a deeply textured experience and it cannot be pinned down neatly.
MYTH 2: Grief takes a certain amount of time
Nope! Grief takes as long as it needs. There is no timeframe. Putting arbitrary limits on grief (“The first six months are the hardest.”) is like caging in a wild animal. It has its own impulses and processes. Our tendency to be uncomfortable with grief (and pain) in others may lead to a dismissal or forgetfulness around someone’s grief. “It’s been 3 years since your brother died, it’s time to move on.” Grief lives in its own time zone, area code, and address. It shows up when it wants. Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) says so eloquently: “Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”
MYTH 3: Get busy, take your mind off of it, and you’ll get over it
Again, nope! Grief comes and goes as it wants. If it is not acknowledged, it will continue to make itself known, no matter how disruptive. Time does not heal all wounds, especially those that are unhealable, such as grief. “Taking your mind off things” by filling up one’s schedule or adopting a puppy may be an appropriate short-term energy reliever, but it is not sustainable over time. For more on how unprocessed things build up in the body, check out The Body Keeps the Score by trauma specialist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. In it, he meticulously describes the connection between unresolved trauma and grief to mental and physical ailments.
The following pages are going to deal with grief more directly and pragmatically. We’ll talk about what grief really may feel like, how to deal with it, and how to help others through it.
We’re even going to provide exercises and lists of organizations, as well as resources and tools to take your learning/doing to new places. We hope you’ll stick around and strive forward, though this subject may be difficult to get through. Even if you aren’t dealing with grief, read on, and you will be better equipped for the future hardships in your life.