Understanding Grief Myths
Nov 18, 2013 03:12PM
By Gail-Elaine Tinker M.S.
When someone in our life dies, we are faced with the critical, life-changing task of grieving. Mourning the death of someone impacts every area of one’s life. Society has some ‘interesting’ customs, myths and wisdoms that can be comforting or frustrating to people with grief. Let’s address a few of these ideas to assist both the grieving and those who care about them.
MYTH: Grief begins after a death. We know this is not so because when one misses family or friends after moving long distance, it is a grief of not having them in our day-to-day lives. Many experience grief feelings at the loss of a job or during an injury. So, why is it wrong to begin the grief experience upon the grave illness of a loved one or pet? Some people feel that such pre-processing of what is to come is somehow jinxing their loved one’s chance for miraculous recovery. Some folks have felt guilt about dealing with hospice, funeral arrangements and financial planning for similar reasons. Most unfortunate is when families hide circumstances and deny people opportunity for farewell and ritual. If we speak with grievers who endured circumstances that denied them even a moment of a farewell or a parting touch with a loved one, they are aghast at such a waste. The gift of time becomes so much more precious when death is a reality. Those who are dying feel grief too, along with pain and loneliness in a life situation which culture does little to prepare us.
MYTH: Grief should only last about three weeks. This is one of the most heinous falsehoods put upon those suffering grief, “This soon shall pass.” For many, grief is a lifelong companion, an emptiness that accompanies day and night. This is as normal for animals as humans. It is far more helpful to see grief as a life process rather than a phase or stage to be hurried through. Such an acceptance among the grieving and those who care for them would allow individuals to process at their own pace. There is no set time for removing a loved one’s belonging from view. There is no pre-determined schedule for moving-on, despite what we may have seen in films. Considering that one of the most common impediments to reconciling grief is a lack of social support, it behooves us to gain awareness at a societal level that relief from degrees of grief takes more time than anyone would like. Grief is not a concept of healing or cure, in fact, anyone who is “over it” in three weeks is waving more of a danger flag than a person who requires three years.
MYTH: Dwelling on details is bad, keep very busy and don’t think about the grief. When it comes to personal loss, this can be damaging advice. It is designed more for the comfort of the supporter than the actual griever. Some people cry, tell repeated stories, want hugs and many others do not. It may be disturbing to see a once functional executive teary eyed and vulnerable, but no one can really control how any particular loss will impact them. Often it is the cultural rituals which comfort us in the time of death, however, keep in mind these rituals have wide variance and times are changing. Most important is acceptance of the griever’s need or disdain for ritual.
MYTH: Children should always be shielded from death. How are we to learn to accept death and find comforting ritual if we are protected from it? Avoiding discussion of death with children only makes it mysterious and leaves them to fill in the blanks with their own developing imaginations. It is very important to use correct terminology with young people about death and dying. Euphemisms for death, such as “put-to-sleep,” “gone with his maker,” “on vacation” and such phrases have the potential to be harmful. Imagine the youngster who has “lost” someone dear and finds herself now “lost” in a department store; what fears will she imagine? When one takes a test at school or with a doctor and “passed;” is this like when Grandpa “passed?” Of course, children’s exposure to the reality of death can be filtered by measure by age. Even little ones grieve and if given words and time to express their experience, they can be resilient and enhance the process for the adults in their world.
MYTH: If you are having trouble with grief, you need to see a psychiatrist for an antidepressant. This is not necessarily true. If one feels suicidal, they need to seek assistance via local hospital or crisis counseling/ 911 immediately. If one feels their struggle with grief feelings are getting in the way with their life functions and basic life happiness, start with a family doctor and a basic check-up. It is true that many physical conditions add to depressive feelings and it is very important to make sure all bodily systems are in working order. Next, look at nutrition, exercise and alcohol/drug consumption. These are also natural repairs to a body, which has been coping with emotional stress. Next, try talk therapy, either self-help, group or individual. Please remember, this does not mean an individual has a mental problem. There are many life stressors that can cause folks to seek outside support. Health, addiction, unemployment, debt, aging, domestic violence and spiritual issues are examples. Unless one is in a very rural area, investigations into most phone books reveal listings of support groups for these most serious challenges in life. However, psychological studies rank death of a loved one as the number one life stressor among all those insidious stressors mentioned. Few communities have a self-help grief support group, let alone one sponsored by a community institution or facilitated by a qualified professional. Why is this?
There is only one sure thing to say to the dying and the grieving, that phrase is, “I am sorry.” Only offer to help if you really, 100 percent, mean to follow through. Leave your grief, “I know exactly how you feel” and your sometimes-discomforting platitudes: “He had a good life,” “At least she’s out of pain and in a better place,” and “He’ll be in heaven to meet you,” outside of the conversation. Don’t bring food the first weeks unless it is needed. Remember the bereaved person months into the process with short notes, calls, visits or diversions if they are welcomed. The act of listening with an open mind and heart is one of the greatest gifts one can give another.
Grief is not a disease. It is a natural, healthy process of coping with the death of someone we care about. Often it is helpful to talk with a friend, clergy or a counselor about the intense experience of grief.
Gail-Elaine Tinker M.S. offers grief counseling in her private practice of clinical psychology for individuals, families or small groups in Bethlehem. She is a speaker, an advocate and writes articles on grief for the compassion section of efuneral.com. Tinker Psychotherapy hosts a free monthly grief support group. Call 610-216-4319 for a phone consultation.