Grief is a journey that we all must undertake. Loss is a universal experience of the fullness of life. However, it is a journey for which we have no map and no GPS to know precisely the way we should go. A number of misconceptions exist about what grief should look like or how we as grievers ought to be. We may receive messages from well-meaning people that make us feel like something is wrong with us if we do not grieve in the “acceptable” way. In helping those who experience grief and loss, I discovered one of the most helpful truths to impart to others is that much of what happens to them is common to many who grieve. To help with normalizing our experiences, the following are some common misconceptions about the process of grief:
1. Grief is a sickness that must be cured.
Grief is a normal process of experiencing any significant loss in life. We all experience losses that we need to grieve: Death of loved ones, loss of a job, loss of friendship, chronic physical conditions, loss of a home, divorce, etc. The world has this concept of illness upside down. Grief is not a disease. On the contrary, allowing ourselves to move through the experience of our losses puts us on the road to healing. Moreover, it is through our grief journeys that we may even experience personal growth, wisdom, and positive change.
2. Grief happens in the same prescribed order for everyone.
You may have heard about the five stages of grief. Contrary to popular opinion, we do not go through such stages in a predictable order. Some of us will go through some of the stages, but perhaps in different orders, or we may experience a stage more than once. Some of us may never experience a particular stage. The path of the grief journey is not a straight one, sometimes we take detours and backtracking, before it proceeds forward again. Do not compare your path in this process to someone else’s. Rather, accept that the road on which you walk is uniquely yours and the one on which you were meant to travel.
3. The outward expression of mourning is unhealthy.
Crying is the body’s ways of releasing tension and carrying the poison out. I’m sure at times in your life you have felt relieved and relaxed after a good cry. But let’s be honest—tears and emotion make other people uncomfortable. To protect themselves from having to join us in our pain, they encourage us to keep a stiff upper lip under the guise of telling us to be strong. Society tells us we must always be in control of our feelings. Yet, emotional suppression is what leads to becoming stuck in our grief process, so that recovery takes longer. Instead of trying to sidestep your feelings and fight them, give yourself permission to move through them.
4. You should get over your grief as soon as possible.
The fact is, we don’t really “get over” our grief. Rather, we learn to live with it. The experience of our loss becomes woven into the fabric of our lives, such that we eventually come to a place of acceptance. You have heard it said that time heals all wounds. Though it is true that time does help us to adjust to a loss, it is not time alone that will heal us, but what we do with that time. We wish that grief would be over and done with quickly. However, the grief journey is not a race to the finish. Nor, do we rent our grief for a short time and then return it. So with courage we gently, in small doses, open up to the pain until we reach the other side of it.
5. You should not feel the way you do.
Part of the experience of grief is always the feeling of unfinished business. With that comes emotions, some of which may feel uncomfortable or unacceptable to us. For example, you may experience resentment, bitterness, or even hatred toward the deceased. Perhaps you feel nothing—a detachment or numbness about the loss. You might feel relief after someone has suffered from a long illness. It is important to acknowledge that how we feel is part of the normal process of coming to a resolution and finding closure.
I have presented just a few of the misconceptions about grief. This journey can sometimes feel like we have lost our bearings, such that life does not make sense anymore. So we take it step by step, sometimes stumbling in the darkness, sometimes taking a turn where we did not intend. If we allow ourselves to enter into the experience, we will arrive at a “new normal.” We will be alright again, but we will not be unchanged. On the other hand, if we try to avoid the work of grief, there is a price to be paid—total detachment from life itself. We deprive ourselves of the experience of genuinely felt loss that allows us to be grateful for whatever we had to lose. Our grieving means that what we had or who we had in our lives are worth remembering. They are still precious to us and will always be with us. So at the end of this journey we return to life, with gladness and a greater meaning for what life has given us.
— Wayne Lee, PhD | Acacia Westwood