Most of us growing up in the US do not learn how to deal with death and other losses well. This seems wrong since one of the only complete certainties is that we will all die one day. Many cultures and religions have practices, ceremonies and rituals to help them honor their dead loved one and to express their own grief. At the same time, many are not shown what a normal reaction to a loss looks like. We receive subtle or overt messages to move on. Well meaning friends and family might try to make us feel better by giving simple anecdotes, encouraging us to not be sad. These end up making us feel even more sad and isolated than before.
When I lost my Mother to cancer at age 26, I was one of the first in my group of friends to lose a parent or to have a significant loss in general. My friends wanted to care for me but were not always sure how. They were open and receptive to whatever I thought would be helpful and ended up giving me the best support I could ever ask for. I know this is not the case for everyone. There are so many lies about loss and grief in our world, lies that create shame and loneliness for the bereaved. When I work with people who are coping with a loss of any kind, whether its a death, divorce, chronic illness diagnosis or another major life change, I spend so much time telling them what they are thinking and feeling is normal and acceptable. There is so much pressure to get over it and move on with our lives when the reality is, we cannot. Forcing the grieving process to move faster just cuts off our emotions and keeps the real healing work from taking place. We can try to convince ourselves that our loved one is in a better place so we are happy or have peace about their death, but one way or another our pain and our grief will have its day.
What I assist my clients in understanding is that their grief is not something to be feared. Instead it is a very normal response to a major disruption in their lives. John W. James and Russell Friedman, authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook define grief as “The conflicting group of human emotions caused by an end to or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” My Mother told me in her final months of life, “This wouldn’t hurt so much if we didn’t love each other so much.” Your grief shows how much you loved and appreciated the person, town, job, etc. that you have lost. Denying your grief is denying the impact and importance of that person or situation in your life.
If you are struggling to get through your daily life as a result of a major loss, read on for 6 lies about coping with grief. We cannot control the pain of loss but we do not have to suffer unnecessarily from faulty beliefs about loss.
Lie #1. Don’t feel bad
Even as I write this, I wonder how anyone could say this to someone in grief. Of course people say “Don’t feel bad” in one form or another to grieving people all the time. This statement is usually followed by some reason why they shouldn’t feel bad such as, “you have your other children”, “He would want you to move on and be happy”, “she isn’t suffering anymore”, “You’ll find another job” and other similar reasons. I believe it is an attempt to make people feel better, to take their focus from their pain and see the positives. But it is also completely unrealistic and denies the valid reality of someone’s pain. Saying “Don’t feel bad” to a grieving person is about as reasonable as telling someone who lost a finger in an accident, “Don’t feel bad, at least you still have your other fingers.” Yes they didn’t lose all their fingers, yes it could have been worse, but the reality is that it really sucks to lose a finger. Even if someone was suffering at the end of their life, even if there are still good things in a grieving person’s life, loss sucks. We can be thankful for the good things while also feeling the pain, anger and confusion of loss. It does not have to be one over the other.
This kind of talk is often common in spiritual communities. People may say or think to themselves, “I/You shouldn’t feel bad. I’ll/You’ll see them again one day.” Even if your spiritual beliefs say that you will be united with your loved one someday or that their spirit is still with you, it is not the same as physically having them with you. That is the change you are trying to adjust to. So while it may be comforting to imagine your loved one waiting for you in the afterlife, it does not change the fact that you are missing them terribly in this life. Someone told me, “I don’t miss her because I feel her spirit with me everyday.” I was and am very skeptical about the honesty of this statement. I believe there can be great comfort in believing a loved one is still with you in spirit or watching over you but again, it does not change the fact that they were once with you physically and tangibly and now they are not. No matter what, that takes a lot of adjusting and it hurts.
One of my favorite bands, JOHNNYSWIM (see My Top 10 Favorite Songs to Use in Therapy for more), has a song called “Let it Matter” that says:
If it matters, let it matter
If your heart’s breaking let it ache
Catch those pieces as they scatter
Know your hurt is not in vain
You are allowed to feel bad because it means that what or whoever you have lost mattered to you.
Lie #2) Replace the loss
Sometimes when there is a loss of a child, pet, job or community, well meaning friends will encourage you to replace the relationships you lost. If you had a miscarriage, they assume that getting pregnant again will take away the pain of losing that first pregnancy. If your family dog had to be put to sleep in his old age, just get a new dog and you won’t be sad about or miss the old dog. This sounds like it could work but it usually doesn’t because each relationship is unique. If your spouse dies, even if you eventually remarry to another wonderful person, you will still miss your late spouse because no one can replace them fully.
It is perfectly fine to remarry, get another dog or try to get pregnant again in all of these scenarios. But do not expect the new joy to eliminate your pain. It may soften it or even eclipse the pain at times but it cannot fully remove it. It is okay to move on with new wonderful relationships and still have sadness and grief about previous ones. It doesn’t mean you are stuck or not appreciating the new relationship.
Lie #3) It is best to grieve alone
This message may be expressed as people “giving you space.” People may genuinely think they are being helpful by giving you space when you are grieving. The reality is that we usually need the loving presence of others at least at some points in our grief. Knowing you are not alone when you have already lost so much provides so much comfort. Being left alone also reinforces what many grieving people fear: that their feelings of grief are too much for their friends and family. Bereaved people might isolate themselves because they don’t want to drive away their remaining loved ones and support system. The irony is, they then lose their support system in their attempts to not lose them! Not everyone will be able to sit with you in your pain but some people will. Don’t stuff your feelings in an attempt to maintain your friendships. Often when you are honest with your friends about how you are really doing, you can get the love and support you need and then you can actually enjoy being social. When you are trying so hard not to burden them with your feelings and pretend that you are fine, you can’t enjoy the people you are with or what you are doing.
It is okay to want and need company in your grief. We are not meant to do it alone. Sometimes grieving people will get a lot of attention and support for about the first 6 months after their loss and then it will slowly dwindle. Outsiders are do not feel the loss anymore like you are and they might need reminders that you are still deep in grief. It’s not always that people do not care, its just that they don’t know. People often want to love and support you but do not know how. If you can help them know how to care for you, they will often be happy to meet those needs. I know for me, I feel very honored to be invited into someone’s grief. It does not burden me, instead it deepens my love for them.
Lie #4) Time heals all wounds
If you are letting the waves of grief come and letting yourself feel them, they will eventually get smaller and less intense. It really does get better. But as James and Friedman say, “Time itself does not heal; it is what you do within that time that will help you complete the pain caused by the loss.” If you do not engage in the grieving process, time itself will not bring healing. You need to process your feelings, acknowledge what you have lost and be honest with how that impacts you.
I know people who feel the same intensity of their loss decades later as when it first occurred. This is usually because they have numbed their pain with workaholism, substance abuse or other forms of denial and avoidance. If you want time to bring healing, you need to give it a hand. We cannot rely on time to do the deep inner work of recovering from loss that only we can do.
5) Be strong for others
This lie is especially prevalent with men. Men often put this pressure to be strong for others on themselves or receive it directly or indirectly from others. This might look like a friend asking a man who just lost a child how his wife is doing but not how he is doing. The implicit message is that she has to be taking this much harder than him because men don’t have intense emotions. Of course women get this pressure as well but it is more common for men.
People may also feel this pressure as parents or older siblings, fearing that if they break down or express their sadness or anger, it will negatively affect those they feel responsible for such as their children or younger siblings. What usually happens, however, is that children watch their parents, other adults and older sibling in order to know what the appropriate response is. So if you shove down your emotions and act like everything is fine in front of your child, they are more likely to stuff their feelings instead of expressing them and reaching out to you for comfort. Of course you don’t want to lean on your children for emotional support, but you can be honest with them about how you feel and you can cry together. Doing so validates their emotional experience while helping you to be honest about your own.
6) Keep busy
While staying busy may distract from the painful emotions of loss temporarily, it does not actually bring healing. James and Friedman explain, “Busy-ness is just a distraction. It does not alter the fact that you have to take direct actions to complete the pain caused by the loss.” There are times when it is okay to take a break from your grief. We cannot stay under the heavy load of grief 24/7. It’s okay to have fun and enjoy your life even as you are grieving. There will be waves of sadness and anger but there will be moments where you feel okay. This is not wrong. I think it’s our brains taking care of us and giving us a break. So again, it is okay to give yourself a break from grief. The important thing is that you do not try to avoid or deny your feelings with busy-ness. Do not use busy-ness to self medicate your pain and numb out.
The pain of loss needs to be felt to be able to move through and lessen. If you stay numb and busy, you cut off the normal grieving process and prolong it. There is no way to avoid the process. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The feelings associated with grief can feel unbearable at times but I promise they will not kill or harm you. If you are using busy-ness to avoid these feelings you also hinder your ability to be present where you are and fully engage in your life.
Grief can be complicated and confusing. It can be incredibly helpful to have someone who has been there walk with you through it. Even someone who has not experienced loss but is willing to listen and be present with you in your pain can be a huge assistant in your grief process. You do not have to walk through it alone. If you are having a hard time identifying where you can turn to for support, starting with a therapist can allow you to learn how to express your feelings and needs without fear of alienating or burdening them. You can then share your needs and feelings with your friends and family. If you need support and space to process your feelings of grief in a safe, non-judgmental space, call me or fill out the contact form below to set up an appointment. You do not have to run from your grief. It is there to tell you what you lost mattered.
Let it matter.