There’s nothing quite like grief. It’s complicated. It can be messy. And we each experience it in our own way.
Every one of us will experience grief during our life. But even though grief is universal, we don’t talk about it. We don’t share our experiences. Perhaps that’s why so many myths about grief abound – how we’re supposed to grieve, what it looks like and how long it takes.
Let’s debunk some of the most common myths about grief.
MYTH 1: Grief is a linear process
REALITY: We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But it’s a common misconception that grief happens in this series of neat, progressive stages. It can’t be neatly defined and the pathway is certainly not predetermined.
Referring to the “stages of grief” helps us make sense of an experience that isn’t as orderly and predictable as we’d like it to be. If only it were that simple! Grief is neither orderly or predictable. Nor can its different aspects be easily categorised.
Grief is a tangle of falls and rises, sinking and swimming. Like a game of snakes and ladders, you never quite know where you’re going to land. There’ll be times when you’re moving ahead and feel like you’re winning the battle. But then, just went you think you’ve coming to the finish, a roll of the dice can send you back to the start.
We all grieve differently, so it can be discouraging to feel you need to abide by five stages.
MYTH 2: Time heals all wounds
REALITY: While time may soften the pain of your grief, you’ll never be completely healed. Experiencing grief is not like recovering from a cold. It’s not a case of getting a little better each day until it completely goes away. It’s not a case of getting to a point where you’re “all better”.
Many people seem to believe that grief takes place within a specific time period and should then go away, but that’s not the case. It’s an ongoing process – a continuous journey you’re on throughout your life.
Grief is forever. This isn’t a bad thing, though. It just means that when we lose someone we loved deeply, that loss will always be with us. Over time that grief may feel different or become more manageable, but it will always be there and that’s OK.
Grief changes us at the deepest levels and while you may not forever be in an active mode of grief, you’ll forever be shaped by the loss you’ve experienced.
MYTH 3: Grief looks a certain way
REALITY: There’s no single way to describe what grief looks like, because we all handle our loss in different ways. Just as everyone grieves in a different way and at their own pace, so too is it with the appearance of grieving.
Some people cry, others don’t. Some break down, others stand firm. And some express anger and lash out, while others withdraw into stillness.
To limit the appearance of grief to tears and intense sadness is to limit what grief is and how it’s expressed. Just because you’re not crying, doesn’t mean you’re not grieving.
MYTH 4: Grief is an emotional response
REALITY: Grief doesn’t just manifest as emotional symptoms. It also involves physical symptoms. Don’t panic. They’re normal. Horrible, frustrating and sometimes scary – but normal.
Grief can be exhausting, so fatigue is common. You feel run down. You’re tired all the time. You’re always ready for a nap but, ironically, when you try to sleep you can’t. But a good night’s sleep can do wonders.
Your body can also start to hurt and it’s not uncommon to experience muscle aches and pains. Try to work on body relaxation. Things like meditation, getting a massage or stretching can be helpful.
Anxiety is also a common grief reaction. Dull and constant tightness in the chest and shortness of breath can often occur when you encounter grief triggers. Learning breathing techniques can help you deal with difficult and stressful situations.
Headaches, appetite changes and digestive issues are also not uncommon when you grieve, as are things like forgetfulness and an inability to focus.
All these things can be distressing, but they’re normal. Remember to be kind to yourself.
MYTH 5: Grief only occurs after a death
REALITY: Not true. Grief can also be experienced in anticipation of an expected loss. Anticipatory grief can begin long before death happens. It can start as soon as you become aware that death is likely.
Though it’s different to the grief that follows a death, anticipatory grief can carry many of the same symptoms – sadness, anger, isolation, forgetfulness and depression. And these emotions often go hand in hand with the exhaustion that comes with being a caregiver.
Anticipatory grief is not just about accepting the future death. It’s also about coming to terms with the many losses already occurring in the lead up to the death. We grieve the loss of the person’s abilities, independence and cognition. We grieve the loss of hope and future dreams. We grieve the loss of the person’s identity, as well as our own. And we grieve countless other losses.
Just like any grieving process, anticipatory grief is an individual process and it’s a natural part of adjusting to living with loss.
MYTH 6: Grief is a sign of weakness
REALITY: Absolutely not. It’s not a sign of weakness. Nor is it a sign of an inability to cope. On the contrary, grief is a normal and adaptive response to loss that we all experience at some point in our life. It represents the pain and anguish we feel when someone we care about has died.
Crying often goes hand in hand with grief and, unfortunately, many people associate tears with personal inadequacy and weakness. They’re not.
Crying is nature’s way of releasing tension in the body and allowing a person to communicate a need to be comforted. It also makes people feel better emotionally and physically.
MYTH 7: Staying busy heals grief
REALITY: If you’ve every experienced a loss, it’s more than likely that someone at some point has advised you to “keep busy”. Have you tried it? Did it work? Or was busyness merely a distraction?
The idea that keeping busy will fix your broken heart or help you recover more quickly is one of the major myths about grief. Distraction doesn’t equal healing.
Exhortations of “keep busy” from well-meaning family and friends are akin to that other long-held myth that “time heals all wounds”. And just as time doesn’t necessarily heal, so too staying busy in itself doesn’t promote healing. Propelling yourself into a flurry of activity is essentially false hope that keeping busy will help you to avoid or transcend grief.
Like other potentially compulsive behaviours, staying busy is, in essence, just a distraction and will always disappoint as a coping strategy. Ultimately, your grief will remain after the distraction of busyness ends.
You need to devote time and energy to feeling the loss. Facing grief head on is the least painful way to recovery from loss in the long run.
Want to know more?
For more information coping with grief, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing [email protected].