“Conventional wisdom” tends to miss the mark when it comes to our assumptions about grief. Often this is reinforced by well-meant cliches or expectations from others that try to tuck a broad and complicated grief experience into a neat little package in order to make it easier for them to understand and offer support. But grief doesn’t fit in a package, so here’s a heads up on seven things you may have been told were true, that simply are not.
1) There is a common path to grief.
If there’s one myth worth busting it’s that there is a linear, universal grief experience. The opposite is true. Every person, and every loss for every person, is different. In the 1970’s the 5 Stages of Grief gained huge popularity because it seemed to offer a tidy and universal explanation of how grief works. First you feel denial, then anger, then you bargain, then depression, then acceptance, then you’re done. A simple five-step process. But unfortunately, grief is messy, hard to relate to another person, and it is not only as unique as you are, but is as unique as every relationship you have with every person you know. The grief you feel, that is so specific to this singular relationship, can’t be reduced to a common list or boxes to be checked leading to some universal, mythical end point. Which brings us to…
2) At some point you’ll “get over it.”
Nope. In an attempt to not say something that someone else has said better, I’ll just quote author, Anne Lamott here, “You’ll lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold—but you learn to dance with the limp.” Grief is part of the adversity that shapes who you are, it informs decisions you make for the rest of your life. That kind of meaningful perspective shift doesn’t just go away, it integrates into your life and becomes a part of your fabric. The struggle that remains is deciding, every day, how you’re going to allow your grief to define your life.
3) You need to get rid of their stuff.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that you’ve been keeping your lost friend or family member’s stuff for too long, I encourage you to politely ask them, “Says who?” What’s often happening in that situation is the other person is trying to make assumptions about your grief experience or is projecting part of their grief experience on to you. Maybe they feel more comfortable when things they see as no longer necessary are disposed of or given away, and assume the same would be true for you, though you may feel the opposite. If keeping their stuff around is a comfort to you, then go ahead and keep it unabashedly.
4) Certain types of loss are easier.
This can be a tough one to wrap our heads around. There is a common misconception that one type of loss is worse than another, however grief by its very nature is completely relative to the person experiencing it. This means that we can’t fairly “rank” the severity of loss based on universal standards like what their relation was to you or how they died. Every single person experiencing grief, whether they’ve lost their dog or their daughter, is valid in feeling any emotion that comes with their grief.
5) It’s weird to grieve someone you weren’t close to.
Profound and true feelings of grief be can be felt for people you hardly knew or people you didn’t know at all. Often in these situations it is not the loss of the personal relationship, but of what that person meant to you, or of what they symbolized. Britain experienced a profound sense of loss after the death of Princess Diana, though most didn’t know her personally. Acquaintance loss can also bring to the surface feelings deeply associated with a previous loss in your life and that reflection can create stronger grief than you had expected. Another possible source for this type of grief is the way their death makes you reflect on your own mortality. If a distant high school buddy dies, it’s hard to not have the thought, “that could be me,” and that can intensify your grief.
6) Staying busy is always good/bad.
There isn’t one thing that helps all grievers—no cure-all. So, staying active might be a comfort to some people and doesn’t automatically mean that they’re keeping busy to avoid their grief. On the other hand, filling all your waking hours with work and activities, can be used by some as blinders that keep them from confronting their feelings of loss. The key is finding the balance that works for you on any given day. Some days you’ll be capable of more than other days, and that’s perfectly fine.
7) Children can’t handle grief.
As much as we loathe it, death is a non-negotiable part of life. Part of our responsibility as adults is preparing children to deal with the undesirable and difficult things that will come throughout their lives. A parent’s (or really any adult’s) primary impulse is to protect a child from something that seems hurtful or unpleasant. But denying death, or keeping children from it, denies them the opportunity to gain important wisdom about the realities of life and death. One of the most amazing things about kids is that they accept the world as it is presented to them. They rarely feel like time with their loved-one was stolen, because they never knew enough to feel entitled to more. Allowing children to accept death as part of the life presented to them offers them early lessons about loss and grief that will grow with them through the years rather than blindside them in adulthood.