Losing a loved one is a profound and universal experience. But anyone who’s experienced a loss may quickly find that our culture isn’t particularly well equipped to respond to grief.
“We’re a society that’s focused on productivity, positive thinking and moving forward in our lives. But grief doesn’t have a lot of all of that in it — especially in the beginning,” Dr. Kathy Shear, a professor of psychiatry at the Columbia School of Social Work specializing in the treatment of prolonged grief disorder, tells TODAY.com.
We tend to push people through the process and make it about checking off boxes on a list, she explains.
“In the United States, in particular, we are grief illiterate,” agrees Sherry Cormier, Ph.D., a psychologist and bereavement trauma specialist.
“We don’t want to talk about grief. We don’t want to talk about anything sad, even though we all will eventually experience grief,” Cormier, who is also the author of “Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief,” tells TODAY.com.
The lack of knowledge about loss in our society makes it hard for people who are grieving to get the support they need — even from well-meaning family, friends and colleagues.
Something Cormier runs into frequently is “how hard it is when people who aren’t grieving try to give advice to grievers about what to do or what not to do,” she says, “and how damaging that can be.”
The rules our society has about grief make us feel like we have to follow specific steps rather than letting the process unfold individually, Shear says. “I can’t tell you how many times someone calls me to say that they’re grieving and they just want to make sure they do it right.”
Whether you’ve experienced a loss yourself or you want to help others going through grief, here’s what experts want you to know.
Myth: If you ignore grief, it will go away.
In the midst of a loss, many people will try to isolate themselves. But “you don’t heal from grief by avoidance,” Cormier says. “You can’t try to go around the experience of bereavement, you have to go through it.”
Grief is not simply a process of moving on after a loss, Shear says. It’s a complex natural response to loss, which involves accepting and adjusting to this new reality and finding a way to “restore our capacity to move forward in our lives in a meaningful way,” she says.
When someone dies, it affects our bodies and our minds “in a very profound way,” Shear continues. And the way we move through that disruptive initial period of loss happens naturally in part, but “we (also) have to participate in that.”
It requires recalibrating the relationship you have with the person you lost and recognizing that you still have an internalized version of them with you, she says. But compartmentalizing or resisting that process won’t help.
“You just have to experience the feelings of sadness and sorrow and allow yourself to feel it,” Cormier says. “We have to stop and take time to process the grief. Because we just don’t heal if we avoid it.”
Myth: Grief always ends after a specific amount of time.
The idea that you should “get over” your grief within a specific time frame is “the most damaging myth,” Cormier says. “That is a myth that harms grief survivors the most.”
She frequently hears from clients who go back to work after a few days of bereavement leave and “people just expect them to be the same as they were five days before. It just doesn’t work that way.”
This can be so damaging, Cormier explains, because people who aren’t in grief can get impatient with those who are still processing a loss. And we might say things that we think are helpful but are “actually shaming,” she says. For instance, a coworker might encourage you to move on or ask why you’re still “moping around.”
The truth is, for many people, grief never fully goes away. “We have to accept the fact that the grief is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, just not in the same way that it is at the beginning,” Shear explains. “But we’re always going to have some reaction to the fact that this person is gone.”
That said, if someone has been grieving in the same way for an extended period of time, they may have what’s known as prolonged grief disorder or complicated grief.
In the first few months after a loss, it’s normal to have intense emotions and find it challenging to engage in your usual routines, the Mayo Clinic explains. But most people find that those feelings ease as they process their experience and the loss by accepting and adapting to their new circumstances, Shear says.
Prolonged grief disorder happens when you don’t go through that process, Shear explains. “Grief remains center stage in your life. It continues to sideline everything else,” she says. “It continues to be intensely prevalent and invasive in your life in a way that you really can’t do much of anything else wholeheartedly.”
It can also manifest as extreme avoidance of grief or reminders of the person who was lost, Shear says. Someone with prolonged grief disorder might physically avoid reminders of the person who died, like the street that their favorite restaurant was on, for example.
But there are evidence-based treatments for prolonged grief disorder, which are surprisingly different from those developed for depression, Shear notes. It’s not about imposing a timeline on grief, she emphasizes, it’s about giving people the tools and support they need.
“There are good ways to help people who have gotten stuck in their grief,” she says. “And there’s nothing wrong with the grief — it’s just that people need a little guidance at that point.”
Myth: Everyone grieves the same way.
Popular culture teaches us that everyone progresses through the same five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While feelings like these may come up through the grieving process, that’s not true for everyone.
In fact, this framework was originally developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross through conversations with people who were facing their own deaths — not those who’ve lost someone else, Cormier says.
This work was “pioneering,” Shear says, “but it doesn’t fit for the much more variable and complex experience of the loss of someone close while you’re still living your life.”
Really, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, she says, “and that means that people should not judge or try to control their grief.” Maybe you’re surprised at the complicated blend of emotions (or lack thereof) you feel after losing someone you had a difficult relationship with — and that’s perfectly normal.
“Nobody recovers or heals from grief in exactly the same way. Everyone has a very singular grief journey,” Cormier says, adding that people mourn differently too. Your age, gender, cultural norms and whether you have children all factor into the way you grieve, experience and process loss, she says.
Although we all tend to follow some general paths in grief, we’ll all experience loss differently, and each loss will also be individual, the experts say. For instance, the individual relationship each member of a family has with a parent means that they will all likely grieve the same loss in a unique way, Shear adds. (See also: That big moment in this season of “Succession.”)
Myth: The grieving process is always linear.
The other issue with the ubiquity of the five stages of grief is that it “implies that there’s a linearity to healing from grief and there really isn’t,” Cormier says.
In her mind, grief is more cyclical, like a roller coaster or waves crashing on a beach rather than a stair-step process. Instead, “You have a series of ups and downs, but they keep coming,” she says. “The waves may knock you over, but then they go out and the tide is low and you’re in a calm period.”
Even when your grief has subsided overall, there may be certain calendar dates that activate memories and bring those feelings back to the surface, Shear says. “It happens regularly around family holidays,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how long ago, if you lost someone, it’s going to be kind of activating. There’s no time limit.”
If you expect to heal in a linear way, you may get discouraged when your grief inevitably resurfaces and feel like you did something wrong, Cormier says. So it’s helpful to remember that it’s normal to experience those ups and downs.
Myth: You can only grieve the loss of a loved one.
Another misconception is that “we only ever deal with grief if we lose someone precious,” Cormier says. That’s often “the hardest kind of grief to deal with, but it’s not the only kind of grief,” she adds.
There’s grief in losing a job, a divorce or breakup, losing a pet and even chronic illness, like long COVID, Cormier says. “You can grieve any meaningful loss,” Shear agrees.
Frequently people experience grief over the death of a celebrity of public figure that they’ve never met, Cormier says. In some ways, a public expression of collective grief may actually give us an opportunity to further heal from a private loss that we hadn’t fully processed, she explains. She points to the death of Queen Elizabeth as a recent example.
“In grieving that way, I think we’re also grieving for ourselves or for something in ourselves that we feel we’ve lost that we haven’t we haven’t perhaps acknowledged,” she says.
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