I am intimately acquainted with grief. Like many of you, I’ve been through difficult losses and times I didn’t believe I could go on. Now that I’ve healed enough to write about loss, I’ve found there are a few commonly accepted beliefs that just aren’t accurate.
1. Grief has predictable, recognizable stages that everyone goes through.
Despite the many books and esteemed authors who discuss grief stages, I haven’t found any stages that fit my experience. And I’ve talked with countless others who agree. I think of a stage as something predictable to get through and finish. My children went through many developmental stages as they grew and I counted on the fact that when finished, each particular stage was history. And I also believed each stage was essential for their eventual adult well-being.
With grief, its many aspects are overlapping and co-occurring. When I felt anger welling up inside me, it many times gave way to fear and sadness in the next moment. And, sure enough, anger returned usually when I least expected it. So did denial and depression. The many feelings associated with grief cannot be scheduled and are not evidence of a new stage. Each of us experiences loss and grief so individually; our journeys are necessarily unpredictable and ours alone.
2. You’ll eventually get over a loved one’s death and feel like your old self again.
This is hard to state, but it’s true: you don’t get your old self back. The job of grief is to adapt to a new normal and transform the old life into a new one. Yes, the feelings do become less intense and the loss is easier to bear as time goes on. But I will never stop being a grieving mother. I will never stop missing my son, even though life now has so much joy.
I understand some people’s wish for me to “get over it” comes from their love and concern for me, but grief doesn’t work that way. I don’t think our job is to get over it; but rather to incorporate the loss into the rest of our lives. Our challenge is to create a life that weaves together all the joy, agony, and learning into an individually meaningful and beautiful tapestry.
3. Grief is just for death.
Most people think of grief when someone dies. Death certainly is a loss for those left behind, but it’s obviously not the only kind of loss we humans have to bear. Grief is what happens when we experience any kind of loss, ending or unwelcome change.
The end of a relationship can be grieved, whether in divorce or any other kind of separation. People grieve the loss of their job when they’ve been let go, or some feel grief relating to a career that isn’t going the way they thought it would.
Receiving a difficult health diagnosis can also result in grief. It shatters your sense of self and agency in the world, and isn’t at all part of the plan. Raising a child with special needs involves grieving the loss of your fantasy child. You can probably think of many other examples of non-death losses.
Accepting any initially unacceptable and unchangeable life circumstance involves grieving.
Loss is part of life and none of us is likely to get through a lifetime without some adversity. Grief helps transform the pain of loss into growth, and it’s time to bust the myths long associated with it.
Essays on Grief Resilience