Hope Edelman: Exposing the 5 Myths of Grief

New book, "The AfterGrief," examines the surprisingly long arc of loss.

Posted Oct 05, 2020

Irene Rubaum-Keller, used with permission
Hope Edelman
Source: Irene Rubaum-Keller, used with permission

Contributed by Hope Edelman, author of The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss.

If ever a year of collective grief were to appear in our lifetimes, 2020 just raised its hand and volunteered. As a result, those of us who work in bereavement have witnessed a startling reversal of trends. For years we’ve been trying to get people to acknowledge and talk about grief. Now the topic is both ubiquitous and inescapable.

I’m going to take an atypical stance here and say this is a good thing. If we allow it to, 2020 can carry all of us into a healthier and more holistic appreciation for what grief is and can become. But it’s going to involve some collective reframing.

I’ve been doing bereavement work for 25 years, since the publication of my first book, Motherless Daughters. I’ve been living with the long-term effects of grief for much longer. My mother died of breast cancer in 1981, when I was 17. This was back in what I refer to as the Dark Ages of grief support, when the dominant messages about bereavement were all about “getting over” a loss, “moving on” from distress, and “letting go.” These ideas were already outdated by the 1980s, but the mechanical attitudes behind them continued to be passed down. You need to get over it. Don’t dwell on the past. Life goes on. These were the messages I heard, internalized, and adopted as my own.

Acceptance, resolution, and closure sounded like admirable goals, but in practice they were hard to attain. When I found myself, from time to time, still missing my mother after five, ten, and even twenty years, I kept wondering what I’d done wrong. Should I have mourned differently back then? Why hadn’t I gotten past her death yet? And from there it was only a short step to feelings of failure, guilt, and shame.

Twenty-first century grief theory has, thankfully, moved beyond the admonition to “get over” a loss. Yet grief beliefs from the Dark Ages still permeate popular thinking. In my coaching practice, four statements come up so frequently that I’ve started calling them The Five Myths of Grief. If any of them sound familiar, you might consider revisiting the beliefs behind them, and reassessing whether they serve you well.

The Five Myths of Grief

Myth #1: "I never grieved my mother (father/sister/brother/partner/best friend).”

Embedded in this statement is often a belief about what grief should look like. Most of us envision it as a state of visible emotional distress. But mourning is a highly individual process. My expressions of sorrow may or may not look like yours. A feminine style of grief, for example, includes emoting and reaching out to others for comfort. A masculine style, on the other hand, typically involves problem solving and action. According to Tom Golden, a therapist in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who writes and speaks extensively about men’s bereavement, after a major loss about 80 percent of women will prioritize emotional expression and 80 percent of men prioritize emotional restraint. Different cultures encourage a variety of expressions as well. Depending on your ethnicity, religion, or race, you might find yourself feeling out of sync with the beliefs and traditions of your heritage. None of this means you’re grieving incorrectly or that you didn’t grieve at all. It just means you need to seek out others who can validate your natural form of self-expression.

Only on rare occasion does someone avoid having any response at all to a major loss. I believe every person grieves to the best of his or her ability at that moment in time. Sometimes that ability is very limited. This can occur for a number of reasons. Children need adults who can offer them support and permission to grieve, and some children don’t have adults who are available in this way. Mourners may not have the emotional or financial resources to access support at the time of loss. Still others may need to focus on short-term survival. The average paid bereavement leave in America is only three days, after which many employees need to return to full-time work. Or maybe a mourner has dependent children to care for, or needs to attend to another family member or to their own physical health.

Fortunately, grief isn’t a one-time opportunity. A loss can be revisited at any time, even decades later, and emotions that have been blocked or postponed can be brought to the surface and processed then.

Myth #2: "I'm stuck in the anger/denial/depression stage of grief."

Let’s first release the idea that grief occurs in stages. That thinking dates back to attachment studies conducted on young children in the 1960s and became popularized when Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying in 1969. The stages that Kubler-Ross identified (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) were the sequence of responses she’d observed in terminally ill patients as they approached the ends of their own lives. She never intended for them to be transferred onto the mourners left behind. Kubler-Ross herself maintained that emotions don’t occur in silos and don’t unfold in a linear progression. Nonetheless, what became known as The Five Stages of quickly infiltrated the broader cultural conversation about grief.

Which is too bad, because in my experience, people care about only two stages of grief: the part where you feel really bad, and the part where you start to feel better. This part where life starts feeling bearable again—which I call the aftergrief—is made up of long periods of calm adjustment punctuated by occasional “grief spikes” around anniversaries, holidays, life milestones, and other significant occasions. Anger, denial, disbelief, depression, and sadness then reappear, especially when new experiences cause us to long for a loved one’s presence in a new and different way. When the duration and intensity of a grief spike becomes incapacitating, it’s a signal that professional help may be needed. But when the sadness feels painful but bearable, and comes and goes, it’s often a sign of persistent love. Why would we consider that a problem?

Myth #3: "I haven't let go yet."

Good! Because there’s no rule that says you have to. This is a remnant of old, old grief beliefs, dating all the way back to the 1917 paper “Mourning and Melancholia” written by Sigmund Freud. That’s where Freud described the work of mourning—as he called it—as a three-part process of relinquishing attachments to a deceased loved one, taking them back unto ourselves, and then finding another person in whom to invest our love. This did terrible damage to two generations of mourners, who were told they needed to break their emotional bonds to the deceased before they could effectively move on.

Now the thinking is that struggling to let go of an attachment causes pain and remaining emotionally close brings comfort. Contemporary grief counselors have replaced the idea of breaking bonds with the notion of “continuing bonds” through which mourners find new and creative ways to stay connected to the memories of their loved ones. We can then feel that person’s presence in our everyday lives instead of focusing on the absence.

An inner relationship with the deceased may include anything from engaging in their favorite hobby to naming a child after them to starting a foundation in their name. Creating an inner relationships is a very individual effort and the result will vary even among family members. What’s important is keeping your loved one’s memory alive in ways that are meaningful to you.

Myth #4: "I’m afraid if I start crying, I won’t be able to stop."

I know this fear. I once had it myself. The possibility of losing control of my emotions, without knowing how to regain them, was too unsettling to consider. 

So let’s unpack this one together. For starters, emotional states are, by their very definition, transitory. A crying episode for a man typically lasts only two to three minutes; for women, six minutes is the average. Only in extreme instances do tears continue, nonstop, for more than an hour. In fact, it’s physiologically impossible to start crying and never stop.

But that’s not really what this statement is referring to, is it? 

The fear of uncontrollable crying is also a fear of faulty self-regulation, of feeling endless sorrow without the presence of a compassionate, stable other to help us contain and process it. That’s the fear of a vulnerable younger self.

In the past it may have been true that no one was there to comfort you when you cried. You may not have had the maturity or the agency or the inner fortitude to cope with extreme distress on your own. Keeping a safe distance from those emotions, for as long as you could, may have been a necessary form of self-protection. (See Myth #1.)

Finding someone who can companion you in your grief as an adult will go a long way toward diminishing this fear. Ideally, it will be someone who can listen with curiosity and compassion, without needing to interrupt or fix you. This can be a trusted friend or partner, or a therapist or fellow support group member.

Active, compassionate listening is a learned behavior. It takes practice. You may find that someone you’ve entrusted isn’t able to do it. That doesn’t mean you’re talking too much or saying anything wrong. It means only that you need to find someone who has already acquired the skill.

Myth #5: “Your mother (father/sister/brother/child/partner/spouse) wouldn’t want you to be sad.” 

I heard this at my mother’s funeral, as well as in the months afterward. The Grief Police had spoken. At 17, I trusted the adults around me to know what another adult would want, so I forcibly pressed down my feelings of sadness. They caught up with me seven years later in a single, dramatic rush that swept me straight into a therapist’s office for the first time.

This statement at the funeral, I now know, said more about adults’ discomfort with a child’s grief than it did about that child or her mother. And I know my mother would have wanted her daughters to experience joy after she died. Of course she would have. But still. I don’t know about you, but I want my daughters to be sad when I die. I don’t want them to be incapacitated by grief, but I hope I’ll have been the kind of mother they’ll miss and wish could still be around. That kind of missing is the kind that extends from love. It’s time to stop pathologizing the sorrow. Let’s choose to celebrate those continued feelings of connection, instead.

Hope Edelman is the author of eight nonfiction books, including the New York Times bestseller Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss and the new book The Aftergrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss. She lives in Los Angeles and Iowa City, Iowa.