Talking about grief and loss remains one of our society’s greatest taboos. Most of us are even reluctant to use the word “death,” instead preferring gentler alternatives like “passing away.”
And who could blame us? After all, it can be difficult, awkward, and even painful to discuss. Unfortunately, such reluctance can provide a space for myths about grief and loss to proliferate, making it harder for us to grieve in the long run. So, here are five of the most common myths about grief, along with the actual facts.
Myth #1: Grief is an emotion.
One of the most common misconceptions about grief is that it’s a feeling. Given that grief occurs in some of the most painful situations anyone can imagine, we generally associate it with depression. But grief is actually a process composed of many emotions, including expected ones like sadness, as well as more surprising ones like anger, frustration, guilt, or even shock.
It’s common during grief to experience positive feelings, as well, such as relief that our loved one is out of pain. At times, people also can feel numb, almost like the death hadn’t happened. What’s important to know is that all of these emotions—at least in measured amounts—are normal.
Myth #2: Grief is bad.
When most people think of grief, nothing good comes to mind. But researchers and counselors believe that the grief process itself is actually healthy. That’s because grief is the mechanism that allows us to come to terms with loss. We all know that it takes time for our brains to adjust to change. If you’ve even moved to a new house or apartment, you know it can take months for the place to feel like “home.” During that time, our brain is slowing altering its pathways to accommodate to the new reality.
When a loved one dies, it can likewise take significant time to adjust to what has occurred, as we grapple with questions like: Who am I without my loved one? How would my loved one want me to feel? How can I best honor their memory? Many grief experts believe that one of the functions of grief is to provide an opportunity for us to answer questions like these, ultimately allowing us to honor our loved one’s memory and come to a place of acceptance.
Myth #3: More grief is better.
If we accept that grief can be good for us, it’s tempting to conclude that more of it must be better. Even grief counselors have historically made this mistake. Known as the “grief work hypothesis,” counselors used to believe that it was necessary for people to vigorously confront their grief, keeping their minds on the loss as much as possible. If people didn’t appear to be in great distress following the death of a loved one, it was feared that they might be suppressing or denying the loss, something that could come back to haunt them later.
We now know that this isn’t exactly true. Although some people naturally grieve in an intense way, others don’t. Both can be healthy. Research by Columbia University psychologist George Bonnano shows that people follow different “grief trajectories.” The majority of people follow one of two relatively healthy grief trajectories. About 10-20 percent of people follow a so-called “recovery trajectory.” After a loss, they may initially experience difficulty functioning and intensely painful emotions like depression. But, after a period of months, they gradually recover and return to their lives. This is the trajectory most of us imagine when we hear the word “grief.”
But it’s not actually the most common trajectory. That’s because around 50-60 percent experience a different grief journey. Known as a “resilience trajectory,” these individuals are able to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of functioning, even in the immediate aftermath of a loss. Although from the outside they may appear pretty “normal,” this doesn’t mean they’re in denial. Inside, they still miss their loved one and still experience some of the grief-related emotions mentioned earlier. Because both the recovery and resilience trajectories ultimately allow people to move through grief to a place of healthy functioning, they’re both considered normal.
Myth #4: There is a right way to grieve.
One of the most widely known and accepted psychological ideas is that grief is composed of five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What you may not know, however, is that the creator of these stages, luminary psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, didn’t originally develop them to explain what people experience when they lose a person they love. Instead, she developed them to describe the process patients go through as they come to terms with their own terminal illnesses. Only later were the stages applied to grieving friends and family members, who seemed to undergo a similar process after loss.
But grief turns out not to be so simple. Studies now show that, although some grievers may progress through these stages just as Kubler-Ross outlined, many don’t. They might skip stages, repeat stages, or even experience emotions not captured in the original five. In reality, the grief process looks a lot less like a neat set of stages and a lot more like a rollercoaster of emotions. In fact, no stage theory to date has been able to fully account for how people cope with loss. Grief is different for each person and each loss, so it’s important not to force yourself to fit someone else’s idea of what grief should look like.
Myth #5: Grief counseling is harmful.
Several years ago, media outlets reported a shocking story: Research appeared to show that grief counseling could be harmful for a large number of people. Researchers had performed a complicated statistical procedure known as a meta-analysis, collectively analyzing the data from a number of studies investigating the effectiveness of grief counseling. They found what came to be known as the Treatment-Induced Deterioration Effect, or TIDE, for short.
Although the study was never published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the media trumpeted the seemingly alarming finding. Newsweek ran an article titled “Get Shrunk at Your Own Risk.” Time Magazine called grief counseling a “myth.” It was even mentioned in the Boston Legal episode “The Chicken and the Leg.” As a result, people who might have benefitted from grief counseling chose not to access it.
But the TIDE finding turned out to be flawed. As a result of all the publicity, researchers Dale Larson and William Hoyt asked the American Psychological Association to review the finding. They convened a team of two statistical and methodological experts who, after careful deliberation, concluded that the particular meta-analytic statistic used to produce the TIDE finding was problematic and the conclusions suspect. Since that time, there has been no good evidence that grief counseling is harmful.
It’s important to note, however, that grief counseling probably isn’t necessary for most people. Think about it: Human beings have been experiencing losses since our species first emerged approximately 300,000 years ago. The profession of counseling has only existed for about 100 of those years. For the most part, grief is hardwired into the brain. On some primordial level, we just know how to do it. Even without professional help, most people’s grief will naturally soften with time. This doesn’t mean grief counseling can’t be helpful, however.
Although research shows that counseling for grief doesn’t appear to be quite as effective as for other conditions, studies show that when people choose to attend counseling because they’re experiencing difficulties with grief, it generally helps. So, you shouldn’t hesitate to visit a grief counselor. If you feel you need guidance and support in your grief process, chances are you’ll be happy you did.
Despite all the myths, one truth is undeniable: If we haven’t already, every one of us eventually will lose people we love—from a grandparent to a dear friend. As much as we would like to have a magic wand that would make people live forever, none of us has that wand.
Fortunately, even though grief can be a painful process, it may be just the medicine we need to help us honor our loved one’s memory, come to terms with our loss, and ultimately take one step at a time toward a healthy future.
It’s something our fellow human beings have been doing since time immemorial. So, none of us is alone.
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