Five Common Myths About Grief

Overcoming misconceptions about mourning.

Posted Aug 06, 2018

Ariane Hoehne/Shutterstock
Source: Ariane Hoehne/Shutterstock

I believe the majority of people who come for grief work come because of their lack of knowledge about the realities of grief. That is not to say that people are not in pain due to their loss, but that their pain is made worse by the myths and misconceptions they have about grief. They are concerned that there is something wrong with them and the way they are grieving. These myths appear to be firmly entrenched in our collective psyches, even with evidence to the contrary. This lack of understanding is not surprising, given that most of us try to avoid thinking about anything related to death. Knowing that something is not strange or unusual is a great relief and helps people to cope better with what they are experiencing. Below are some of the more commonly held false beliefs about grief:

1. "Because you feel like you are going crazy, you are." 

Of course someone might think this. One’s whole world may have been turned upside-down by the death. It is hard to think, remember, and concentrate. There may be problems sleeping or eating. Your emotions can be all over the place. One minute you are fine, and the next, you may be in a puddle of tears. It is also not uncommon for mourners to say that they see, hear, smell, or feel their loved one around them. Grief can be so unsettling that you can feel like you have lost control of your mind and your life. It helps to know that this is what grief is like, and that you are not going crazy.

2. "There are five stages of grief that follow a linear pattern." Since Dr. Kubler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying in 1968,1 her idea of the five stages of grief has circled the globe and has found its way into many different cultures. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, Kubler-Ross based her findings on interviews with the dying, not the bereaved. She felt they represented how those who were facing an imminent death coped. It was quickly applied to the grieving as well. Initially, people believed that once you went through all the stages and reached acceptance, grief was over. What we know now about grief is that our thoughts and emotions vacillate, and not just in a day, but in an hour or a minute. There really is no right or wrong way to grieve. No purpose is served by comparing how you grieve and what you do to another, even with the same type of loss.

3. "Women grieve more than men." Just because women may be more emotionally demonstrative with their grief does not mean that they grieve more. Part of the myth has been that to deal with grief, one needs to fully express their emotions. Not to do so would mean that the grief would resurface at some later time, since it was not fully processed. What we know is that people can also adapt to grief successfully through cognitive skills such as problem solving and taking action. Dr. Kenneth Doka, in his book Grieving Beyond Gender (2010),2 identifies three patterns of grieving. The intuitive pattern is typically associated with women and is more emotionally expressive. The instrumental pattern is characterized by thoughts and behaviors and is more associated with men. Finally, the blended pattern reflects aspects of both. Misunderstandings arise for couples in that wives often feel that their husbands are not grieving enough, while he will think she is grieving too much. Understanding these different styles of grief can help people be less critical and judgmental of each other.

4. "It is ridiculous to mourn the loss of a pet." For many, the loss of a pet is devastating. They are our loving companions, who are there for us unconditionally. They see us at our worst and still want to be with us. Today, openly grieving a pet is more common and acceptable. There are pet sympathy cards, pet hospices, and pet obituaries. Regardless, there will always be some who will be judgmental and critical about who and how you mourn. Do not let it stop you from grieving your loss.

5. "Grief will not change your relationships." Grief does change relationships with friends as well as family. Mourners often find that the people they thought would be there to support them are not. Often it is the people who you did not expect who rise to the occasion to comfort you. It is not unusual for people who are grieving to feel isolated and alone. People will often avoid the mourner, as though death and grief were contagious. In C.S. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed,3 he comments on this, suggesting that “perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in settlements like lepers.” Others may also avoid you because of their own inability to cope with their sorrow. There are times when mourners want to be alone, but social contact is important. Mourners also are changed by their grief. Some relationships may end, because they are no longer comfortable or compatible with you. However, it is important to find people who will listen and validate what you are going through. If you cannot, then you could find a support group or seek counseling.

There are many more myths about grief. I picked these, because they are the most frequent ones I hear. It is important to examine your own beliefs about grief and find out the facts for yourself. Grief is different for everybody. Do not let yourself be governed by outdated beliefs and expectations while you mourn.

References

1. Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth (1968). On Death and Dying: What the Dying can Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

2. Doka, Kenneth J. and Martin, Terry L. (2010). Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, Revised Edition, Routledge

3. Lewis, C.S. and L’Engle, M. (1961). A Grief Observed. Faber and Faber