The attitude towards grief in mainstream America is often one of impatience. Many of us are uncomfortable with acknowledging our emotions, especially the negative ones. If you think about it, grief is just downright inefficient. Grief gets in the way of “business as usual,” because it’s the reaction to our lives being turned upside down by loss. When you lose a spouse or partner to death or divorce, there is no more “business as usual” until you have had sufficient time and done the inner work to adapt to this loss.
You may feel that people around you would rather that you “get over it” quickly and “get on with your life” so they can get on with theirs too. Most of us aren’t taught how to grieve, and consequently, we won’t know how to be with others in a supportive way when they are grieving.
There are myths operating in our society about how one “should” grieve. In today’s blog I’ll be discussing three of them. Hopefully taking a deeper look can empower you to decide if you want to buy into them or to go in a different direction.
MYTH #1: THERE ARE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF – DENIAL, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, AND ACCEPTANCE
This is one of the most robustly perpetuated myths out there and is based on the work of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. She proposed a theoretical framework to describe the process one goes through when they are facing their own imminent death. This stage theory is taught in countless programs for supporting the families of the dying in dealing with their grief. It’s likely that you’re going to hear a lot about these stages if you’ve recently lost a spouse or partner.
This stage theory has its shortcomings when applied to someone working through the process of grief. The most unhelpful aspect is the idea that people are somehow “guided” through the stages in a neat, linear succession – from denial on through to acceptance. And, if you aren’t hitting these milestones right on schedule, then, you’re not on track.
Understandably, it can be frustrating to have your experience explained to you in such a way that it doesn’t really match your experience. It can make you feel worse, rather than better.
Instead of accepting these five stages as fact, I encourage you to approach grief as a normal, fluid response that looks differently for everyone. You may go through all five of these stages or you may go through none of them. No matter what your grief response looks like, the important thing to remember is that your experience is normal for you.
MYTH #2: YOU SHOULD GRIEVE ALONE.
Many of us have been conditioned to keep our feelings to ourselves. We assume others don’t want to be burdened by our sorrow. When you lose a life partner, you are dealing with a significant loss, and it’s understandable that you might feel sad, angry, lonely, etc. You might even feel relieved, and then feel guilty about feeling relieved. This emotional rollercoaster can feel really uncomfortable and overwhelming, and you may be feeling like you need to hide your true feelings from others for fear of being judged.
One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself is to be willing to talk honestly about your feelings, share about your experience, and find a good shoulder to cry on. Chances are that people who care about you will want to help by listening, supporting, and creating a safe space for you. Give them the chance to do so, and you may be surprised by their response. I have found that when people open up and share the truth about how they are feeling, there is a sense of closeness that develops. The next time you are tempted to respond with “I’m fine,” when someone asks how you are doing and you are not really “fine,” I encourage you to simply share what is true for you. It’s OK to say, “I’m hurting today,” if that’s what is true for you.
And if you find that your expressions are not tolerated well, you will simply have the information. That person may not be a safe person for you to open up to. Even though people mean well, they may not be able to just simply be with you without trying to “fix” you. And, sometimes we hold back because we are the ones who are afraid or uncomfortable. If you feel you can’t turn to friends and family, I do encourage you to seek out a grief support group, a coach, or a counselor who you can talk to. Recognize that grieving is not shameful; it’s normal and it doesn’t have to happen behind closed doors.
MYTH #3: YOU SHOULD BE OVER YOUR GRIEF AT THE ONE-YEAR MARK.
This myth is simply not true. It is impossible to put an appropriate time limit on grief because it’s a unique process for everyone. How long should it take? The best answer is it takes as long as it takes.
I’ve heard people share that they feel like something is wrong with them if they aren’t “recovered” at the end of their first year of losing their spouse/partner. I hope you are hearing that it is simply OK to be where you are in the journey. Wanting to be farther along or pretending to be “fine” does not really support your healing. My encouragement is to continue to express your feelings when they come up, be patient and kind to yourself, and give yourself the dignity of YOUR process.
It has been said that one doesn’t recover from the loss of a spouse or life partner – that you don’t get over it. In a sense, that may be true. You won’t recover the same life that you had before the loss took place. However, there are actual tasks of grieving that, once you accomplish them, you can start to feel like you have your life back.
You can rebuild your life after loss. The journey begins with one small step. The first step might be to let go of these old myths that can be so limiting and choose thoughts and approaches that are truly helpful. Here are some alternatives for you to consider:
- Grief is the normal and natural response to loss. Each person’s grief is unique and there are no schedules, timeframes, or stages to adhere to.
- You don’t have to be alone in your grief. Reaching out to others can be very comforting and give you the chance to feel close to others.
- Release expectations that you should be “over it” in any specific timeframe. Don’t buy into others’ expectations or pressure about this either. Being patient and compassionate with yourself while you are grieving can be one of the greatest gifts you ever give to yourself.
Love and blessings on your journey,