Grieving is the term used to describe the process of responding to a loss. There is not a correct way to grieve; and while we may observe certain similarities among people, we cannot predict how someone will process the death of a loved one. One way we can start to explore the topic is by understanding what grieving is not.
Myths About Grieving
Myth #1: Grieving is typically over after the funeral. Although friends and family members may expect you to move on after the funeral, most people are just beginning to grieve after the funeral. Some people will say that grieving takes “3 months." Other words of wisdom say “one year," but there is no set segment of time for “most” people. People vary tremendously and obviously, there are reasons for that. For instance, how close the relationship was or the circumstances of the death are just a few examples of the variability of situations.
Myth #2: If you cry a lot and and show your feelings, you are weak and it will take longer to get through it. Some people believe that if you hold in your emotions, you will “get over it” faster. Stuffing pain and avoiding its expression may actually prolong the grieving. Stoic “strength” in the face of an important loss is not typically healthy and it is actually more courageous to face feelings than to avoid them.
Myth #3: If you don’t cry and/or act obviously upset, it means you do not care. The other school of thought is that if you show no emotions, it must mean you are not handling it well, you are in denial or you didn’t really care about the person. As stated earlier, no two people will express emotions the same way. Crying is not necessarily the only way to express sadness.
Myth #4: Staying busy will help. While any type of distraction will help us to avoid feelings, it will not take the feelings away. Grieving is akin to washing a pan. If we stop in the middle of washing a pan to distract ourselves with something else, we still have to come back to wash the pan - the distraction will not magically clean the rest of the pan for us. So, staying busy does not speed up grieving – it typically only delays it.
Myth #5: Time will heal all. Generally, after some amount of time things do improve. But, if the time spent has been just on avoiding the grief, it will tend to last longer. So, it is more about the quality of the grieving rather than the amount of time passed.
Myth #6: There is one set pattern of grieving. Often at funerals, you will hear people talk about stages of grief. People will say things like: “she is in the denial stage” and so on. While researchers have observed certain “stages” and people like to categorize things into neat boxes, we all experience grieving in very unique and sometimes unpredictable ways.
Myth #7: You should never be alone during grieving or "you should be able to handle it on your own." Sometimes a person needs some space from others to sort out feelings and gain perspective. The fear is that one will become isolated. But, becoming isolated and consumed with grief is very different from having some space to work things out. Don’t be afraid to be alone at times if that is what feels right to you. Conversely, don't be afraid to reach out and ask for companionship or friendship from others as needed. There is not one right way to handle our relationships with others during a loss.
Myth #8: You will one day "get over it." While we can speak of feeling “resolved or healed,” it is not as though we ever totally “get over it.” There will always be a tender spot where there was once a person who was very important to us. So, when we speak of “getting through,” we mean that we may come to a point where we can accept the loss and we learn to live with the loss….
Healthy Grieving When you Lose a Loved One - The Only Way is “Through”
"Through" means we face the pain head on and feel it. This is harder to do if our friends and family want us to get “back to normal” quickly. Our employer may give us 2 days off and expect everything to resume as it was before.Others may feel impatient with us if we keep talking about it. And even if we have terrific support, the feelings associated with grieving are painful, uncomfortable and difficult to face.
One expression common in counseling is: “The only way is through." There are no short-cuts or magic pills that will allow us to avoid these emotions. People try to avoid emotions all the time, but there are consequences to avoiding normal emotional reactions like grief.
What You Feel, You Can Heal
Experience with clients in counseling suggest that emotional pain always comes out one way or another. Unfelt or avoided pain often leads to other symptoms and problems such as:
- Trouble sleeping
- Strained relationships with friends and family
- Health problems and physical aches and pains
- Increased use of substances like caffeine, alcohol, etc.
Tips for Getting Through the Loss of a Loved One
- Ride the Wave. There will likely be inevitable unexpected feelings of grief that tend to come and go long after the loss event. Months and even years can go by and suddenly a song or a familiar place will make the pain come back as if it were the moment you lost someone. Sometimes it is totally unpredictable, but sometimes you know a certain situation will be hard (like a milestone or anniversary). It is important to patiently be gentle with yourself and allow the grieving to process when it comes up.
- Get Support OR Solitude when You Need it: Regardless of what others think, “getting through” may mean making decisions to find the support or solitary situations that are best for your own healing. People may show concern – especially if you want to be alone. But, you need to follow your own lead here.
- Find Some Comfort: Journaling, talking with others, long walks, hot baths, a weekend getaway, more time with your church,etc. These things are ways to sooth the hurts and provide loving care. Healthy ways of bringing comfort and finding support are always encouraged.
- Outward Signs of Grieving Need to be at Your Own Pace. In some cultures, there are strict social rules about how long one has to wear black, etc. These types of choices will be different for different people. There are certainly concerns about “getting over it” too quickly if it means you are not dealing with it at all; and there are cases where prolonging the grieving "too long" can also be unhealthy. But there are many variations in just how long people need to deal with certain aspects of mourning. The outward symbols of how fast one is moving on are just that – symbols. While others may make all sorts of assumptions about it, only you can decide what those symbols mean for you and how quickly or slowly you will make visable changes.
- Sort it out: Some people are blessed with at least one good friend to talk with about the most personal thoughts and feelings. Talking things through can be very healing and loosen up parts of our grieving that seem stuck. If you don’t readily have someone to talk to, it can also be helpful sometimes to write out what is bothering you in a journal or to write letters to the person you have lost. These types of exercises can clarify our thoughts and help us sort out strong or confusing feelings.
- Stay Healthy: “At times like these, who cares – eat the third piece of cake” your little voice may be saying. But, it is even more important during a loss to take good care of your body with healthy foods, exercise, rest, and so on. Old addictions and bad habits frequently flare up at times of loss, like a tendency to drink too much or even just watching too much TV. Whatever your vice, try not to indulge it too long; it will likely only prolong the grieving process and make you physically less capable of handling the loss.
- Keep Faith. One of the hardest parts about grieving is that people in the middle of a crying spell may feel like it will never end. So, sometimes people don’t want to start feeling something because there is tremendous fear of losing control or fear of it lasting forever. It can be scary to have such strong feelings. Losses can also trigger other emotions that have been avoided by other hurts from the past. Frankly, it can all seem like too much at times. However, emotional healing is a natural process just like healing a cut. Our bodies know what to do and how to do it, it is not bad for us to cry, and we will get through to the other side eventually. It is important to have faith in your body's wisdom and in the grieving process when emotions feel crazy or out of control. Acquire a simple faith that the pain will not be constant or forever and that you likely can handle it.
As stated earlier, the only way is "through." Each person’s path or journey is different. Healing and peace are not only possible – but probable. And trying to circumvent the path (not feel the feelings) will likely only waste time and prolong suffering. Having faith in the process and in yourself will help.
Caution: Some grief is complicated by other issues such as a tough relationship problem with the deceased, family problems, or pre-existing mental health issues. Sometimes, other life stressors like financial worries or your own health problems at the time of loss can make grieving even more difficult. When the grief is complicated, extra help would not hurt. Counselors, clergy, or therapists may offer comfort as well as family and friends. If you think your grieving is more complicated, involves thoughts of harming yourself, and/or involves more serious depressive symptoms over a prolonged period of time, you should check with your doctor.