The purpose of this article is to identify, describe and dispel some of the myths about grief. Providing quality care to the bereaved requires that we as a society work to dispel these myths outlined below. People who have internalized these myths become incapable of helping grievers move toward healing.
These myths are not intended to be all-inclusive or mutually exclusive. Observation suggests that many people who believe in any one of these will also believe in many, if not all, of the others. Our joint task is not to condemn these people but supportively encourage them to broaden their understanding of the complex experiences of grief and mourning.
Grief and mourning are the same experience.
The majority of people tend to use the words grief and mourning synonymously. However, there is an important distinction between them. We have learned that people move toward healing not by just grieving, but through mourning.
If we want to help the bereaved, we can work to understand the semantic distinctions of these commonly used terms. Simply stated, grief is the thoughts and feelings that are experienced within oneself upon the death of someone loved. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of bereavement.
Mourning is taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it outside of oneself. The specific ways in which people express mourning are influenced by customs of their culture. Another way of defining mourning is to state that it is “grief gone public” or “sharing one’s grief outside of oneself.”
In reality, many people in our culture grieve but they do not mourn. As opposed to being encouraged to express their grief outwardly they are often greeted with a message along the lines of “carry on,” “keep your chin up” and “keep busy.” So, they end up grieving within themselves in isolation, instead of mourning outside of themselves in the presence of loving companions.
There is a predictable and orderly stage-like progression to the experience of mourning.
Stage-like thinking about both dying and mourning has been appealing to many people. Somehow the “stages of grief” have helped people try to make sense out of an experience that isn’t as orderly and predictable as we would like it to be. Attempts have been made to replace fear and lack of understanding with the security that everyone grieves by going through the same stages. If only it were so simple!
The concept of “stages” was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ landmark text On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross never intended for people to literally interpret her five “stages of dying.” However, many people have done just that and the consequences have often been disastrous.
One such consequence is when people around the grieving person adopt a rigid system of beliefs about grief that does not allow for the natural unfolding of the mourner’s personal experience. We have come to understand that each person’s grief is uniquely his or her own. As helpers we only get ourselves in trouble when we try to prescribe what someone’s grief experience should be.
This author prefers a helping attitude that conveys the following: “Teach me about your grief and I will be with you. As you teach me I will follow the lead you provide me and attempt to be a stabilizing and empathetic presence.”
It is best to move away from grief instead of toward it.
The unfortunate reality is that many grievers do not give themselves permission or receive permission from others to mourn and express their many thoughts and feelings. We continue to live in a society that often encourages people to prematurely move away from their grief instead of toward it. Consequently, many people grieve in isolation or attempt to escape from their grief.
The result of these kinds of messages is to encourage the repression of the griever’s thoughts and feelings. Refusing to allow tears, suffering in silence and being strong are thought to be admirable behaviours. Many people in grief have internalized society’s message that mourning should be done quietly, quickly and efficiently.
Returning to the routine of work shortly after the death of someone loved, the bereaved person relates “I’m fine” in essence saying “I’m not mourning.” Friends, family and co-workers often encourage this stance and refrain from talking about the death. The bereaved person, having an apparent absence of mourning (having moved away from their grief instead of toward it), tends to be more socially accepted by those around him or her.
However, this type of collaborative pretence surrounding grief does not meet the emotional needs of the bereaved person. Instead, the survivor is likely to feel further isolated in the experience of grief, with the eventual onset of the “going crazy syndrome.” Attempting to mask or move away from the grief results in internal anxiety and confusion. With little, if any, social recognition related to the pain of the grief, the person often begins to think their thoughts and feelings are abnormal. As a matter of fact, the most frequent initial comment of grieving persons at our Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado is the statement, “I think I’m going crazy.”
If we want to help bereaved people we must remember that it is through the process of moving toward pain that we move toward eventual healing.
Again, be aware that the above myths are not intended to be all- inclusive. This author suggests the reader develop a list of any additional “grief myths” observed in our society.
Being surrounded by people who believe in these myths invariably results in a heightened sense of isolation and aloneness in the grieving person. The inability to be supported in the “work of mourning” destroys much of the capacity to enjoy life, living and loving.
Only when we as a society are able to dispel these myths will grieving people experience the healing they deserve!
About the Author
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Faith, and Loving from the Outside In, Mourning from the Inside Out. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.