Michele Mariscal, PhD
In my last article, I reviewed 2 of the myths about grief and loss that are pervasive in our culture. Don’t feel bad and replace the loss are the 2 myths that we may have learned from our earliest childhood. By the time a child in our society has reached the age of 15, they have received more than 23,000 inputs suggesting that they should not feel bad in reaction to a grief event (i.e. we will get you a new cat on the weekend at the shelter, you will make other friends). As we age and move into productive lives outside of our family of origin, we take all the modeling for how to deal with loss and grief with us.
It’s important to consider that there are over 40 types of loss both tangible and intangible (loss of trust, loss of safety, etc.) Many of us have never been given the context of grief to process our sense of loss – we just get on with life not realizing that something is cause for grief and that it is normal and natural. An example of this in my own life was finally being able to recognize that I had sustained great amounts of loss in my childhood that had never been grieved. My family moved 7 times with 2 of those moves being to different countries. Each time a move happened I had to leave friends, school, church, home, and pets. Until this was put in the context of grief decades later, I had never considered that these were grieving events. They were part of the unrest in my body and psyche. I just knew when I was 15 years old that I didn’t want to be on the planet any longer but I didn’t know why and didn’t have support to grieve fully.
The other four myths identified over time by the Grief Recovery Institute identified in their work with grievers.
Grief just takes time.
Be strong and be strong for others.
Immediate reactions to grief can include a sense of numbness, inability to concentrate or focus, and confusion. It makes sense that we have a hard time paying attention to routine day-to-day things in the immediate aftermath of the death of someone meaningful to us. Grief just takes time can lead us into thinking that time heals. While our acute state of grief may change over time as we adapt to our new identity without the other. There is a difference between adapting to the physical absence and assuming that time going by has provided some emotional healing. Time may pass by but that does not mean that we’re emotionally complete with unrealized hopes dreams, and expectations we had for our future with that person and all the things we wish had been different, better, or more. This also includes bad relationships in which we may have hoped the other person would acknowledge and apologize for the things they did that hurt us. I have worked with people who carried a mountain of unfinished business from decades ago. If time were a healer that would not be the case.
The key to recovery from grief is action not time! And that action is to complete what was left unfinished for you by the death or loss. When you get a flat tire do you wait for it to refill with air on its own? Or do you get the spare from your trunk or call AAA? When you break a bone do you sit around and wait for it to heal, or do you go to the doctor? So why when we break our hearts, do we not take action? Doesn’t your heart deserve the same attention as broken bones and machinery?
Keep busy is another myth that goes along with grief just takes time. It may work in the short-term, but it doesn’t help us recover from loss. It provides distraction from thoughts and feelings and can be helpful as part of the actions taken to be in connection to others and your life, but not if it is to the exclusion of taking actions to heal a broken heart. Some grievers nearly work themselves into exhaustion trying to stay busy so they don’t feel the pain that is a normal and natural by-product of the loss that affected them.
Keep busy is very common advice to hear or give to a fellow griever in the aftermath off a devastating loss. The idea being that keeping busy today allows another day to go by allowing the myth of time healing to make the pain go away. The longer we wait to address the emotions connected to our loss, the more difficult it is to access those feelings. They get tucked away, buried out of sight, but still affecting us even if not consciously aware of what’s going on under the surface. Grief is cumulative and negatively cumulative. Several of my clients reported experiencing several losses during the pandemic and their past losses that they had never worked with were coming up in painful ways. The body stores what we haven’t moved through and core emotions like grief are meant to move through us if we allow them.
We may have learned the myth be strong for others in childhood, being told things like “be strong for your little brother” after the death of a parent. In adulthood we may be the responsible person who is called upon to make notification to other family and friends and take care of details about the memorial or funeral. The problem lies in confusing the need to have whatever energy and focus are demanded for those tasks, and the false idea of pushing away and covering up the naturally occurring emotions connected to the death of someone important to us. In attempting to be strong most people hide or diminish their own feelings – at least those that might be visible. In effect, when we act strong and cover up our honest emotions, we are lying to those we interact with – not to mention that we may be lying to ourselves. You can be strong or you can be human, pick one!
There is a rhythm of inner processing and being in connection with others and expressing our true feelings. When grief leads to isolation that becomes a habit and we grieve alone it can become problematic. Unfortunately, our psyche is permeated with common quotes like “laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.” Grieving alone may have been modeled to us when we were children. We may learn that it doesn’t feel safe to share openly with others who operate under all of these myths and somehow attempt to intellectualize or dismiss our experience. It’s important to find safe people with whom our emotions are welcome!
Other experiences may have led us to believe that grieve alone is the correct thing to do. These may include “if you’re going to cry, go to your room,” or “don’t burden others with your feelings.” When you get good news it is a natural reaction to want to share it with others, especially those important to you. Whether you realize it or not your natural impulse upon receiving sad or bad news is actually the same.
Isolation is not natural – I think we have learned the importance of connection through our experiences that last couple of years.
The problem is that we have all been enculturated with these myths. Now that you know a little more about how we have created an abnormal culture of experiencing and supporting others in grief, I invite you to observe your experience with grief. I invite you to recognize that grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. If we can become comfortable with our own challenging emotions and allow them instead of pushing them down, we will be better equipped to be empathetic support for one another.
In the next article we will learn about the urban myth of the 5 Stages of Grief and learn a new context for understanding the myriad of emotions that one might experience in loss.
About the Author
Michele Mariscal, PhD, is a grief recovery method specialist, author, and speaker who takes a multi-faceted approach, combining all of my experience and background to help people live a life of vitality. I specialize in helping people move through grief and loss, to find meaning and contribution in life. I work with groups in retreat setting, classrooms, as well as one-to-one coaching.