Some Grief Myths

Well intentioned people often offer us their penny wisdom about grief and how we might deal with it. But how often does it really help and encourage us? How often do we go away feeling unheard and unseen and even more isolated with our grief than before?

Much of the penny wisdom that people offer us tends to be rooted in one of many myths about grief. Here are some of them:

  1. Time heals.
  2. Keep busy.
  3. Be strong.
  4. Grieve alone.
  5. Replace your loss.
  6. Don’t be miserable.
  7. Give it two years.

Grief creates a void so deep and enormous within us that it’s as if we’re going round with a hole in our torso where our heart and guts used to be and we’re amazed that no-one can see it.  This massive void, this immense hole, is where our love and our beloved, and with them, our sense of ourselves, our lives, our past, present and our future used to be and are no longer. They’ve been blown out of us by the enormous implosion in our lives of death, of aching loss, of pain so profound and terrible there are no words to describe our experience. Instead, our communications are a jumble of stumbling on words, resorting to those which turn air blue, and falling deeply into silence

Let’s consider the two-year grief myth. This is the one which, some well-meaning people tell us, is all about us feeling pretty much ourselves again after two years of overwhelming misery and sorrow. Let’s see… who says that after two years we’re going to feel pretty much our usual self again? First of all, our usual self isn’t in residence anymore. S/He disappeared when the person we loved died.  We may still be floundering about wondering who we are now without…

Then, the big question to ask: is grief linear? Does our grieving self take a tidy amble along a dead straight (pun intended, by the way) road for two years? On the way we encounter denial, anger, bargaining, depression then glide into acceptance and ‘Bingo!’ we’re done with grief.

Grief isn’t linear (with apologies to Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who set out this theory of grief and loss known as the ‘Five Stages of Grief’ in her work with palliative care patients in the USA). Kübler-Ross herself said that her grief theory isn’t based on a linear progression, and that grieving people can experience any number of these emotions at any time. They don’t appear in an orderly manner. I’m relieved that this is so.

There’s no “Bingo!” moment either because there’s no end to grieving: it becomes part of who we are. One of grief’s many challenges to us is to find out how we can lean into grief and allow it into our deepest self, but not so that it dominates us. Resisting grief tends to increase our woes, not remove them.

The two-year myth implies that, after a long-enough period of time – two years – the worst of our grief will be behind us and that we’ll be feeling better in every way. For example, being fully sociable again, perhaps enjoying old hobbies or exploring new ones. The two-year myth implies that, by this time, we won’t be missing our beloved as we did in the intense time of year one and that, more or less, we’re ok with everything. But we know that this isn’t true: our experience of life without our beloved is one hard slog and we can’t see far ahead. If we dare to look into the more distant future, it can feel utterly frightening.

The two-year myth also implies that, by now (“It’s been two years now, hasn’t it????”) we should be ‘moving on’, ‘getting on with your life again’. 

What is all this about ‘moving on’. We want to ‘move on’ with our beloveds, not without them. Moving on is a measure of time and we don’t like knowing too much about time marching on as it means that the gap between today and the day when our beloved died is bigger than ever, and won’t get any smaller, ever. What’s important is that we carry our beloveds in our hearts and minds, being able to create enduring bonds with them, not leaving them behind as if they’ve never existed. Creating these bonds is hard. It takes effort and is something that we’ll be able to do when our grief isn’t so hammeringly intense and overwhelming.

The two-year myth is a cruel reminder that it’s two years since we saw, touched, smelt, heard, sensed, and talked to our beloved. That’s enough to send us spiralling down into the depths again isn’t’ it? 

Nor is two years an accurate measurement of how we grieve during this period of time. While some grieving people do experience increased wellbeing at this point, others find the two-year point as agonising and terrible as the brief years which have gone by already. That some people do feel better at the two-year marker, while others feel their grief as intensely as at the start emphasises that each of us grieves differently.

So, what can we take from debunking the two-year myth? Let’s have a go…

  1. Our grieving isn’t linear and can’t be restricted to a programme of emotions turning out in an orderly manner. It’s hard to do but we can ease our distress by avoiding these linear arguments (tripping off the tongues of ‘well-wishers’ and cycling through our minds) which tell us that by some particular time ‘I should/you should be feeling better/moving on…’
  2. None of us grieves in the same way. While there are overlaps in peoples’ experience let’s find out how our grief feels to us, what it does to us, where it sits in our body, mind, emotions, spirit. In this way, grief feels less overwhelming as we gain insight into how it affects us.
  3. Use all those uniquely significant days and dates both to acknowledge our beloved and to affirm our own survival on this wild ocean of grief. Taking time actively to remember our beloved nourishes our connection with her/him/them perhaps by doing something particular or being at home. Candles, photos, talking out loud to our beloved are all things which can help us express our love and remember them.
  4. Who, and what, helps to keep us afloat? Keeping an emergency resource pack, and a more general resource pack is essential. A resource pack might include the names of utterly trusted friends who ‘get’ our experience and whom we can call at short notice; a list of grief charity phone numbers and emails who offer 24/7 online support for when friends aren’t around; a special and lovely place outdoors where we feel peaceful and held, and which we can access easily. Foods in the cupboard, fridge and freezer which are easy to prepare and which we enjoy and give us some comfort; music tracks (if we can bear to listen); meditation/sound therapy tracks on an app we can listen to easily by day or night; a book we enjoy which comforts/uplifts us (no matter how many times we may have read it); some wise, comforting and uplifting quotations we may have gathered so far.
  5. Avoid being isolated with our grief: reaching out to family and friends is important even if part of us wants to be alone with it all.
  6. If our grief feels too big to handle and we don’t know what to do or where to turn, then accessing professional support can be really positive. It’s never too late – or early – to do this.
  7. Travel light in our expectations of how we’ll feel in the future. It’s common to project our intense grief and hopelessness into the future or to expect that by a certain month or season we’re bound to be feeling less overwhelmed by our grief. Travelling light with these expectations frees us up to focus just on today, and tomorrow. That’s all our grief-brain can cope with.

What I’ve written here reflects some of the challenges experienced by my clients in their grief therapy with me. Then take the courageous step of reaching out to me to begin their healing journey.