After his beloved son died in a climbing accident, Nicholas Wolterstorff found himself in tears and embarrassed by his display of emotion. Later, in his book, Lament for a Son, Wolterstorff reflected on this experience and wrote, “Our culture says men must be strong and that the strength of a man in sorrow is to be seen in his tearless face. Tears are for women. Tears are signs of weakness and women are permitted to be weak. But must we always mask our suffering? I mean, may we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it? May men not do this?”
Of course, tears are not a sign of weakness, for men or women. When it comes to bereavement, there is a wide variety of misconceptions that serve only to hinder and handicap people dealing with bereavement. Here are some myths and facts about grief.
MYTH: Grief is orderly and predictable. It follows specific steps or stages.
FACT: Grief can be quite chaotic. Many confusing and conflicting emotions begin to emerge and swirl. While grievers tend to experience similar emotions—shock, denial, guilt, anger, depression, despair, regret—there are no specific steps or stages of grieving. The goal is to manage the feelings, adjust and adapt to the loss, and learn to live with the death of a loved one. During this process of grief recovery, emotions will come and go.
MYTH: Family and friends will be helpful.
FACT: Not always. Some will be comforting and make the time to be there for you, but many may not, because they just don’t understand the depth of grief. In the Bible, Job quickly learned that his “friends” were not helpful to him as he grieved various losses. Rather than be supportive, his companions judged him, lectured him, and refused to listen to him. Job became so frustrated he lashed back, saying, “Miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end?” (Job 16:2, 3). Later, he said, “So how can you console me with your nonsense?” (Job 21:34).
Unfortunately, Job’s experience isn’t unusual. After Dana’s husband died, she fully expected her large social circle of friends to be a source of support and comfort. “I was disappointed and saddened by the fact that, right after the funeral, most of the people I thought would be there for me simply carried on with their lives. None of them really took time to follow up by calling or visiting with me about my loss. Then, whenever I brought up my husband’s name, they quickly changed the subject. If I was going to gain the support I needed, it was obvious I would have to look for other people.” Wisely, Dana sought out and joined a grief support group.
MYTH: Funeral services are expensive rituals and a waste of time.
FACT: Funeral services need not be expensive, and they can be extremely therapeutic. They create space for expressing emotions and receiving support. In her book Grief, Dying, and Death, clinical psychologist Therese Rando cites the following benefits of having a funeral service:
- Funerals confirm and reinforce the reality of death.
- Funerals facilitate the acknowledgement and expressions of feelings over loss.
- Funerals promote recollections about the deceased.
- Funerals aid mourners in beginning to accommodate the changed relationship between themselves and the deceased’s loved ones.
MYTH: Time will heal your pain.
FACT: Time in itself will not heal pain. Certainly, with the passage of time some of the pain lessens. However, it’s what you do with the time that results in healing. This means becoming actively engaged in the recovery process by reading books and articles about grief and by speaking with and learning from others who’ve experienced loss. Those who don’t do grief work don’t heal.
MYTH: Grief is a negative experience.
FACT: Grief is a painful experience that almost everyone encounters at one time or another. Handled properly, it can become a positive experience resulting in new growth and development.
One man, who was widowed after a 30-year marriage, said, “The first year after Doris died, I was so depressed and hopeless that on many days I simply didn’t leave the house. Then I got involved with a grief support group, began writing a newsletter for the group, and returned to school to complete a graduate degree in counseling. In the process, I’ve gained many new friends and learned a great deal. Now, it’s been three years since Doris died, and although I’d prefer not to have experienced this loss, I’m a much better, stronger, and wiser man.”
MYTH: After one year the grieving process is pretty much over.
FACT: Very few people adjust to a loss in one year. The majority take from three to five years and some even longer.
MYTH: Grief eases over time in a constantly decreasing way.
FACT: The grief recovery process is never a straight line. It’s often a case of making progress and then regressing briefly. Some describe this process as “taking two steps forward and one step back.”
MYTH: All people grieve in the same way.
FACT: Grieving styles vary from person to person. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people are openly expressive about their pain, while others prefer a more private approach, opening up to a few carefully chosen confidants. Many people cry; some do not. Some people feel the worst grief in the first six months or so, while others report a deepening of grief after the first year has passed.
MYTH: Bereavement support groups don’t help and are depressing.
FACT: Those who participate in these groups report just the opposite: they are very helpful and, rather than being depressing, actually generate hope. Harold Ivan Smith, a leading authority on bereavement issues, says, “A support group is a healthy, safe place for you who are grieving to bring yourselves, your anger, and your bewilderment and to know that it’s just likely that others will have been there and will recognize in your story parts of their story. And it is possible that something in your story will encourage another griever in the group.”
MYTH: The sooner you get over a loss, the better off you are.
FACT: There is no quick fix for grief. It can’t be rushed. Grief moves on its own timetable. Trying to rush the process slows down healing and learning.
MYTH: This was God’s will.
FACT: Stating that a loss is God’s will is both confusing and angering to grievers, because it conflicts with the belief that God is kind, loving, and compassionate. It’s better never to make the statement, “This was God’s will,” to a grieving person. A more helpful response is simply to acknowledge that we don’t know why tragedies take place. Consider the experience of a woman whose husband died suddenly from a heart attack while they were on vacation. Upon returning home, she was greeted by her pastor. “Don’t talk to me about God,” she said. “I’m furious with Him.” Her pastor embraced the woman and held her, simply saying, “I don’t understand why this happened.” Later she told friends “Because he responded to me that way, I knew I could trust my minister with my feelings. I felt he could understand what I was going through.”
MYTH: It’s better not to talk about it.
FACT: Talking about your experiences, both positive and negative, usually facilitates healing. People who’ve lost a loved one not only want to talk but need to talk about that person and the loss. Mary Louise Williams’s 18-year-old daughter, Margaret, was murdered. Several months later she wrote, “This is the loneliest of all experiences I have had. Sometimes I note in my friends a too-careful screening of conversation. They seem to think, ‘Will she cry?’ I mustn’t open the wound again. I must help her forget.’ They need not worry. I may or may not cry, but the wound is still open, and I shall probably never forget. . . . I need and want to talk about my loved one. . . . I need to express my grief in words to someone who will listen.”
MYTH: Children need to be protected from death and grief.
FACT: It’s impossible to “protect” children from this painful reality. However, children need to receive two things: (1) age-appropriate answers to their questions; and (2) supportive adults to guide them through thegrief journey.
MYTH: You never get over grief; it’s something to be permanently tolerated.
FACT: People do recover from their losses. It takes time and work, but you can and must get through the grieving process. Rabbi Earl Grollman, a highly respected bereavement authority, says, “No matter how great your pain, there is hope and help for the future. As your sense of humor returns and you find yourself laughing, you’re feeling better. As you begin to make major decisions about your life, you’re getting better still. When you’re able to take out the mementos of your beloved and smile through your tears at memories of happiness together, you’re much improved. And when you learn that no one can bring back your loved one, that it’s your job to pick up and go on living, then you’ll know you are truly growing and recovering yourself.”
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister, bereavement educator, and the author of several books about grief. He writes regularly for Signs of the Times®.