Grief is one of life’s most difficult processes. Most of us are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of death. This discomfort translates to a cultural silence around loss and grief, which produces a striking lack of understanding about an experience that will touch all of us at some point. In this article, we will address some common misconceptions about grief and attempt to illuminate the processes that occur when someone has lost a cherished person.
1. Grief is Not a Disorder
When we lose someone, it’s natural to be sad. Grieving people may also experience changes in appetite, sleep schedule, and general behavior that can even make them seem depressed. However, feeling down, having trouble sleeping, and losing our appetite after a loss are usually not signs of a mental disorder. These experiences often constitute a normal and healthy grief experience.
Despite their similarities, certain features distinguish depression and grief. Depression tends to be more self-focused, often bringing negative thoughts about oneself like, “I’m worthless.” Grief generally involves more other-oriented thoughts such as, “I miss them.” Also, depressive episodes are characterized by a persistent low-mood—sort of a general numbness or low feeling that is present more often than not. By contrast, grieving people usually experience waves of deep sadness that can wax and wane, coming on suddenly in response to a memory or thought about the deceased person, and then fade in intensity. That said, grief and depression can sometimes occur together, and sometimes mental health treatment is needed when grief fails to subside on its own. When grief continues to disrupt our ability to function for more than a year, it is sometimes referred to as complicated grief, and the grieving person may benefit from speaking with a mental health provider who can aid them in working through the important processes of grief.
2. Grief Takes Many Forms
You may have heard of the Five Stages of Grief originally theorized by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The Five Stages have dominated our cultural understanding of loss and bereavement for some 50 years, and while they can be helpful in understanding grief, they are often misunderstood and oversimplified. We often imagine that grieving people work through these stages in a predictable and linear manner. In reality, people often cycle through and bounce back and forth between various stages of grieving. Additionally, the emotions and states of mind that accompany loss are varied and may not neatly fit any particular model of bereavement. We may not experience every stage in Kübler-Ross’ model, and we may experience emotional states that are not represented in it. Grief just doesn’t follow a script, and there is no right way to experience it.
3. You Might Not Seem Sad All The Time
Grieving people don’t always look like grieving people. They shop, go to work, even laugh and have a good time. When we see someone behaving in ways more typical to the way they acted before a loss, we may be tempted to think that they are done grieving or “over it.” However, the appearance of normal functioning doesn’t necessarily indicate the resolution of grief. Grief isn’t a steady stream—it’s heavy waves, still waters, and everything in between. Often, people alternate between behaviors we typically associate with mourning (e.g., crying, resting, reminiscing, etc.) and those that may represent an attempt to resume normal functioning and adjust to life after loss.
4. Bonds Continue After Death
Our emotional connection to another does not end at their death. However, our relationship with them cannot continue in the same way it previously had, and part of the process of grief is mourning the loss of the way things were. That said, recognizing and reckoning with our separation from our loved ones and the finality of that loss is not the whole story of grief. In addition to accepting the loss of our former relationship with the deceased, we are tasked with forging new ways of relating to them. This can take many forms. For people with beliefs about the afterlife, bonds with lost loved ones can be maintained through prayer and other spiritual activities. For others, it may be a matter of actively keeping their memory alive by telling stories about them or doing personally significant activities in their name. For some, it may be as simple as recognizing and cherishing the parts of the people they lost that they carry with them—the ways in which their lives have been touched by the deceased.
5. Grief is Grief is Grief
As a society, we sometimes devalue or fail to offer proper support for certain types of grief. For instance, most people will lose a pet at some point in their life, and it can be an incredibly painful experience. The bond between human and animal can be extraordinarily strong, and there is no indication that the death of a beloved animal results in grief any less strong than that which is felt for important humans in our lives. However, when we lose an animal companion, we are not generally met with the same support and understanding that is customary to extend to a grieving individual. The same can be said of the loss of important human others, depending on the nature of their death. When older people in our lives die of natural causes, we are often expected to “move on” in a timely manner. It’s as if, because the death was predictable, it’s less relevant. This, of course, isn’t the case. Older people can play huge roles in our lives, and for many, the most significant relationships that they have can be with people much older than themselves. Obviously, such a loss can feel earth shattering. What’s more, some forms of grief are hardly acknowledged at all. Expecting parents who experience a miscarriage often experience intense grief, yet because the loss is not one that others can observe, the resulting pain often goes unconsoled. Sadly, there are too many types of socially diminished losses to list. While it may not be in our power to change culture to ensure all forms of grief are respected, we can remember that we alone get to determine the weight of a particular loss in our own lives. We can decide to seek out alternative forms of support, such as specialized support or therapy groups, online communities, and individual counseling—regardless of whether or not others see our grief as important enough to warrant care and support.
Grief is a natural part of life, and ultimately, it is a process of healing. It is meant to help us adapt to a world without the ones we’ve lost and find new ways to maintain connection with them. Given time and proper support, the process of grieving can return fullness to our lives and help us live in ways that honor those we lost. Additionally, part of healthy grieving could be knowing when to ask for help. If you feel that you are having a lot of difficulty adjusting to loss—or you just feel like you need extra support—it may be a good idea to contact a mental health provider.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor who practices at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, New York. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. Thomas is a member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and the International OCD Foundation, and he is currently accepting new clients. To schedule a session with Thomas or to find out more about his 8-week virtual grief therapy group starting 9/29/20, please visit www.resolutionpsychotherapy.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.