Everybody Eventually Loses a Loved One: Do We All Grieve in the Same Way?
Part of the “Strong People Grieve” Series
Recently our family was hit by a series of losses. In quick succession, we lost three uncles—three different men who lived and loved and died within three unique worlds. Two of the uncles died at age 90 from causes related to aging—one died suddenly; one lingered. The third uncle was only 61 when he died of pancreatic cancer.
Being intimately close to so many different loved ones who are grieving the deaths of these three incomparable men makes it particularly fitting for me to write about aspects of grief that are close to my heart—aspects of grief that give permission to all people to grieve in their own particular ways.
My experience has been that everyone has an opinion about how grieving people are supposed to make their way through the experience of loss, and that most people think there’s a fixed and correct way to grieve.
But when you think about it, each loss is specific and each griever is unique. Just within my own family at this point in time, people are grieving loss due to old age at the end of a long life vs. loss due to a sudden, fast-moving illness that cut a man down in his prime. They are grieving sudden loss vs. lingering illness. They are grieving close relationships and distant relationships. They are grieving husbands, fathers, brothers. And they are grieving in different nuclear families that have different ways of handling strong emotion. It just doesn’t make sense that every one of the loved ones left behind by the three very different uncles would grieve in the same way.
I think people are so quick assume that grief is a fixed entity because they’re scared.
Quite honestly, no matter how at peace we are with the abstract idea of death, most of us are frightened by the sheer pain and lack of control that death forces us to confront. (John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, says, “Loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experiences any human being can suffer.”)
And our ever-on-the-upswing culture that praises people for being strong, in control, and productive at all times makes times of unrelenting pain and lack of control isolating and intolerable. We live in a culture of positivity that generates a lot of misinformation about grief, and a lack of understanding about how to really be with people who are grieving.
So when we’re slammed by an event (death) that makes us face circumstances we cannot control,
and that generates emotions (related to grief) that are overwhelmingly painful and that require a downward/inward pull in order to heal,
in the midst of a culture biased toward positivity and productivity,
among friends who aren’t supported by the culture to know what to say,
we can feel not only intense pain, but also isolation from being problematic to the very people we need support from to feel okay.
I find that giving accurate information about grief to both bereaved people and their friends and family can go a long way toward helping calm the fear that sits on top of an already painful experience.
I’ll be writing a lot about grief over time in order to offer you some of this accurate information. I’ll start here by debunking four popular myths about grief:
MYTH 1: Grief occurs in predictable stages, and it takes about a year.
TRUTH 1: Aspects of grief are universal, yet no two people grieve alike.
Though the mourning process does indeed include universal aspects (which I’ll write more about in another post), you also grieve in an individual way because your grief occurs within a context that is specific to your history and your present circumstances. The context for your grieving includes at least:
– your family and attachment history,
– your cultural background,
– your relationship with the lost person,
– the type of loss (e.g. sudden, lingering, developmentally fitting, traumatic,),
– the life phase you’re in when the loss occurs, and
– the nature of the social support that’s available to you.
All of these facets of your history and current situation shape the intensity, duration, depth, and manageability of your grief. Both your past and present circumstances also influence your thoughts and feelings about whether or not the way you experience and express your grief is acceptable to you or to others. Emotions that you, your close loved ones, or your culture find unacceptable are much harder to express and to come to terms with than are emotions you are supported to experience.
MYTH 2: “Completion” of grief = letting go.
TRUTH 2: Fostering continuing bonds with your lost loved one is normal, and can actually facilitate the grief process for many people.
Misinformation about loss teaches that there is a final stage of “acceptance” or “letting go” that signifies the completion of grieving. This acceptance idea can imply that somehow all ties to your lost loved one need to be cut in order for the you to go on living. Understandably, this idea causes many people to be afraid of moving through their grief, for fear of permanently excising a very important person from their hearts. The truth is that this kind of cutting off from the dead person is just the opposite of what helps most of us actually come to terms with loss.
What we really need to do is to enlarge our internal world so that there is room for a continuing bond with our lost loved one and an adjustment to our new life circumstances. Part of what can alleviate the despair of really grasping the permanence of the loss is to actually preserve attachment to our lost loved one, and to value the importance of securing a sense of meaningful relationship that transcends loss. By recognizing new ways of creating psychological or spiritual connections to our lost person, we can slowly resolve the painful battle between wishing to hold onto the past and needing to live on in the present.
MYTH 3: Grief that proceeds outside of some norm is “pathological” or “disordered.”
TRUTH 3: Difficulties and complications in grieving are very often indicators that present-day grief is running up against old learning or pain.
If you’re having ongoing trouble with your grief, trouble such as feeling too overwhelmed for the circumstances, having a lot of difficulty functioning, not being able to feel enough, feeling depressed instead of simply grieving, or anything else that feels wrong or too much to you, remember this: it’s okay to need some help with the process. You are not broken or sick or weak or incompetent. You are simply hitting an intersection between past coping mechanisms and a present situation that is requiring more from you than your old ways were ready for.
Grief is the most intense emotion that many of us ever face as adults, so when pain of that enormity hits us, of course it can challenge many of our old ways of coping. Instead of thinking that your grief is somehow wrong, or that you are somehow broken, remember that hitting these old roadblocks can actually be “a fucking opportunity for growth” (AFOG). That is, your grief might be asking you to explore some old ways of coping that are needing to expand or change. With help, you might be able to figure out ways to soothe both old hurts and pains along with learning how to deal with your current grief. In the process you may discover strengths you never knew you had.
Saying that grief’s difficulties might be opportunities to heal old wounds is not in any way meant to make it sound like a silver-lining-positive opportunity you should be happy to face. Hence the name AFOG. But realizing that roadblocks during the grief process are old parts of you seeking healing, instead of signs of something wrong with you can allow you to be kind to yourself, to be curious, and to seek the help you need.
MYTH 4: If you seek counseling for your grief, it’s an indication that you’re weak or screwed up.
TRUTH 4: Humans are social creatures who need connection with others to regulate intense emotions. Seeking help when you need it is a sign of strength and self-care.
Whether you’re having a hard time with your grief and are worried you might have some of those old wounds that need healing; or whether you feel like you’re making it through your grief okay but are feeling kind of alone with it, it’s never wrong or weak to seek help. Especially in a culture where grief is so misunderstood, many grievers can feel very alone with their process. Just having someone to listen to you for as long as you need to talk, to be with you when you hurt but don’t want to talk, to help you understand what’s going on can be hugely relieving. It’s actually strong, healthy people who recognize when circumstances have led them to the need for guidance and support.
One note, though: Within our culture that’s so confused about death, there are also many therapists who end up believing they are supposed to help grievers fit into some mold, or to help grievers get back to productivity as fast as possible. If you do seek counseling and you do not feel safe and supported with your therapist, find another one. The fit between you and your therapist is what’s most important.
In future posts, I’ll write in depth about each one of these myths and truths so that you can feel supported in what you’re going through in your own grief, or to better understand what one of your friends or family members is going through. Accurate information can help all of us feel more connected during hard times. And not feeling alone can make even unbearable situations feel more bearable.
What kind of preconceptions do you have about grief? Have you ever felt confused or lost or alone when you yourself were grieving? Have you ever felt at a loss for words when you’ve encountered someone who’s grieving? Does any of this information help you?