22 Aug Mythbuster: Grief and Loss
Written by Nicole Caines, r Psych
Grief is something we will all face at some point in our lives. A life without grief is a life without love, and who wants that? But, for something that is so universal, our common understanding of grief is often wrought with myths and misconceptions. And, these misconceptions can make grieving even more difficult for those dealing with loss. So, let’s clear some of them up.
Note: I have called these myths because they are not universally true. However, this doesn’t mean that they are never true. Let’s not replace myths with more myths!
Myth: There is a predictable and orderly progression of grief.
Truth: The 5 stages of grief model that dominated the discussion of grief for many years erroneously gave the impression that grief was like a relay with 5 checkpoints to pass. In fact, the creator of that model went on to share her regrets about how her model shaped views of grief. And, there is little evidence that this model is accurate. For most, grief is far more irregular and messy than a simple straight line. It comes and goes with no real predictable pattern.
Myth: Grief has an endpoint.
Truth: Over time, the pain of grief lessens or becomes less pronounced (the exception is complicated grief, which gets worse over time and for which professional help is recommended). However, for most, it never completely goes away. We learn to adjust and to grow around it, but it doesn’t ever go away, at least if we define grief as the flipside of love. If our love for the person doesn’t go away, how would our grief ever completely go away?
Myth: Once you are done grieving, life will return to normal.
Truth: Sort of, but not quite. We’ve already covered the first part of this myth (grief has an endpoint) so let’s focus on the second part. Certainly, most people adapt to loss and go on to lead normal, happy lives. However, a significant loss changes us in fundamental ways that force us to redefine what our normal actually is. So, yes, we will likely go on to lead normal lives, but that normal may look quite different. This doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Many people are able to find opportunities for growth and meaning in their experiences of loss and grief that help them find ways to lead more fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Myth: Women grieve more than men.
Truth: Generally speaking, while there may be some differences across the gender spectrum, women and men (and non-binary individuals) are more similar in how they grieve than they are different. There are various styles of grieving, but gender is only one factor that influences the style that an individual will lean toward. Personality and culture are also important. And the gender differences that do exist might have as much to do with socialization as true gender differences.
Myth: If you’re not crying, you’re not grieving.
Truth: This myth also relates to the concept of styles of grieving. There are two primary patterns of grieving: intuitive and instrumental. Intuitive grieving involves more emotional expression while instrumental grieving involves more intellectual and physical expression of grief, and the two styles exist on a continuum. There is commonly a bias toward intuitive grieving as the healthier approach, but this is not necessarily the case. Certainly, it’s probably not healthy or helpful to stuff all of your feelings, but a lack of ongoing emotional expression does not mean a lack of grieving. What is actually unhelpful is dissonant grief, a phenomenon whereby people experience incongruence between their internal experience and outward expression of grief, which is often a reflection of sociocultural factors. If your style is more intuitive but emotional expression was not normalized in your family, a sense of dissonance can result from feeling like you cannot grieve in a way that feels natural.
Myth: Grief is the same as sadness /Grief is the same as depression.
Truth: Grief typically involves a lot of sadness (among other emotions). However, it is much more than that. It is a full body, full person experience that can involve physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and social symptoms. It’s such a complex experience that many people struggle to find the words to describe it.
Secondly, while grief and depression have some symptoms in common (low mood, sleep and appetite disturbance, loss of pleasure), they are not the same thing. The difference is that typical grief tends to improve over time and comes in waves, while depression is typically more persistent and pervasive. To further confuse things, complicated grief can look even more like depression. If you’re unsure whether you are experiencing grief or depression, it is a good idea to see a qualified health professional to be assessed.
Myth: Grief only happens when someone dies.
Truth: Grief is our internal reaction to a loss. While we usually speak about grief in relation to the death of a loved one, grief can result from many losses: a diagnosis of an illness, becoming injured or disabled, infertility or miscarriage, divorce or a break up, exit from sport or the workforce, empty nest syndrome, or any of the many disappointments and failures we may experience in life. Grief is defined by our reaction to loss, not the event itself (at least in my mind).
Click here for more information on grief counselling at Monarch Psychology.