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Do you know these 5 common misconceptions about grief and loss?
March 2015  Issue #48

Today's Topic:  5 Myths about Grief & Loss

Dear friends,

This past year it seems that death and loss have touched many close to me – friends, family and clients alike.  Many have lost elderly parents and some have lost their spouse. While loss and grief are universal, the way that each person walks that journey can be quite unique. 
 
My go-to resource around grief and loss is my dear friend and colleague, Linda Aris.
She has been a Grief & Loss Counsellor and Bereavement Group Facilitator for over 15 years, at the Edmonton Healing Centre for Grief and Loss. I asked her to share with me the most common misconceptions people have about grief and loss.  The article that follows is inspired by her wisdom and sharing of resources.
 
May this be of service to those who have experienced a death -- or are supporting someone who grieves,

Shirley

Something to think about
 
Intensity of emotion is not the only measure of the depth of a person’s grief, so be  careful not to compare…  Everyone’s grief is important and unique to him or her.
                                                      
 -from Walking With Grief, a Participant Notebook

Those who mean well
 
Many of us are uncomfortable with grief and struggle to know what to do or say when someone we love has sustained a loss.  We want to help however we may not know what is helpful to that individual.
 
We’ve all heard of stories of the comments or platitudes that seem to cause more hurt than help for the grieving person:
  • Don’t worry! Time will heal.
  • Just get busy and don’t think about it.  You’ll be fine.
  • God had a plan.  It was meant to be.
  • I know exactly how you feel. 
While perhaps well meant, comments such as these can irritate or alienate the one who is grieving.  They may not appreciate being told how to grieve or why this has happened or what they are feeling.
 
Grief can be difficult
 
Many of us feel challenged with another’s grief because we are uncomfortable or awkward with our own grief.  We imagine ourselves in the grieving person’s shoes, and wonder how we would cope.  Or we assume they would want the same kind of response or support, as we would, at such a time. 
 
Grief scares us.  Perhaps we fear losing control of our emotions in public and crying in front of others; we may feel numb and then feel guilty that we aren’t displaying the sadness we think others would expect; we may fear we’ll talk everyone’s ear off; or we may not want to talk about it at all and don’t want to be asked how we are.  We may want to run, hide, cocoon, cry or lash out with our grief.  Or we may want to share the depth of our grief and fear overwhelming others with our emotions.
 
How can we be sensitive and compassionate to another’s grief, as well as our own?
 
This is the area of expertise of Linda Aris, Grief & Loss Specialist and Educator. She shared with me the following “myths” or misconceptions which will influence how we view those who grieve and how we view the grieving process itself.  This knowledge can help us act with the sensitivity and compassion we desire.
 
Myth #1:  There are 5 orderly stages of grief.
 
Many people expect grief to have a beginning and an end and unfold in an orderly manner.  However Aris says this isn’t so.
 
Many years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her ground-breaking book: On Death and Dying.  It identified 5 stages which Kubler-Ross observed that many people experience when faced with illness and their own impending death.   These same stages are often ascribed to those grieving the death of another.  However Kubler-Ross didn’t intend them to be a prescription for grief.  In fact, she wrote:
 
"The five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance - are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost.  They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.  But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief." 
                                                                          -
Aris puts it this way, “There are patterns in grief, but no order to the patterns.”  She prefers to think in terms of a “landscape of loss”.  Every landscape is different.  It changes over time and is unique to each individual.

Myth #2:  “Anticipatory grief” lessens or shortens the grief journey.
 
This myth asserts that if we know our loved one is going to die, if we have time to grieve in anticipation, the grief will be “easier” or shorter.  According to Aris this isn’t necessarily so.  While grieving may accompany an illness, it’s not the same as the grief upon the actual death of the person. 
 
In fact, the person who has nursed an ill loved one over time may experience great isolation when death occurs.  They may have given up many of their social contacts and supports as the illness progressed and radically reorganized their life around being a care-giver. The resulting “smallness” of their world may actually amplify their grief when their loved one dies, despite knowing that it is coming.
 
Myth #3:  Family members experience grief over a shared death in the same way.
 
When members of a family lose someone, they may erroneously assume that they all grieve that parent, child or sibling in the same way.  This can lead to misunderstandings, criticisms of each other and expectations that are hurtful, at this very tender time.  
 
Every individual in a family has a unique relationship with their family member who has died, and that unique relationship will inform their grief experience.  One person may feel regret, while another feels at peace.  One person may feel very positively towards the person who died, while another may carry some resentment or ambivalence. What they each feel and how they choose to express those feelings may differ greatly, depending on their relationship with the deceased family member.
 
Myth #4   Some deaths are better/worse than others.
 
There are many types of loss, and it can be tempting to minimize another’s loss by comparing it to something we imagine would be worse.  (i.e.:  the death of a parent versus the death of a child OR death by a long illness versus a sudden death.) 
 
Loss cannot be compared.  Says Aris, “There is no hierarchy in the realm of loss.”  Evaluating one loss as greater or lesser than another is a disservice to any person who grieves.
 
We like to think that there is a “natural order” to death.  However there is no natural order.  People of all ages have been dying throughout history.  We only diminish the death of one person by comparing it to the death of another. 
 
Myth #5   Grieving should happen alone and behind closed doors.
 
Many people see grief as a very private thing, that shouldn’t be displayed in public -- with the possible exception of the memorial service.  However grief is a much longer process than any memorial service; and as a society, we need to make more space for the ongoing nature of grief and loss.
 
Through many years of supporting those who grieve, Aris is convinced that we need community when we grieve.  “Healing doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Aris.  We each must do our own grief work, however we need a supportive community around us.
 
Bereavement Groups are one way of providing a supportive community for the grief work to take place.  However not all will choose this route.  For some, seeking out others who have also experienced a death, for mutual support, is done much less formally. However we find it, the support of our community can be critical in our healing. 
 
When we offer support
 
The next time we wish to be supportive of a friend or family member who has experienced the death of a loved one – we can remember: 
  • Their grief journey is unique, with it’s own time-line and process.
  • No matter what the situation, it is hurtful and minimizing to compare their loss to other losses. 
  • They needn’t hide their grief, for a community of support can help them heal. 
If we can let go of our misconceptions about grief, we will go a long ways towards making a safe space for our loved ones to grieve and to heal.
 
Invitation to action
 
Review the 5 myths of grief and loss and notice what assumptions or expectations you have about death, grief and loss.  Be aware of your own biases regarding how “best” to deal with grief -- and refrain from imposing them on others -- or yourself.
 
If you would like to hear more from Linda Aris, check out this interview in which she discusses the grief and loss associated with having a loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease. You'll need to scroll down the page to find it.
 
Shirley’s Update

Check out this really good blog post by Heather Plett on the whole notion of "holding space" for others -- inspired by her experience when her mother was dying. Very wise words to inspire all of us who "hold space" for others, in one way or another.  There are many of you and you know who you are!
 
Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 25 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work and their relationships. Her Conscious Dating Program helps single and divorced individuals improve their relationship skills, avoid past mistakes and make healthy dating and relationship choices. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Visit her website.
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