by Jennifer Messelt, LMSW, LGSW
If you’ve grieved the death of a loved one, you know grief is complex. There’s no way around it. Did you feel societal expectations about the “right” way to grieve? Did you ever feel like you were grieving “wrong?” Our culture’s discomfort with grief has created many myths and misunderstandings, often inhibiting those who are bereaved. Recognizing the myths, and more importantly the truths, is a first step in embracing grief as a natural experience.
Myth 1: Grief and mourning are the same thing.
I attended a conference by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition. He shared, “Grief is the internal thoughts and feelings we experience when someone we love dies. Mourning, on the other hand, is taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it outside ourselves. Many people in our culture grieve, but they do not mourn. Instead of being encouraged to express their grief outwardly, they are often greeted with messages like ‘carry on,’ ‘keep your chin up,’ and ‘keep busy.’ So, they end up grieving within themselves in isolation, instead of mourning outside of themselves in the presence of loving companions.”
As a bereavement specialist, I am often asked, “What can I do to help my friend who is grieving?” One of the greatest gifts you can give a grieving person is allowing them to mourn—through encouragement, acceptance and a willingness to be present with them in the midst of great sadness. I remember when my brother-in-law died as a result of an ATV accident. I would sit with my sister for hours as she told the story over and over again about the pain and sadness she was experiencing. I did not tell her it was “time to get over his death.” Instead, I allowed her to openly mourn her loss. By doing so, she was able to express her feelings outwardly.
Myth 2: Grief happens in orderly stages.
Grief is a multitude of reactions that come and go. The reactions may include:
- Physical reactions – heavy sighing, sleep disturbances, fatigue/exhaustion, headaches, sobbing
- Cognitive reactions – difficulty making decisions, confusion, short-term memory loss, suicidal thoughts
- Emotional reactions – loneliness, anger, sadness, depression, feeling out of control, numbness, guilt, hopelessness, calm, relief
- Behavioral reactions – avoidance of people/situations, decrease/increase of activities, blaming others
- Spiritual reactions – searching for meaning in loss, strengthening/loss of faith, asking “why” questions”
I like to do an activity with grieving adults and children to give them a visual of what grief looks like and how they can work through it. I start with a big clear bowl of water. I then ask the group to name reactions they have had after their loved one died. I will get answers like, “I found I would walk into a room and forget what I was going in there for.” “I was still tired after a full night’s sleep.” “I felt like I was going crazy.” “I felt relief that he died after such a long illness.”
With each answer, I put a drop of food coloring into the bowl of water; each color depicting a different reaction. As more reactions are shared, more drops of food coloring are added to the water. The clear water turns a gray, murky color. This is what grief would look like if it had a physical representation. It’s a multitude of reactions all mixed together. I then slowly add bleach to the murky water; each drop represents a suggestion that helped when they were experiencing grief reactions. With each suggestion, the water becomes clearer. However, it does not become completely clear, as grief does not go away completely. We will always love and remember our loved one throughout our lives.
Myth 3: Grief is the same, regardless of the loss you experience.
Everyone’s grief is unique and we grieve according to our own needs. The grief you experience after the death of a parent is different than the grief you experience after the death of a child. This does not mean one death is more important than the other. As each death is unique, so is the grief experienced.
Myth 4: It takes a year to get over your grief.
During my eight years of working as a bereavement specialist, I have had the privilege of going into elementary classrooms to teach about grief and loss. When I ask students how long grief lasts, their answers range from one month to two weeks to a year. Eventually someone answers “forever.” That’s right, grief lasts a lifetime because we will always love the person who died. In the book, Tuesdays with Morrie Mitch Albom writes, “death ends a life, not a relationship.”
Myth 5: When grief is resolved, it never comes up again.
Grief tends to lessen in intensity over time, however, you will find there will be “grief bursts” throughout your life. Dr. Wolfelt shared, “Sometimes, out of nowhere, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but is normal and natural. Find someone who understands and will let you talk it out.”
I remember a “grief burst” I had five years after my 15-year-old cousin died by suicide. I happened to be working as a school counselor in the same high school he had attended. I was walking down one of the school hallways when a boy around age 15 was walking a few feet in front of me. From the back, he looked like my cousin; his hair, his body frame, his stride. I found my eyes welling up with tears and a tightness come across my chest as I was struck with an intense pang of grief. I took a couple of deep breaths and snuck into my office to compose myself.
It has been 17 years since Scott died and I still experience “grief bursts” from time to time. I try to embrace them as a part of my grief journey.
Hospice of the Red River Valley is the area’s leading source of end-of-life support and information. We offer many grief-related offerings to our communities, including support groups and classes, one-on-one support and a grief resource library. No one should have to suffer through grief alone. If you or someone you know could benefit from grief support and resources, please contact us.
Jennifer Messelt is a grief specialist at Hospice of the Red River Valley.
About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.