8 Lies We Need to Give Up About What It Means to Grieve
"I live my sadness every day, but I don't resent it any more," Zelda Williams recently wrote in an Instagram post about depression and grieving her father, the late Robin Williams. "I do it now so that the wonderful moments of joy I do find are not in order to forget, but to inhabit and enjoy for their own sake."
Williams is certainly not the only one grappling with the complex process of grief. Most people experience loss at some point in their lives. Yet stigmas and rigid stereotypes about the experience persist. Here are eight lies we need to stop perpetuating about the simultaneously universal yet deeply personal experience of grief.
1. Grief is finite.
"Society as a whole is extremely understanding when it comes to acknowledging that the days immediately following a loss are hard," Vivian Nunez, founder of the organization Too Damn Young, told Mic. But after the funeral has been planned and final goodbyes said, "the understanding begins to dwindle."
People are expected to "get over their grief, move on and have closure," psychologist and grief counselor Heidi Horsley told Mic.
But in reality, grief is an individual process that arguably may never definitively end.
"Loss has a very long arc," Rebecca Soffer, co-founder and CEO of Modern Loss, told Mic. "It's something you live with in various forms throughout the rest of your life."
Though sometimes interminable, grief is a dynamic process that becomes incorporated into one's life.
"We transform our grief, but we don't get over it," Horsley said. Nunez described grief as an emotion that "morphs into something you learn to walk alongside of, but it never goes away."
2. Grief is a linear progression.
On Grief and Grieving authors Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler write that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But while these stages may provide a useful framework, "grief is as individual as our lives," rather than a concrete, universal timeline.
"There's a bigger chance of you jumping between stages than there is that you'll go in order," Nunez said.
"There's literally no rhyme or reason to what you're going to go through because every human being is different, every loss experience is different," Soffer said. "Loss is a very complex process." It's rare to have had complete closure with a loved one before losing them, which means stages of grief can manifest in "a completely haphazard format with endless permutations and combinations," she added.
3. There's a "right" way to grieve.
Grieving individuals often feel caught in a double standard of emotionality: Especially beyond a certain age, people are often regarded as cold-hearted if not emotional enough or wallowing if their grief is too palpable. Should they fall somewhere in the middle, as many do, they may feel judged, or misunderstood.
Teens and young adults who participate in the Too Damn Young community often experience this, Nunez said, and feel "ashamed" or like "they're carrying baggage" when their grief "doesn't fit a set norm or the one-size-fits-all formula."
"So many people were expecting me to be crying 24/7," one community member, 18-year-old Selena, told Mic of her experience after losing her mother. "When I went back to school, everyone was staring at me waiting for me to break down in the middle of the room."
"The way a person grieves is very much their own to experience," Nunez said. "Unless you're harming yourself or others, there's no wrong way to grieve. No two grief experiences are the same, but there is comfort in knowing we all start from the same place — the simple fact we've lost someone."
Ultimately, "everyone has their own ways of coping, and whatever is working for you is the right way for you," Selena said. "Don't feel bad if you aren't crying all day. Don't feel bad if you're not a complete mess."
4. There's a right way to support somebody who is grieving.
The single worst thing one can say to somebody who is grieving, according to Horsley? Nothing.
"People feel like if they say something it might upset you, but by saying nothing, you're not acknowledging that anything ever happened," Horsley said.
Acting as a sounding board for those experiencing loss may be the best approach, Soffer said. Some may worry that the reminder of their loss will cause more emotional damage, she said, but asking them about the person they lost and asking them to tell stories about them can be helpful to them. That's the idea behind the Too Damn Young community's campaign #TellUsAboutThem.
"The goal is to remind people that our loved ones are more than just their deaths, they are the lives and moments they lived before they died," Nunez said.
5. Either make a sweeping gesture or don't bother.
There are easy ways one can acknowledge and support others' loss — like setting a calendar reminder to check in with a grieving friend, Soffer suggests. A simple task like cleaning for them or bringing them dinner can be just as meaningful, if not more, than a concerted, serious conversation about their loss.
Support can also take the form of moderating one's own reaction to those who are grieving. "You have no idea what's going on behind closed doors," Soffer said. "Try and stop yourself if they do something to frustrate you, or are a little obnoxious. Just remember that they've gone through something that's really profoundly sad and life-altering and identity-altering and give them the benefit of the doubt."
While supportive gestures likes these need not be daunting, Soffer said, they should go beyond a text or a Facebook like. While doing so may make grieving individuals briefly feel better, she encourages people to "use these amazing tools of connectivity to be a trigger for more thoughtful action."
6. Other factors of one's identity are irrelevant to their grief.
Gender may uniquely affect one's response to loss, according to the experts.
"Men tend to grieve shoulder to shoulder, not face to face," Horsley said. Men "have been socialized to suck it up, walk it off, that real men don't cry," she said, but "women haven't been socialized with those kinds of beliefs."
Research backs this up: According to a study released by the Comfort Zone Camp, 38% of women, compared to 29% of men strongly agreed that losing a parent in childhood was "the toughest thing [they] ever had to deal with." While 57% of men who had lost a parent in childhood surveyed agreed that people need to get over death because it's part of life, only 36% of women agreed.
On the other hand, men who lose their wives "are often unprepared," Rochester Institute of Technology professor Javier Espinosa, a lead researcher of the study, told the Telegraph. Men's health may be affected more by losing "their caregiver, someone who cares for them physically and emotionally," than women who lose their husbands, since "this same mechanism is likely weaker," Espinosa said.
Age can also be hugely impactful. "There are different challenges that come with grieving as a young person because you're figuring yourself out a bit more," Nunez said. "When a significant person in your life dies, you begin to ask the bigger questions at a much younger age. It's hard to face mortality at an age when you feel as though you and those around you are essentially invincible."
7. Talking about it is morbid and inappropriate.
"I was once a kid in a classroom, under the age of 20, who had lost her mom, and I never knew anyone else who had," Nunez said. "This is where having a conversation around grief could significantly impact those who are in the shadows about those they lost."
Soon after Nunez launched Too Damn Young, she received multiple emails confirming she wasn't the only one who felt they couldn't discuss the experience of loss.
Surrounding oneself with others who have experienced loss and sharing those experiences, Horsley said, can be hugely beneficial.
"When you're with other people who have been there and made it, you know you can too," she said. "You're not alone and other people have been on this journey of grief that you're on. You need to reach out and grieving in community is a great way to find hope."
8. You should feel guilty about moving on.
"Sometimes we hold on to the pain even longer than we need to because the pain represents that person and the loss, and we feel guilty about moving forward and moving farther away from them, even though the reality is when we're in a positive space," Horsely said.
But in reality, moving past grief can be an enlightening experience all its own.
"When you experience a loss like this, you get to see a really wild new amount of life," NPR producer Rachel Ward wrote in a Medium blog post about her experience losing her husband. "Suddenly the range of the type of sad you can feel, to the type of happy you can feel, is busted open. The spectrum from happy to sad isn't a foot wide anymore ?—? it's as far as your arms can stretch and then to the edges of the room and then up the block and over into the next neighborhood."
Ultimately, Ward noted, grief — and life more generally — is not about seeking or even achieving constant contentment. Rather, she wrote, she found that accepting the feeling of "being uncomfortable is a very effective way to be a human."