There’s a lot of grief going around right now. People I know and love are facing personal losses of many different kinds. I myself am still dealing with the death of my beloved cat a few weeks ago. Given this context, let’s talk about some common myths about grief and grieving.
1. You will feel bad all the time.
There’s this idea that you’ll feel sad and weepy 24/7, but in fact, you may not. You probably won’t. The day we put my cat down, we had to rush around like crazy to get prepared for our daughter’s birthday party which was the next day. I was too busy to cry.
What I’ve observed in my life personally is that grief requires flexibility, because it lurks around, activating your tear ducts when you least expect it. It’s like cleaning up a broken glass with bare hands: you sweep up most of it fine, but then a shard pierces your skin and it hurts like hell. (Pro tip, use tools, not bare hands, to clean up broken glass). For the first week after my cat’s death, I felt generally OK. And then, last week I went to the vet to get medicine for another cat, and I barely made it to the car before bursting into tears. When I got home I climbed into bed and wailed for a good 20 minutes.
So allow yourself to feel whatever feelings there are. And give yourself some flexibility for the crying sneak attacks.
2. You will move sequentially through the five stages of grief.
Speaking of crying sneak attacks, don’t fall for that five stages of grief myth. You know, anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Or is it acceptance, bargaining, anger, denial and depression? Every person is unique: if you do experience all five of the stages, it won’t necessarily be in the “correct” order. The stages of grief are possible reactions to loss, not a linear psychological model. In addition, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll just feel 1 feeling at a time. I feel acceptance of my own loss, and some depression. Am I angry that my 17 year old cat’s body wore out? No. Does that mean you shouldn’t be angry about your loss? Of course not!
3. You should be grateful that it’s not worse.
I know I’m talking about a cat, so naturally my grief is not as severe as it would be were I grieving the death of a family member. I should be grateful that my cat lived so long, and my family is all healthy, right? Well, of course, and I am grateful for those things. But that doesn’t make my grief any less real, any less valid, or any less painful. No matter what the source of your grief, do not listen to those who cheapen it by pointing out how it’s not as bad as something else. This is a very common form of comforting, but it’s pretty ineffective. “At least your uncle isn’t in pain any more.” “I’m sorry your daughter is an alcoholic, but at least she doesn’t have cancer.” “I’m sorry about your miscarriage, but you have two healthy kids – lots of people can’t even have one.”
People: DON’T use these forms of comfort! Comparing a person’s grief to something worse invalidates her feelings and adds guilt to her life.
People: DON’T spend time with those who say such things to you. If that’s the best way they know to comfort you, then they are toxic to you until you’ve worked through your grief. Just avoid them. It is your right.
4. You’ll get over it with time.
Time heals all wounds. Right? (Pro tip, don’t use this as a “comfort” statement either).
It is true that the immediate raw pain, much like an open wound, will lessen and heal with time. You’ll get to a place of being able to remember the lost one without crying. You will, eventually, find consistent joy in your life again. But that doesn’t mean you’re “over it.” The ones we love and lose stay in our lives forever. There will always be anniversaries, what-if questions, regrets. I regret that my grandfather never got to meet my husband. Sometimes I wonder if I had been more consistent with my cat’s medication if he would’ve lived longer.
We don’t get over a loss: we incorporate it into who we are. Just as a wound on my face would turn into a scar, and gradually I would begin to recognize that scar as part of my new appearance, the loss of a loved one heals into some sort of scar, and we begin to recognize our new lives. It may be a defining moment, a turning point, a threshold, or just a sad milestone. It changes us. Be patient with yourself: your psyche has to integrate the loss into your future.