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People Are Not Goldfish: Nine Common Myths and Realities About Grief

Knowledge of these grief issues helps both the bereaved and those who want to help them.

Writing to an advice columnist, a woman expresses these concerns about family members who are in grief: "My brother and his wife lost a teenage son in an auto accident six months ago. Of course, this is a terrible loss, but I worry they're not working hard enough to get on with their lives. This was God's will. There's nothing they can do about it. The family has been patient and supportive, but now we're beginning to wonder how long this will last and whether we may not have done the right thing with them."

That woman's concern is shaped by a faulty understanding about bereavement. She, like many others, does not have accurate information about the grieving process. The woman incorrectly assumes that grief lasts a short duration and ends within a specific time frame. Whenever there is a death-spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandparent-grievers struggle with a variety of confusing and conflicting emotions. Too often their struggle is complicated by well-meaning individuals who say and do the wrong things because they are uninformed about the bereavement process.

Here are nine of the most common myths and realities about grief. Knowledge of these issues is extremely helpful for both the bereaved and those who want to help them. The bereaved gain assurance that their responses to a death are quite normal and natural. Simultaneously, family, friends, religious leaders and other caregivers have the correct information about grief thus enabling them to respond more patiently, compassionately and wisely.

Myth #1:

"It's been a year since your spouse died. Don't you think you should be dating by now?"

Reality:

It is impossible to simply "replace" a loved one. Susan Arlen, M.D., a New Jersey physician offers this insight: "Human beings are not goldfish. We do not flush them down the toilet and go out and look for replacements. Each relationship is unique, and it takes a very long time to build a relationship of love. It also takes a very long time to say good-bye, and until good-bye really has been said, it is impossible to move on to a new relationship that will be complete and satisfying."

Myth #2:

"You look so well!"

Reality:

The bereaved do look like the nonbereaved on the outside. However, at the interior, they experience a wide range of chaotic emotions: shock, numbness, anger, disbelief, betrayal, rage, regret, remorse, guilt. These feelings are intense and confusing.

One example comes from British author C. S. Lewis who wrote these words shortly after his wife died: "In grief, nothing stays put. One keeps emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I m on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?"

Thus, when people comment in astonishment "You look so well," grievers feel misunderstood and further isolated. There are two much more helpful responses to the bereaved. First, simply and quietly acknowledge their pain and suffering through statements such as: "This must be very difficult for you." "I am so sorry!" "How can I help?" " What can I do? "

Myth #3:

"The best we can do (for the griever) is to avoid discussing the loss."

Reality:

The bereaved need and want to talk about their loss, including the most minute details connected to it. Grief shared is grief diminished. Each time a griever talks about the loss, a layer of pain is shed.

When Lois Duncan's 18 year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, died as a result of what police called a random shooting, she and her husband were devastated by the death. Yet, the people most helpful to the Duncans were those who allowed them to talk about Kaitlyn.

"The people we found most comforting made no attempt to distract us from our grief," she recalls. "Instead, they encouraged Don and me to describe each excruciating detail of our nightmare experience over and over. That repetition diffused the intensity of our agony and made it possible for us to start the healing."

Last Updated: 24 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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