There are many myths about grief that are still prevalent in North America. Being aware of these myths can help us with our caring. The following isn’t an exhaustive list, but it represents some of the key myths that are still at play in our society.
1. There is a “normal” way to grieve healthily
Grief is a unique process, and the way a person grieves will depend on a variety of factors including the person’s upbringing, culture, experiences, as well as their personality and the nature of the loss.
There is no one healthy or “normal” way to grieve.
Our goal as caregivers is to listen well to what the other person is telling us about how they need to grieve. They are the experts in their grief, we are not. Caring means helping them to grieve in the ways that will work best for them.
2. Grief should only last for a certain period of time
We tend to assume (often unconsciously) that by some point, grief should be done. As you can imagine, this can really affect our caring.
We might become impatient with people if they don’t move through their grief in accordance with our timeline for it. We might find ourselves thinking that maybe they’re not putting enough effort into getting over their grief. Or we might begin to wonder about whether if their grief has become unhealthy in some way.
But in reality, the amount of time that someone will take to process through their grief will depend on a variety of factors.
We have to be careful to not grow impatient with people if they are taking longer than we think it ought to take.
It is true that people can sometimes get “stuck” in their grief. This is often referred to as complicated grief. When this happens, it is important for people to receive professional care. However, research has shown that the percentage of people who experience complicated grief is about 10%. That means 90% of the people we care for will not experience this form of grief.
3. The person should go back to normal when their grief is done
When we experience a significant loss, that loss can impact us in ways that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. We may not go back to “normal,” but will instead find a new way to be in light of the loss. We find our “new-normal.”
It makes sense that if someone is really important to us, their death is going to affect us in ongoing ways. But this can also be true even when the loss isn’t due to death.
When I was 10 years old my family had to move suddenly from Ottawa to Southern Ontario. It was completely unexpected, and a shock to all of us. It took us a long time to process.
Because that loss came at a critical time in my life – just after I had begun Grade 6 – there are ways in which I didn’t ever quite return to my “pre-loss” state. Instead, I moved into new ways of being. Since then, I’ve lived in a “new-normal” rather than returning exactly how I was prior to the move.
As caregivers, it is important for us to not expect everyone to “go back to normal”. Part of our role is to be willing to get to know the new person they are becoming as a result of their loss.
4. People who are grieving should be emotional (and something has gone wrong if they aren’t)
I know someone who likes to do manual tasks like painting their house when processing grief. This person processes their grief by engaging in an activity, rather than by talking about it.
I’m aware that I tend to process my grief by thinking about it rather than by being outwardly emotional. I feel the pain of loss deeply, but I will tend to talk objectively about it and write about what I’m feeling, rather than being emotional in the presence of others. Some people will process through their grief by sharing their emotions freely with others. But some will not.
Related to this, we can often assume that someone who is grieving should only experience painful emotions (sadness, anger, fear, etc.). We can think that if someone is grieving, they shouldn’t feel joy, or be able to engage in and appreciate humour. This too is a false assumption. People who are grieving can often experience a variety of emotions, including joy and humour.
Our goal as caregivers is to take on the posture of a learner, and to let the people we are caring for teach us about what works for them when it comes to processing their grief.
5. Everyone goes through the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance
What we have come to know as the “Five Stages of Grief” comes from the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 1960’s. The purpose of her book was not to identify stages of grief, but to identify the stages that people move through when coming to terms with being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Her insights became associated with grief and took on a life of their own, to the point that even today, many people in North America equate the grief process (no matter the situation) with the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
It’s important to remember that grief is not a linear process.
People don’t move neatly and predictably, from one stage to another. In reality, the grief process is messier and more dynamic.
This is not to say that people don’t experience things like denial, anger, bargaining, depression or sadness while processing through their grief. But the theories we have today do a much better job of describing the complexities of the grief process.
It is important that we don’t impose this way of thinking about grief on the people we are caring for. People may experience denial, anger, bargaining, and depression/sadness, but they may not. Our role is to listen carefully and pay attention to what they tell us about their own experience with grief.
In the same way that we can be influenced by these myths about grief, the people we care for can be influenced by the myths, too.
Another way we can care for people is by assuring them that there is no one way to grieve, that it is okay to take the time they need, and that they may not return to “normal.”
We can help them to understand that not being emotional doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. And we can help them to understand that there are better ways to think about grief than the five stages.
You don’t have to be a professional to be a good caregiver.
In many respects all we are doing in our caregiving is loving the person. Some people will need professional care, but most of the people we care for will simply need someone to listen to them.
If you need some guidance as to how best to love the person who is grieving, all you really need to do is to ask yourself: how you I want someone to love me if I were in their situation?
If you care for someone the way you would want to be cared for, you’ll do a great job.
Has your youth work has led you to consider pursuing a call to ministry?
Acadia Divinity College offers a Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counselling that will equip you to provide support for those facing mental health concerns, struggling with addictions, at risk of suicide, or dealing with grief and loss.
Read more from Dr. Dorothy Hunse in the Winter 2021 issue of ADC Today as she unpacks sharing and embracing our grief, specifically as it relates to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
If you’d like more ideas on how to equip your youth ministry team to walk with students through grief and loss you should watch the on-demand webinar with some of the experts from Acadia Divinity College. Find that here.