Grief: Myths and Misunderstandings


Grief is an unfortunately misunderstood part of the human experience. Grief is difficult enough even when well understood and it breaks my heart to see grief heaped on grief by ignorance or misinformation. Our culture and our upbringing often prepare us only to acquire things, not to lose them, so most of us are ill-equipped to resolve grief when we experience it. Grief in itself is not a bad thing, but unresolved grief can crush our spirit. In order to recover from grief and find healing we first need to understand grief better. Myths about grief and grieving are abundant. This post will help uncover some of those myths. Education is the first step in grief recovery and healing.

Myth 1: Grief is a Mental or Emotinal Disorder

Grief is the normal and natural response to loss. It is not a disorder. Grief is often misdiagnosed as a mental disability or an emotional disorder. Grief is NOT:

-Post Traumatic Stress

-ADHD or ADD

-Clinical depression

-Anxiety Disorder

Grief is about a broken heart, not a broken brain. It is not an emotional liability or weakness. Profound loss doesn’t occur frequently so when it does it throws us for a loop. The fear and pain of loss can shake us up. And since difficult and unhappy feelings are frowned upon in our culture already, maybe even in our families and marriages, grievers think something must be wrong with them if they can’t get their emotions in check quickly enough. It gets even more confusing when doctors or society label grievers as depressed or any other medical or psychological term.

And why wouldn’t they? Following a loss, many grievers report changes in their eating or sleeping patterns. Some have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Others feel tired or emotionally numb. These are common symptoms of clinical depression.

The problem is grief is not clinical depression. It’s normal to feel sad when something sad happens. Having normal grief does not mean something is wrong. It actually means something is very right. It means you are a feeling human with the ability to form meaningful attachments. This makes you healthy, not broken, and fully capable of recovery and healing.

Myth 2: Grief Has Stages

In her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identifies five stages that a dying person might go through. The stages are:

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance

Over time, well-intentioned people have misinterpreted these stages as The 5 Stages of Grief. They aren’t. There are actually NO stages of grief!

The problem with thinking that grief has stages is that it sets up baseless expectations about how grief should go when the truth is grief shouldn’t go any particular way. Though one griever MIGHT feel angry it doesn’t mean all grievers WILL feel angry. It would be impossible for all grievers to have the same emotional response to loss. Grievers may inadvertently start measuring their grief or questioning it. Why don’t I feel like that? Should I feel like that? I feel something that isn’t in the stages, is that ok? It causes a lot of confusion that undermines recovery and healing.

This myth is problematic for society too because family members and/or friends may put expectations on the griever to behave or feel certain ways at certain times. I remember being told, “You think the depression stage is rough--just wait for the anger phase!” I got very sad, yes, but I never experienced a depression phase or an anger phase in the traditional sense. I felt a variety of emotions in multiple combinations and I did not appreciate being told how I would or should feel.

All feelings are valid. This can be difficult to accept. Feelings are neither good or bad, right or wrong. Every feeling is a clue as to what is going on in our heart. We are all different, therefore we will all have a different emotional response to loss. There is no right or wrong way to feel. What we DO with our feelings is what makes all the difference.

The false idea of stages also gives false hope that once all the stages are done, grief is done. That is not the case at all. Recovery from grief starts with a choice to heal and then a series of correct steps done over time to move through (not avoid) intense emotional pain to complete what has been left incomplete by the loss. In some respects grieving may never be done or over, but healing is not dependent on grief ending, but on our ability to learn how to tend to our hearts and respond to our grief in helpful ways for a lifetime.

Myth #3: Time Heals All Wounds

Time is just time. We can grow more hurt over time as easily as we can experience healing. What we do with time is what matters. Believing that time heals all wounds is believing that healing is up to fate and we are powerless in the process. How hopeless is it that we just have to wait until some arbitrary day to finally wake up and feel better? We can start healing NOW. We must take personal responsibility for our recovery and healing. No matter what has caused our pain, healing is our responsibility.

Time is a factor in healing, though. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. We are not at the mercy of time but we must give ourselves time. Patience in the recovery process is important. Don’t give time all the power but also don't discount the role time plays in your recovery process.

Myth #4: Some Pain Is Impossible to Heal From

I saved this one for last because this myth is the one that caused me the most pain. I felt like I was always hearing contradicting information. One minute I was being told that hope is never lost and healing is always possible. The next minute I was being told that I’d never really get over the deaths of my daughters. It was confusing to me. As I experienced healing I struggled with guilt, at times thinking, How is this even happening to me, I thought I’d never get over this, is something wrong with me that I am healing? And then when I struggled and wasn’t making progress I felt hopeless, thinking, What is the point of doing all this recovery work when it is impossible to heal from the death of a child anyway!

The truth is, healing is always possible. The myth that some pain is too much to heal from is a horrible lie that keeps people imprisoned in their pain. Recovery is available to all grievers, no matter what has caused your grief. Hope is never lost. It will take time, correct action steps, and support, but it is possible.

What myths or misunderstandings have interfered with your healing? How will your healing journey change after reading this?

Rachel Tenpenny Crawford is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist, speaker, writer, military spouse, and entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of Teamotions and a passionate advocate for holistic grief recovery and emotional healing. She currently lives in California with her husband, two happy sons, and crazy dog. She spends her limited free time staying caught up on domestic and foreign politics, fitting in a workout, and exploring Pinterest with a cup of Discover Joy tea in her hand.