Chapter 3: Grief and bereavement
Myths about grief
Grief isn’t well understood. Nor do many people know how best to support someone who is grieving. Although they may have experienced death, their understanding of how to live with, and move through loss and grief is often informed by unhelpful or outdated societal and personal expectations and pressures. As a result, the way they talk to people who are anticipating a death, or who have experienced the loss of someone they care about may be detrimental. The following myths and corresponding facts can help you speak with families.
Click the myths to reveal the facts.
FACT: Society’s understanding of grief has come a long way since 1969 when Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Current bereavement research indicates that people don’t grieve in stages. Grief is not linear and not everyone experiences it in the same way.
FACT: Although grief and depression may share some characteristics, they are not the same. Although people in grief may also become clinically depressed, most do not.
Grief is uniquely associated with loss and includes a loss of meaning, yearning for the deceased and preoccupation with the death. Bereaved people may experience numbness or a general lack of interest in mundane activities, but this is usually temporary.
Depression is characterized in part by a loss of joy in life activities, high levels of self-criticism and suicidal ideation. There is an unrelenting quality to depression, sometimes described as "falling into a black hole".
FACT: Grief has no clear end point. A loss can evoke memories and feelings of earlier losses. In this way grief can be cyclical, and we may revisit our losses on different occasions across the lifespan. Most people will start to feel better over time, although they may still experience strong feelings many years after the death. Although grief is permanent, it usually changes over time; the person who died is still missed, but the grief lessens.
“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”― Robert Woodruff Anderson, I Never Sang for My Father
FACT: Many activities and supports can help people move through grief:
- Talking with family, friends or other support people such as a faith leader or community elder.
- Assembling memories (scrapbooking, for example).
- Engaging in restorative activities that give energy and provide a temporary distraction from grief.
- Finding ways to honour the person who died, including volunteering in a meaningful activity linked to the deceased.
- Joining a support group.
- Seeking out a mental health professional like a psychologist or counsellor.
FACT: Grief is different for each person and includes a wide range of thoughts and feelings. There are no “good,” “bad,” “right” or “wrong” ways to grieve. Clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Neimeyer has often said that grief is like art: there’s no one way or right way to create art. Similarly, there’s no one way to grieve.
FACT: There is a range of individual difference in how people express their grief. Some people cry freely while others don’t.
Many people have been socialized not to cry and find it embarrassing, uncomfortable or even shameful. Those in helping professions are often expected to “be strong.” When people suppress their tears, the unexpressed emotions will likely show up in other ways such as disrupted sleep, major changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating and depression.
Crying is a healthy and natural physiological response that helps to release some of the pent-up energy that accompanies intense emotions. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that crying is not everyone’s way of expressing their grief. Bereaved people who don’t cry can be inaccurately seen as cold and unfeeling or as being “in denial”.
Whether or not a grieving person cries, they need a compassionate response.