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  • Lisa Atkins, LCSW & Deborah Scarborough, LCMHCS

Healing from Grief: Dispelling Myths and Finding Ways to Cope

Finding Ways to Cope with Grief

Thank you for checking us out today! We want to be a spot where you can come to find knowledge and skills for your anxiety and depression. More than that, we really want to connect with you all so please check out our website! We don’t shy away from any hard topic, and we really want to help. Today, we want to talk about a hard one, but one we all need to learn skills for, grief. Specifically, we want to dive deep into some myths about grief and grieving and encourage you to seek a therapist if you need to.

Grief as a Natural Part of Life

When a loss occurs, grief is a natural response that affects everyone differently. Understanding this can help us navigate the complexities of grief and find ways to cope without self-judgment. When we are in grief, it can be all we want to talk about, but when things are going well, we often do not want to even think about loss. But loss is a part of life. So, when we talk about grief, we should be less concerned with who we lost- loved one, spouse, partner, friend, parent, grandparent, child, grandchild, or pet. We should be more concerned with what that person or pet meant to us. What was our relationship with them when they were alive? And what are we making that mean now?

Importance of the Relationship

What matters most in grief is the relationship we had with the person or pet we lost. Every relationship is unique and it’s essential to honor those feelings without societal judgment. See grief is a huge heavy feeling, but there are tons of thoughts underneath. Thoughts vary depending on who we lost. Most people cannot fathom how they would go on without their child but feel like they could raise them even if something horrible happened to their spouse. Likewise, different feelings come up when we lose a parent depending on the relationship, we had with them. We will talk more about relationships related to grief soon.

The Myth of ‘Time Heals’

There are all these ideas of the “right” and “wrong” way to grieve. All these myths. A huge myth we hear is that “time heals.” Another one is that there is some linear process to grief. Other myths revolve around how long we should grieve, and how we should grieve- as in crying, and, attending funerals etc. Society sets up a lot of structure around the loss of someone- from expected reactions to expected behavior- even what to wear. But the truth is, there is no right or wrong way to cope with grief and a lot of it is culturally dependent and up to you and what you feel. Do not get hung up on judging yourself for how you are grieving. There is a huge difference between the act of grieving- a lot of societal constructs are around the act and the expression of grief- and how to feel grief. How to process it as an emotion. The emotion of Grief- often there is no real information about how to feel your feelings because remember- when life is good, we didn’t learn this stuff.

Some misleading information was put forth as factual information about how we should grieve way back in the late 1960s. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross conducted a famous study/ paper about death and dying. She then wrote a book of the same title. Her paper talked about the stages of grief. She identified 5 Stages of Grief as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. She never really explained these, and most people began to interpret them like this: Denial, “I don’t believe they are really gone”; Anger, “I am so angry they are gone;” Bargaining “I will do anything to bring them back;” Depression, “I feel hopeless about my future without them;” and then finally Acceptance, “I can go on with my life and deal with their absence.”

But Kubler-Ross’s work was based on talking to patients themselves dying of terminal illnesses and the phases of their grief about their own impending deaths. Her book" On Death and Dying" explains this much better along with stories from the people who participated in her study- clearly talking about processing their OWN death. Not the loss of a loved one. This is a whole other topic. Kubler-Ross’s work was not meant to be seen as this “grief cycle” or “grief timeline” or “stages of grief” for Everyone! Especially not for people grieving a loss but still very much alive- it was just INTERPRETED as applying to anyone “in grief.”

So, when we think about that, it is absolutely crazy to judge ourselves. We hear it all the time though, people who come to therapy and say, “It’s been 25 years, I should be over this, I should accept my son is gone.” Or the opposite, “It’s only been a year, but I know my husband would want me to be happy again, I think I can date.” We also hear a lot of “I mean, I am not angry they are gone, I am not really even sad, I am relieved- What is wrong with me?! I feel guilty for that feeling.” This is very common when people lose a parent, especially if they were long-term caregivers. We seem, as a society, to have all these ideas about how long things “should” take and what order they “should” go in, and how people “should” feel- and it’s all based on misinformation!

The Phases of Grief: Navigating Loss and Healing

We want to help others understand a little better the more accurate process of grieving a loss for most people. Most people, and there is no set time for how fast we do this, and there are times we are going to take a step forward and then a few steps back too, but for most of us losing someone, we will go through phases. These phases look more like: Accepting the new Reality (without the person or pet), Processing the Pain of Loss (processing their physical absence and how we feel), Figuring out how to live in their absence/ how to honor them (How to go on, move forward).

Challenging Grief Misconceptions and Self-Judgement.

So, when we lose someone, a big factor we have to consider is what was our relationship with them in life. There is no right way to grieve anyone or any pet, but it is different to contemplate a dad who has always been an absentee dad, vs. the pet that was by your side every day for 13 years. You may absolutely grieve the pet more than the dad and don’t let anyone judge you for that! So, when you think about your grief, don’t judge yourself. Do not also fall into the trap of comparing your despair. This is when you say “Well I lost my brother but so and so at church lost their daughter so I have no right to feel this way.” We hear those things a lot too. Or perhaps you lost a good friend, and someone says to you, “Well I mean, he wasn’t your brother or anything,” most people are not this insensitive, but we have heard it. These little thoughts get in our heads based on societal “standards” which are hogwash. This is very true for pets, as society seems to value human life more than animals. For the purposes of this blog please know my friends, a soul is a soul- and our furry friends, their souls touch ours and we love them and they love us- that is the foundation of a relationship. And any relationship lost- that is grief-inducing.

The Continuing Relationship

This brings me to a big point I want to make today- whether we were super close to this person in life or distant lately, if we had any relationship with them, that relationship can go on if we want it to. Often times we get so caught up in the fact that their physical presence is gone. Physically our loved one, our beloved pet, they are no longer by our side or a phone call away or ready to get a treat or go for a walk. When this reality hits us, we grieve. But my friends, death did not cause anything but a separation. It closed the door. It physically separated us. But the relationship did not die.

One hard part of losing a spouse or a child, or even a parent when you are young and have not married or had their grandchildren- is that many hopes and dreams just died too. You grieve the loss of possibilities. But those possibilities were never promised. So many of us are making grief so complicated with several traps like this- we are upset about things that may never have been- such as a cure, or a lifesaving rescue, or one last phone call or one last treat and a pat. I want you to really hear me when you read this next paragraph- complicating your grief is a real issue.

The Trap of ‘Shoulds’ and Regret

We complicate our grief in two ways. First – we think the relationship is over and we cannot get it back- and this complicates feeling your grief. Or, if it was not a good relationship, as we hear sometimes with parents, grandparents, siblings, we feel like it will always be bad. But that is not so. You can still talk to them, you can write to them, you can carry them in your heart. You can do thought work and go to therapy- work on that relationship as if the physical door was not closed.

The second way we complicate our grief- and that is a real diagnosis by the way- a real problem- is that we engage in all these “shoulds,” and “what- ifs,” and regret and question our own actions. We pile so much shame on ourselves sometimes. We hear this from “I should have had her go for more opinions, go to more doctors,” in the case of cancers. We hear this from motor vehicle accidents “I shouldn’t have driven on that road, I shouldn't have gone that way or in that rain” etc. We also hear a lot of “what if I had answered the phone” regarding closure and how to speak just one last time. But tomorrow is never promised and we cannot beat ourselves up for what we did or did not do yesterday.

Byron Katie has a quote that is healing for some, for others, you aren’t ready for it yet, but we want to put it here- “Everybody dies right on time.” It is not for us to understand why, and it is not for us to beat ourselves up. Your loved one, your pet, they died when they were supposed to die, and nothing you did or didn’t do could change that. It’s not helpful to judge yourself about anything, let alone what you cannot control.

Supporting Yourself and Others Through Grief

Listening and Sharing the Story

If you have stuck with us this long, you may be going- so how do I help? How do I help myself? How do I heal from grief and find ways to cope? How do I help my friend? The first thing we would say is to let them tell the story, of the event, the death, or the person or about the pet, as many times as they want. Let them talk. Especially if this is a death of a parent or a child- we have stories we want to share. Let them in their own time. Or if this is you- don’t clam up. Don’t not ever say their name again. So many moms put off their grief and their stories and the things they want and need to say while they plan their spouse’s arrangements and try to “be strong” for the kids. Or, if they lost a child, they go through all the motions to honor that child the way society dictates, and then, when all the casseroles and well-meaning cards stop showing up- they are alone. Don’t put off reaching out.

Being Present with Changing Emotions

Grief is a rollercoaster of emotions. Allow yourself or others to experience the full range of emotions without judgment. Each day may bring different feelings, and that’s okay. Don’t ask yourself each day “Why do I feel this way?” Ask, “What do I feel today?” Similarly, if you are a friend, church member, or pastor even, better than asking “How are you?” Try for “How are things TODAY? What do you need today?” Sometimes this is easier. When we ask “How are you?” or “Why do I feel this way,” we don’t leave open the possibilities that day to day, things change and that ALL feelings are OK.

Empathy, Not Assumptions

Offering empathy and understanding to those grieving is more valuable than making assumptions about how they feel. Asking about their current emotions and needs can provide genuine support. For those who are trying to help, don’t tell someone you know how they feel. You do not. Your loss was the loss of your loved person or pet, theirs is different. But, if you know them well, ask if they are ready to have you share. If you think it is helpful, you can tell your story. Not in a compare and oh woe is me mine is worse- be tactful- but in a relating way. This is why widows’ groups, or survivors of suicide groups- can be very helpful when we encounter that kind of loss. There are others who have lost people similarly. We can take comfort as we hear that they have struggled too, or that they have good days too! The bottom line is if you are a friend or helper- stay with, “I love you I am here for you.” Show them that you are as open to them being alone as you are to them wanting company. If you are grieving- honor what you need. Experience your feelings.

Embracing the Journey of Healing

Continuing the Relationship Through Memories

Remember that death does not erase the relationship you had with your loved ones. Cherish the memories, talk to them, and find ways to keep their presence alive in your heart. Death is not an ending to your experience of your person or pet. The relationship is still intact. You still have all those memories; you still have all those times. Continue to live and make space for life and feel your feelings as they come. Some days will be good, some days will ache.

When we have lost a person or pet, we feel keenly the balance of being alive, more so than those who have not experienced loss may understand. Grief brings a profound awareness of the fragility of life. One day you felt like you were in charge of creating this life you dreamed of, making new relationships and memories, and then BAM death makes us realize we are not in charge. We are not promised tomorrow. You are keenly aware each day life is often short, life for our furry friends is so much shorter than ours! I lost my 104-year-old aunt last year, and even with that beautiful life, I still realized- life is finite. We could not keep her here physically with us forever.

All life is precious. All loss hurts. We wish you Peace as you grieve and strength as you help others in their journey to heal from grief and find ways to cope. Please check out our site if you think counseling could help you or a friend in grief. Until then, be well!

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