You don't know what it's like to grieve for someone significant until you're in the depths of it. I think most people can agree with me on this. It's one of those experiences you can only know once you get there, which makes it all the more intimidating.
That said, it's common for people to have ideas about what they think it's like. From our first exposures to loss, we naturally begin to build a conceptualization of what we believe grief must be like. And, depending on what we've observed and learned, our assumptions can run the gamut from relatively true and accurate to flat-out grief myths.
Where do our assumptions about grief come from?
People don't sit down, crack open a book, and say, "Today I'm going to form my attitudes about grief" Rather, our attitudes and beliefs about loss, along with countless other human experiences, start to take shape at an early age.
As humans, we acquire much of the knowledge we have about the world and the people in it through observing others. Observational learning isn't as intentional as, say, deciding you want to learn how to knit or take surfing lessons. Instead, you're often learning through observing without even realizing it.
This kind of learning is extremely useful but has limitations because it can sometimes lead to incorrect assumptions about people and experiences. You may be especially likely to form an incomplete or inaccurate picture when something is as complex as grief.
Incorrect assumptions about grief
Many people cite television or movies as their first exposure to grief and loss. Thanks, Disney and Pixar! In all seriousness, we love many of the grief-centric stories that we've seen in kid's media. But unfortunately, even the best representation of grief is often abridged, oversimplified, and sometimes overdramatized. So these views may be limited and two-dimensional.
What about having a more personal connection with someone who's experienced loss and grief? Theoretically, you would develop a more nuanced picture of grief by being around this person. But even then, you can only learn based on what this person is showing and sharing, and, as many grieving people will attest, the outside world often knows only the tip of their grief iceberg.
Finally, let's pull back and look at the bigger societal picture. What messages does our society send us about grief and loss? Unfortunately, grief myths are pervasive in our societal understanding of life after loss and include the ideas that grief follows a set of stages (it does not), ends in a place of acceptance (grief does not have a finite endpoint), and requires a person to "let go" of the past and the person who died (no and no).
How do assumptions about grief impact the experience of grief?
People often feel frustrated by the pressures others put on them when they're grieving but overlook the unfair pressures they put on themselves about how they "should" be grieving and coping. One main reason a person might assess themselves as doing things wrong is that they've entered the experience with assumptions about how things will be, only to find they're far different than they imagined. And rather than labeling their preexisting beliefs wrong, they label their own experiences and responses as abnormal.
"Why would anyone do that to themselves?" you might ask.
Well, turns out humans are pretty protective of their fundamental assumptions about the world. And they will try and try again to fit their experiences into their preexisting framework before stepping back and saying, "Okay, I need to adjust my understanding of this."
One's assumptions may also lead them to believe specific rules are at play about how to grieve. For example, a person may assume, based on what they've seen on television or been told, that the standard way to grieve is to express emotions and talk about their feelings. Of course, the idea that there is a right way to cope is a grief myth, but someone who doesn't know this may assume they must talk it out and ignore other grief-coping outlets that are a better fit, or feel beyond help when they don't want to go to therapy or a support group.
So what can you do?
The logical next question is, how do you ensure that your assumptions about grief aren't causing you to put undue pressure on yourself or boxing you into rigid ways of responding and coping? The first and simplest thing a person can do is learn what is and is not true about grief.
We've written a few articles about grief myths and truths:
- 64 Myths About Grief that Just Need to Stop
- The Myth of the Grief Timeline
- Grief Never Ends and That's Okay
- Grief Emotions aren't Good or Bad, They Just Are
- "I Don't Want to Talk About It" Coping With Grief Without Saying a Word
- Why do People Think we Move On After a Death?
After learning about grief myths and truths, we suggest that people take a little time to examine the assumptions they've likely internalized and brought with them into the experience because there can be a disconnect between knowledge and our deepest beliefs. For example, someone can intellectually know that there isn't a timeline to grief but still feel embarrassed or wrong when they go through a difficult grief patch years later.
- How do your pre-existing assumptions about grief impact you?
- Which assumptions serve you and which do not?
- What myths and assumptions do you fear are most ingrained in you?
- Which myths feel the most challenging for you to shake?
- What new information about grief and life after loss do you want to integrate into your understanding and keep at the forefront of your mind?
Finally, when you notice a grief myth or assumption coming up to make you feel like you're doing things all wrong, we want you to say, "NOPE, I'm not having it!" Picture yourself opening a window, or open an actual window, and throw the assumption O.U.T.
Permanently file this belief under things you used to believe, but now you know better. And the next time you hear someone saying something to the contrary, share your experience with them so they might form their own assumptions a little differently.
What assumptions have you noticed getting in your way? Share in the comment below
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: