After my husband’s death, I quickly discovered people had a lot to say about grief. As a young widow at age 37 and mother of three young girls, I was often surprised by the comments. Sometimes they would share their insights in hopes of offering comfort. Oftentimes these opinions were driven by myths about grief that get passed around, rather than a deeper understanding.
Through my grief journey, I have learned how vital it is to separate our misconceptions and expectations from the reality of grief. When we are grieving, we are vulnerable. People’s well-intentioned words can sting us in surprising ways.
When you’re actually grieving the death of a spouse, or the loss of a child, or the loss of community when you’ve moved to a new place, comments about how you “should be” grieving are not helpful.
I decided to take an informal poll of some of my widow sisters and friends. The following are some common grief myths that frequently find their way into attitudes and conversations.
It’s valuable to have conversations about how we process our grief because it helps us learn about ourselves and helps others understand our journey. Whether you are grieving yourself or supporting someone who is, I hope this will help you gain a deeper awareness of the grief process and how unique it is for each person.
MYTH #1: GRIEF HAS FIVE STAGES.
People often talk about these definitive five stages of grief. The five stages of grief were a theory developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. These stages include: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Some people think you go through these five stages in order and then you are done with grief. Originally these were marked stages for people who were facing mortality, not those grieving a loss.
David Kessler, co-authored a book with Kubler-Ross called On Grief and Grieving. He explains that these five stages are tools to help us identify what we are feeling. “They are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.” Grief cannot be simplified or tucked into a logical flow chart. If your grief looks different from the next person’s grief, you are not crazy.
MYTH #2: GRIEF IS LINEAR WITH A BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END.
Grief can skip, repeat, do a loop-de-loop and double back. In other words, grief is a journey, not a destination. At times, the journey feels treacherous and uphill. At other times, it’s about walking slowly forward one step at a time on a steadier path.
When I realized that my grief and loss would be with me long-term, it helped me shift my focus. I was no longer wondering when I would “get over it.” I was free to concentrate more on how to grieve well. I have to be intentional to check in with myself. Around certain anniversaries, I know I need to carve out space for grief. When I am unexpectedly triggered, I need to give myself the gift of grace. Our family has also created rhythms of remembrance, which help us during these times of the year.
MYTH #3: TIME HEALS.
I have heard some widow friends talk about how the first year after their husband’s deaths were the hardest. I have heard others say that year 4 and 5 are the most difficult. One friend explained it this way. Time doesn’t heal loss. Over time we simply get more used to our new normal and how to live with the loss.
My grief counselor once suggested that grief is more like a tangled ball of yarn. You never know exactly what you are unraveling.
My grief counselor once suggested that grief is more like a tangled ball of yarn. You never know exactly what you are unraveling. It’s a mix of many threads and emotions and we need to give ourselves time to untangle these at our own pace. Now that I am eight years out from my husband’s death, I’m not in the knots of intense grief most of the time. But I know that each journey and timeline is unique. As my daughters are becoming teenagers, their grief over their dad’s death is hitting them in new ways. I want to be present for them in this.
MYTH #4: YOU SHOULDN’T FEEL JOY OR HAPPINESS WHILE GRIEVING.
A few weeks after my husband’s funeral, some friends invited the girls and me to a concert. We desperately needed to get out of the house. That night I discovered how important it was for us to let that music wash over us. The girls laughed and danced with their friends. I was filled with such surprising peace and joy after such a long season of caregiving for my husband and watching his health deteriorate.
After the concert a friend who I hadn’t seen in years came up to me and burst into tears. I wasn’t particularly close with her, and I wasn’t even sad in that moment. She sobbed into my shoulder and told me how sorry she was for what we had endured. I appreciated her words and willingness to reach out to me, but later I felt a little guilty. Maybe I should have acted sadder. Maybe I shouldn’t be out at concerts laughing and dancing with my daughters so soon after my husband’s death. These ridiculous thoughts swirled in my head.
I brought these questions about my grief to God. I realized then through His gentle reminders that I was free to grieve in my way. Over time, I have learned that every day can be filled with joy and grief dancing together.
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 reminds us: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”
MYTH #5: THE GOAL OF GRIEF IS TO “FIND CLOSURE” AND MOVE ON.
I have encountered this attitude in different conversations since my husband died. People long for us to be “ok” so they ask questions like: “Do you have closure about your husband’s death?” Or they say, “It looks like you’ve moved on” since I have remarried.
As a person who is still grieving the death of my husband and my children’s father, I’m never quite sure what to say. I have an indescribable peace in my heart that God is and will continue to use my husband’s death for His glory. I trust God in this. I’ve already had the privilege of seeing the way He has saved lives, encouraged souls, inspired people to draw closer to their families, and bolstered the faith of my daughters because of Ericlee’s death.
Do I have closure? No. Am I ready to move on? No. I am moving forward. Day by day, step by step, decision by decision, I am moving forward. I am not closing a chapter. I am not getting over him. I am moving into a season where I have a choice to live his legacy and remember him in new ways. This looks different for every person who is grieving.
I’ve shared with you five common myths about grief. Let’s conclude with this truth. We can’t fit grief into a box or a series of stages. Jesus is our model throughout his ministry that we need to lean into the unique experiences of individuals who are grieving.
My favorite example is the way Jesus took time to weep with Mary and Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus. John 11:33 says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”
We learn in verse 35 that Jesus actually wept. He knew that later he would raise Lazarus from the dead, but he still takes time to weep with his friends. He knew they needed Him. He enters into their pain, and through His presence offers comfort. He weeps with each of us in our grief today. And, in turn, we have the opportunity to be present with someone who is grieving.
I’ve been reading Amanda Held Opelt’s book, A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing, slowly. I love these words and extend them as an invitation to you:
“The ability grieve deeply is a survival skill, one we’ve come close to losing as a society. The only way to experience sorrow is to do so wholeheartedly.”
Friend, I’d love to hear from you! What has your experience been with the grief journey? Do these myths and truth ring true?
*My new devotional journal, Breathing Through Grief, is releasing in November 2023 from Ink & Willow. Subscribe to my Glorygram to get all the details as they unfold.