by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
As you journey through the wilderness of your grief, if you mourn openly and authentically, you will come to find a path that feels right for you, that is your path to healing. But beware—others will try to pull you off this path. They will try to make you believe that the path you have chosen is wrong—even mad, and that their way is better.
The reason that people try to pull you off the path to healing is that they have internalized some common misconceptions about grief and mourning. And the misconceptions, in essence, deny you your right to hurt and authentically express your grief. They often cause unrealistic expectations about the grief experience.
As you read about this important touchstone, you may discover that you yourself have believed in some of the misconceptions and that some may be embraced by people around you. Don’t condemn yourself or others for believing in these misconceptions. Simply make use of any new insights you might gain to help you open your heart to your work of mourning in ways that restore the soul.
Grief and mourning are the same thing.
Perhaps you have noticed that people tend to use the words “grieving” and “mourning” interchangeably. There is an important distinction, however. We as humans move toward integrating loss into our lives not just by grieving, but by mourning. You will move toward “reconciliation” not just by grieving, but through active and deliberate mourning.
Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. Think of grief as the container. It holds all of your thoughts, feelings and images of your experience when you are bereaved. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss.
Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside of yourself. Another way of defining mourning is “grief gone public” or “the outward expression of grief.” Talking about the person who died, crying, expressing your thoughts and feelings through art or music and celebrating special anniversary dates that held meaning for the person who died are just a few examples of mourning.
It is essential to openly and honestly mourn your life losses, expressing your grief outside of yourself. Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.
WARNING: After someone you love dies, your friends may encourage you to “keep your grief to yourself.” If you were to take this message to heart, the disastrous result would be that all of your thoughts and feelings would stay neatly bottled up inside you. A catalyst for healing, however, can only be created when you develop the courage to mourn publicly, in the presence of understanding, compassionate people who will not judge you. At times, of course, you will grieve alone, but expressing your grief outside of yourself is necessary if you are to slowly and gently move forward in your grief journey.
I think it’s so interesting that many native cultures actually created vessels—usually baskets, pots, or bowls—that symbolically contained their grief. They would put these vessels away for periods of time, only to bring them out on a regular basis to help themselves mourn.
Another way to think about what these cultures were instinctively doing was dosing themselves with their grief. I often teach that grief must be embraced little by little, in small bits with breaks in between. This dosing helps you survive what would, if absorbed in its totality all at once, probably kill you.
When you don’t honor a death loss by acknowledging it, first to yourself and then to those around you, the grief will accumulate. Then, the denied losses come flowing out in all sorts of potential ways (e.g., deep depression, physical complaints, difficulty in relationships, addictive behaviors), compounding the pain of your loss.
Grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages.
Probably you have already heard about the “stages of grief.” This type of thinking about dying, grief and mourning is appealing, but inaccurate. The notion of stages helps people make sense of death, an experience that is usually not orderly or predictable. If we believe that everyone grieves by going through the same stages, then death and grief become much less mysterious and fearsome. If only it were so simple!
The concept of “stages” was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s landmark text, On Death and Dying. In this important book, Dr. Kubler-Ross lists the five stages of grief that she saw terminally ill patients experience in the face of their own impending death: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. However, Kubler-Ross never intended for her stages to be interpreted as a rigid, linear sequence to be followed by all mourners. Readers, however, have done just that, and the consequences have often been disastrous.
As a grieving person, you will probably encounter others who have adopted a rigid system of beliefs about what you should experience in your grief journey. And if you have internalized this myth, you may also find yourself trying to prescribe your grief experience as well. Instead of allowing yourself to be where you are, you may try to force yourself to be in another “stage.”
For example, the responses of disorganization, fear, guilt and explosive emotions may or not occur during your unique grief journey. Or regression may occur anywhere along the way and invariably overlap another part of your response. Sometimes your emotions may follow each other within a short period of time; or, at other times, two or more emotions may be present simultaneously. Remember—do not try to determine where you “should” be. Just allow yourself to be naturally where you are in the process.
Everyone mourns in different ways. Personal experience is your best teacher about where you are in your grief journey. Don’t think your goal is to move through prescribed stages of grief. Your grief is unique. That word means “only one.” No one ever existed exactly like you before, and no one will ever be exactly like you again. As part of the healing process, the thoughts and feelings you will experience will be totally unique to you.
You should move away from grief, not toward it.
Our society often encourages prematurely moving away from grief instead of toward it. The result is that too many mourners either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means.
During ancient times, stoic philosophers encouraged their followers not to mourn, believing that self-control was the appropriate response to sorrow. Today, well-intentioned but uninformed relatives and friends still carry on this long-held tradition. While the outward expression of grief is a requirement for healing, overcoming society’s powerful message (repress!) can be difficult.
As a counselor, I am often asked, “How long should grief last?” This question directly relates to our culture’s impatience with grief and the desire to move people away from the experience of mourning. Shortly after the death, for example, mourners are expected to be “back to normal.”
Mourners who continue to express grief outwardly are often viewed as “weak,” “crazy” or “self-pitying.” The subtle message is “Shape up and get on with your life.” The reality is disturbing: Far too many people view grief as something to be overcome rather than experienced.
These messages, unfortunately, encourage you to repress your thoughts and feelings about the death. By doing so, you may refuse to cry. And refusing to allow tears, suffering in silence, and “being strong” are often considered admirable behaviors. Many people have internalized society’s message that mourning should be done quietly, quickly and efficiently. Don’t let this happen to you.
After the death of someone loved, you also may respond to the question, “How are you?” with the benign response, “I’m fine.” In essence, you are saying to the world, “I’m not mourning.” Friends, family and coworkers may encourage this stance. Why? Because they don’t want to talk about death. So if you demonstrate an absence of mourning behavior, it tends to be more socially acceptable.
This collaborative pretense about mourning, however, does not meet your needs in grief. When your grief is ignored or minimized, you will feel further isolated in your journey. Ultimately, you will experience the onset of “Am I going crazy?” syndrome. Masking or moving away from your grief creates anxiety, confusion and depression. If you receive little or no social recognition related to your pain, you will probably begin to fear that your thoughts and feelings are abnormal.
Remember—society will often encourage you to prematurely move away from your grief. You must continually remind yourself that leaning toward the pain will facilitate the eventual healing.
Misconception 4: Tears of grief are only a sign of weakness.
Just yesterday morning I read a lovely, personalized obituary in my local newspaper. The obituary described a man who had done many things in his life, had made many friends, and had touched the lives of countless people. He died in his 60s of cancer. At the end of the obituary, readers were invited to attend his funeral service and were instructed to bring memories and stories but NO TEARS. I nearly choked on my Cheerios.
Tears of grief are often associated with personal inadequacy and weakness. The worst thing you can do, however, is to allow this judgment to prevent you from crying. While your tears may result in a feeling of helplessness for your friends, family and caregivers, you must not let others stifle your need to mourn openly.
Sometimes, as you can see from the obituary I describe, the people who care about you may, directly or indirectly, try to prevent your tears out of a desire to protect you (and them) from pain. You may hear comments like, “Tears won’t bring him back,” or “He wouldn’t want you to cry.” Yet crying is nature’s way of releasing internal tension in your body, and it allows you to communicate a need to be comforted.
While data is still limited, researchers suggest that suppressing tears may actually increase your susceptibility to stress-related disorders. It makes sense. Crying is one of the excretory processes. Perhaps like sweating and exhaling, crying helps remove waste products from the body.
The capacity to express tears appears to allow for genuine healing. In my experience counseling mourners, I have even observed changes in physical expression after crying. Not only do people feel better after crying, they also seem to look better. Tension and agitation seem to flow out of their bodies.
You must be vigilant about guarding yourself against this misconception. Tears are not a sign of weakness. In fact, your capacity to share tears is an indication of your willingness to do the work of mourning.
Being upset and openly mourning means you are being “weak” in your faith.
Watch out for those people who think that having faith and openly mourning are mutually exclusive. Sometimes people fail to remember those important words of wisdom: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Above all, mourning is a spiritual journey of the heart and soul. If faith or spirituality are a part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. If you are mad at God, be mad at God. Actually, being angry at God speaks of having a relationship with God in the first place. I’ve always said to myself and others, “God has been doing very well for some time now—so I think God can handle my anger.” Grief expressed is often grief diminished.
Similarly, if you need a time-out from regular worship, don’t shame yourself. Going to “exile” for a period of time often assists in your healing. If people try to drag you to a place of worship, dig your heels in and tell them you may go, when and if you are ready.
When and if you are ready, attending a church, synagogue or other place of worship, reading scripture, and praying are only a few ways you might want to express your faith. Or, you may be open to less conventional ways, such as meditating or spending time alone in nature.
Don’t let people take your grief away from you in the name of faith.
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Wolfelt’s book Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart. It is available for $14.95 at www.centerforloss.com. Click on Bookstore.