Updated: Dec 30, 2019
It's the holiday season, and while that means happy moments and pleasant memories for many, there are others who find the holidays to be an especially difficult time. This is particularly so if they have lost a loved one.
Grief is a difficult and necessary process. It's the way in which we manage the loss of someone with whom we have had meaningful experiences. Grief is a unique experience because it isn't only about mourning the loss of another person, but, in some sense, is also about mourning the loss of a part of oneself. Our interactions with others, especially those with whom we have a close connection, inevitably help to shape and define our own identity; our own character and personality. Experiences we share with others create memories that influence how we perceive experiences to come. That is why moving through life while processing a significant loss can be so challenging - new experiences will likely take on new meaning as one grapple with their own identity in response to these experiences. Everything, it seems, will be forever changed.
It is also an incredibly subjective experience by virtue of the uniqueness of the relationships that define the loss. Regardless of this, we (as with other facets of social life) have developed expectations, norms and rituals around grief. The function of these norms is to help us develop a shared understanding of our experience. However, there are many myths that can arise out of this shared understanding. Here are a few of them.
1. There is a defined period of time for grieving
We are socialized to expect that grief is limited to a set period of time. Within that time the work (practical and emotional) associated with the loss is expected to take place, and it is appropriate to engage in public mourning. This even appears to be formalized by Bereavement Leave policies, where organizations define the number of days an employee can be off work to facilitate the grieving process. This is a practical measure to strike a balance between understanding an employee's emotional needs and employer's productions needs.
The truth is, though, these are social constructs. Grief actually has no time limit. This may be distressing for some as grief is unpleasant. However, grief - as a process - looks different over time. We will always mourn a loss; how we mourn that loss will evolve as time separates us from the experience of the initial feelings of loss.
Alternatively, some may find the the idea that there is no time limit to grief reassuring as it relieves us of the pressure of "getting over" the loss. Thus, we are able to move through the experience at our own pace.
2. Sadness is the only appropriate emotion during grief
Most would agree that sadness typifies the grief experience. However, there are some that balk at the thought of showing or even feeling other (positive) emotions during mourning. There is no single "appropriate" emotion during the grieving process. What one feels is indicative of their experience of a particular situation in the moment. That you found joy in an experience, or excitement in another after having just experienced a loss is as natural as the sadness you sometimes feel when memories of your loved one emerge.
3. Feelings of guilt are a sign that something was wrong in the relationship
Feelings of sadness and despair during grief are sometimes exacerbated by feelings of guilt. Guilt often emerges as a feature of misplaced blame. This is where we try to identify what we could have done to delay or prevent the loss, or improve circumstances (relationship, health, living conditions, etc.) before our loved one passed away.
However, guilt is part of the process of making sense of, and coming to terms with the reality and finality of death, and is therefore not an an unusual emotion to have. However, we tend to believe that somehow assuming (some) responsibility helps with closure. Guilt, if not processed in a healthy way, can quickly turn into shame, which isolates us from others who may be able to offer valuable support during mourning. It helps to talk to someone you can trust about your thoughts and feelings in order to give your experience perspective, and not find yourself on an isolated road of blame.
4. Moving forward means forgetting the person you lost
The idea of moving forward is something most people struggle with during grief; that to return to the schedules, traditions and activities you did before your loved one passed means that you've moved on and closed the door to that part of your life.
This isn't necessarily the case. Part of the work of grief may entail developing new habits, schedules and traditions that recognize and honour the loss. It's about carrying the loss in a way that allows you to still participate in life's everyday activities while recognizing and accepting that your life has changed because of it. Some people do this by starting new traditions for the holidays, having an annual private memorial, or engaging in regular moments of reflection.
5. You should refrain from mentioning the name of, or talking about the person who passed away around those who mourn
For those supporting friends and loved ones who are mourning, this can be difficult to navigate. People experience grief in different ways - some may be okay with talking about their loss while others may not be. You may wonder "Will talking about it upset them?" "What should I say?" Because we don't know how to handle the uncertainty of the moment, we often default to not saying anything at all. Sometimes this isn't helpful.
One way to go about this is to follow the cue of the person grieving. If they are comfortable talking about their loved one, then chances are it will be okay for you too. If you are unsure, it is also okay to ask what they are comfortable with.
Talk to someone
If you are grieving a loss, and you know the holiday season will be especially difficult for you, be sure to connect with a friend or family member you trust to talk about your thoughts and how you feel. You may also find it helpful to talk to a therapist for more objective and helpful insight into your experience. Bereavement groups are also available, such as those provided by Bereaved Families of Ontario. You can also check out this publication (PDF) on grieving by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
If you would like to discuss this or other therapeutic needs, and would like to explore the possibility of starting therapy, feel free to contact me by calling 416-688-5274, or by booking a free initial consult at heartspringtherapy.ca/book-online.