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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

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Six Major Myths – The Short Version

There are six major myths about grief that are so close to universal that nearly everyone can relate to them. This is true not only for those of us raised and socialized here in America, but for people from different cultures and different languages around the world. Here are the Six Myths of Grief as they appear in The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve.

  • Don't Feel Bad
  • Replace the Loss
  • Grieve Alone
  • Grief Just Takes Time
  • Be Strong - Be Strong For Others
  • Keep Busy
When these myths are exposed, most people realize that they’ve been influenced by them most of their lives, but have never taken a critical look at them to see if they are accurate or helpful. While our parents and others may have inadvertently passed on life-limiting rather than life-enhancing information to us on the topic of grief and what to do about, we know that there was no intent to harm us. Over time we will present full-scale articles on each of the six myths. But for now, we want you to have at least an awareness of the six myths so when you see references to them in our other articles, you’ll understand what they mean. The Six Major Myths Are Learned Early In Life A great deal of the information and misinformation we learn in childhood stays with us for the rest of our lives. Nowhere is this more evident—and more unhelpful—than in the area of grief and what to do about it. Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss, but nearly everything we learn about dealing with grief is not normal, not natural, and not helpful. Here are the six most common, unhelpful myths about dealing with loss. We want you to look at them and see if you need to discard them and learn better ways of dealing with your emotions when you are affected by the death of someone meaningful to you. Myth #1 - Don't Feel Bad! [also, Don't Feel Sad! & Don't Be Scared!]

Even though grief and all of the feelings associated with it are normal and natural, children are constantly told not to feel the way they feel. This automatically puts them in conflict with the truth, in conflict with their own nature, and indeed, in conflict with the parents and guardians who are supposed to help them.

To illustrate, we use the story of a child who comes home from pre-school with tears in her eyes. Her mom or dad asks what happened?, and the child responds, “The other little girls were mean to me.” To which the parent says, “Don’t Feel Bad, here have a cookie, you’ll feel better.” In reality, the cookie doesn’t make the child feel better, it makes her feel different. She has merely been distracted from her hurt feelings. And, she has been told by her parents whom she trusts, not to feel bad. She has also been taught that when she feels bad she should medicate herself with a substance, in this case, sugar.

She has also been taught that feeling bad or sad is bad rather than a normal emotional reaction to a loss, no matter how small or large it may seem. From that point forward, the little girl is liable to start not telling the truth to her parents [and others] and begin burying her sad or painful feelings.

Sadness, and fear are the most common emotional reactions attached to loss of any kind. They are essential to being human. They must have equality of expression. This must start in childhood and continue throughout our lives.

Myth #2 - Replace the Loss

Children hear "replace the loss" as the second section of a phrase which everyone knows - "Don't Feel Bad, On Saturday We'll Get You a New Dog." In reality, while we can get another dog, the irreplaceable element is the relationship with the dog who died.

Sadly the concept of replacing the loss continues in full force. When a teenager's first romantic fling ends, the child is likely to be told - "Don't Feel Bad, There Are Plenty of Fish In the Sea." Freely translated; "replace the loss" - just go get another boyfriend or girlfriend.

Most of the time when your mother or father dies, you don’t hear, “Don’t Feel Bad, you can get another mother.” But we can’t tell you how many widows and widowers have told us that well-meaning friends said, “Don’t feel bad, you’re young you can remarry.”

The essential fact remains that you cannot replace relationships, so you must first grieve and complete your relationship with the person who died, regardless of whether you ever wish to remarry or to expand your relationships with people who might be like your mother or father or anyone else who died.

Myth #3 - Grieve Alone

This all encompassing myth shackles adults and children alike. Almost everyone has been exposed to this dangerous saying: "Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone."

There are many compounding comments heard in childhood which contribute to this myth which creates isolation in everybody. "If you're going to cry, go to your room," is one of those statements which is made for different purposes, but still creates the effect of establishing that sad feelings are not to be displayed openly.

You may have heard it said that grieving people tend to isolate. That is true to varying degrees depending on each individual, but it is based on many false ideas, one of which is, “You wouldn’t want to burden others with your feelings.”

The most profound truth is that when you get good news you want to share it with the people in your life. Equally, the same is true when you get bad news, the first instinct is to call someone and tell them. Communicating the truth about how you feel is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.

We encourage everyone to be better listeners—not to judge or criticize the feelings our family and friends communicate, especially about their reactions to the death of someone important to them.

Myth #4 - Grief Just Takes Time

Sometimes stated as "time heals all wounds," this myth is probably the single most incorrect and life-limiting of them all. Although this topic is not a funny one, we like to illustrate this myth with a humorous example. If you went to your car and discovered it had a flat tire, would you pull up a chair, sit down, and wait for air to jump back in your tire? Clearly not. You would take the action of changing the tire or calling the auto club.

The first parallel is that a emotionally broken heart can feel an awful lot like a flat tire. Grievers report feeling flat and listless amongst other feelings. The second is that actions must also be taken to help the broken heart.

Although completion and recovery from loss happen within time, they are not a function of time. They are accomplished by taking correct Grief Recovery actions taken within time. It is essential to learn what those actions are. They are spelled out in detail in The Grief Recovery Handbook, which is available at most libraries and book stores.

Myth #5 - Be Strong - Be Strong For Others

Being Strong may be the most important myth to investigate and reverse. Without argument, as children we copy the behaviors demonstrated by our parents and other adults.

It’s all too common for a parent, in a mis-guided attempt to "Be Strong For The Children," to display no emotion at all about a major loss of their own. Perhaps their own parent, the child's grandparent has died. Instead of showing how they feel, they clam up, but expect, and sometimes even try to force, the child to talk about the feelings the child has about the death.

What they don’t realize is that they are inadvertently passing on to their children the myth of “being strong,” or “being strong for others.”

The fact is that you can’t really “be” anything for someone else. All you can be is honest, which is really the most helpful thing you can do.

The option we suggest is, “You Can Be Strong Or You Can Be Human—Pick One!”

Myth #6 - Keep Busy

Keep Busy is one of those instructions people get from well-meaning family and friends following the death of someone important.

Keeping Busy is actually a sub-myth based on the faulty idea that Time Heals All Wounds. Therefore, the idea of keeping busy is; if you can distract yourself in a whirlwind of activity, another day will have passed since the loss, and time can do its job of healing.

Over the years we’ve seen people who’ve taken Keep Busy to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. When that happens they lose sight of the grief and unresolved grief that they may be pushing down in an attempt to distract themselves.

As you think about the myths we’ve presented, you might recall some others you heard growing up. Take a good look at them so you can decide if they are valuable for you or if you need to discard them and replace them with more helpful ideas and actions.

© 2022 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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