Loss is always painful. There are times though when the loss we experience makes us feel heartbroken. We wonder if it's possible to ever heal from that level of pain. If you have suffered a loss that has you feeling like your heart is broken or aches so badly it's hard to think of anything else, I'm here to let you know there is hope and a way through the pain.
I've had such a loss. My son passed away when he was 18 months old. For years, I felt as though I would not survive the degree of heartache I was experiencing. My heart felt broken, and the pieces weighed a thousand pounds. Daily life was incredibly difficult. For months I couldn't wrap my mind around simple tasks; even making toast was overwhelming, and I had panic attacks every morning as I drove to work. There were people in my life who were kind, loving and supportive, and there were those who didn't understand that level of pain and ended up saying hurtful or thoughtless things - even though that was not their intention.
That was 11 years ago, and while I can remember feeling intense emotional pain and grief, I no longer suffer like I used to. I know I am not alone in the kind of pain I've experienced, and so I try to use my experience of the grief process to help others heal. I learned these lessons as I worked with a therapist, and I've seen them confirmed again and again as I work with people who come to me with a broken heart looking for support and healing.
Grief is often a misunderstood process, and myths get in the way of healing. Let's see if we can clear a few things up. Hopefully this will be helpful if you're feeling overwhelmed by grief or if you're wondering how to help someone you love who's grieving:
1. Myth: Grief includes 5 stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and they occur in a specific order.
Fact: Grief is more complex than a linear, five-stage process. In her last book,On Grief and Grieving, Kubler-Ross discussed the stages of grief she originally described in 1969. "They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives." Grief is messy; it's up and down, back and forth. You can bounce around within the various stages, and that is completely normal. According to the Hospice Foundation of America, "Grief is sometimes described as a 'roller coaster' - there will be ups and downs, good days and bad days."
2. Myth: The grief process lasts about a year
Fact: Grief will last as long as it lasts. Yup. That's about as close an estimate as anyone can give. The good news is that if you're acknowledging and feeling your grief, finding support, and doing the work that grief demands, you will begin to feel better over time. The bad news is that no one can tell you exactly how long that will be.
3. Myth: Replace what you've lost and you'll feel better
Fact: No matter how quickly you replace what you've lost (relationship, pregnancy, pet, job, home, among other things) you will still need to grieve the loss. Bringing someone or something new into our lives doesn't change the need to feel our feelings of sadness and loss - this is grief work. Depending on the loss, we may always carry some sadness about it. If you've had a miscarriage, getting pregnant again doesn't erase the loss. According to PsychCentral's review of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, depression can last for years after a miscarriage or stillbirth even when the mother goes on to have other children. If you've lost a pet, getting another one doesn't make you forget the one who's gone.
4. Myth: Stay busy, and you'll get over it
Fact: No one can feel these intense feelings every second so it is useful to distract at times. However if you fill every moment of your time distracting yourself from your feelings, or if you use a substance or another addiction to numb your feelings they will return with a vengeance as soon as you sober up or slow down.
5. Myth: If you don't know what to do or say when someone's grieving it's better to stay silent and leave them alone.
Fact: Loss leaves a hole in our lives. Everyone deals with the pain in a different way, but saying nothing because we're afraid is not helpful. Because grief is so individual it is difficult to know how to support a loved one who's grieving. Avoid platitudes ("This too shall pass", "God never gives us more than we can handle", "They're in a better place"). If one of these phrases feels helpful to the person, you will hear them use it. Otherwise, platitudes tend to minimize the experience of intense loss. If you don't know what to say, personalize this phrase: "I don't know what to say. I'm just so sorry, and I love you."
6. Myth: It shouldn't hurt if the loss you've experienced might improve your life. For example, leaving an abusive partner or ending an unhealthy relationship.
Fact: Loss is loss. It all hurts, and it's very common to grieve parts of what we've lost even if we're safer, happier or healthier than before. You can miss the person who hurt you, and that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. It does mean that you might need some support, though.
If your heart is breaking, you don't have to suffer alone. Reach out to family, friends, your faith community, a therapist, support groups or organizations to help. Remember, you hurt today, but you won't always hurt this much. I'm living proof that it gets better as you do the work that grief demands.