Eleven years ago, Beth Marshall got the call no one ever wants to receive. The one telling her that her mother had died.
"It was the most shocking day of my life," Marshall recalls. A devout Christian, she turned to her faith to get through the heartache. "I thought it wouldn't be so difficult because I had such a strong faith. I thought I could pray it away."
That was just one of the many expectations Marshall realized she was holding herself to during her journey of grief.
During more than 20 years as a bereavement counselor, Louise Kenny, LCSW has recognized six common myths about grieving.
Myth 1: Grief has a timeline
Kenny, who counsels dying patients and their families at Avow Hospice in Naples, Florida, believes this is one of the most common misconceptions. She often hears clients say (or be told by others), ‘It's been six months or 12 months - you should be over this.' The truth is, there is no time line. "The grief process is a personal experience and influenced by so many factors," adds Kenny. "There's no set timeline to be done with it."
"People think you should snap out of it," says Marshall of the grieving process. She admits that more than a decade after her loss, she still cries when she hears a song on the radio that reminds her of her mother. "It doesn't mean you haven't gotten better. It's all part of the process. You can't check grief off like a scorecard."
Myth 2: Staying busy will keep the pain away
Kenny says time and time again, she sees family members attempt to immerse themselves in work, volunteering or other activities in an attempt to avoid grieving. But sooner or later, the grief catches up with you, promises Kenny. As a pastoral care lay minister, Marshall has seen this myth play out as well among church members who have lost a loved one. "They move so fast hoping it won't catch them," Marshall says. "But it always does."
Myth 3: I'm weak if I cry
"Crying is nature's way," explains Kenny. "It's our most natural mechanism to release pain." Kenny believes our culture has made it unacceptable for people to cry, and it's a belief she sees perpetuated among women and men alike.
Marshall admits the only time she allowed herself to cry publicly was at her mother's funeral. "I didn't want to appear weak," she says. But the way Kenny sees it, "when we can really cry our way through (grief), we can become very strong by expressing those experiences." Crying is a healthy human response.
Myth 4: If I stop hurting, I'll forsake my loved one
Kenny says it is very common for people to believe they're dishonoring a loved one if they laugh, smile, or realize they aren't experiencing emotional pain anymore. Sometimes, people want to hold onto the pain to stay close to the loved one. Unfortunately, this attitude doesn't allow the person to move through their grief. When survivors stop hurting, they often mistake it with a loss of love for the person who died, which leads to guilt. "Living through a loss, and then thriving does not diminish our love for our beloved," adds Kenny. She believes counseling or joining a support group can be beneficial to survivors who would benefit from seeing others heal. Witnessing the experience of others may remind the person that it's okay to live.
Myth 5: There are stages of grief
Author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross made the five stages of grief famous in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. But even Kubler-Ross didn't believe the stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were in chronological order, or that survivors would experience each and every one of them. Kenny thinks believing that there are linear stages of grief is probably the biggest myth of grieving.
Myth 6: I shouldn't burden others in my grief
"My one regret is that I tried to be heroic and I didn't let people in," Marshall states. After her mother's death, she thought she needed to put up a strong front for her husband and her young children. But on the one-year anniversary of her mother's passing, Marshall broke down around a group of church friends. "They asked me if they could pray for me and I thought, ‘why didn't I do this before?'"
Marshall says people think they shouldn't bother others with their sorrow. "The truth is that there are people who can walk with you." Through her pastoral care experience, Marshall has realized that the people who allow others to assist them through the grieving process are able to travel through a difficult season of sorrow without feeling isolated in their pain.
Kenny tells her counseling patients to lean on their friends in whatever way feels best, whether it's sharing a phone call or having a friend cook a meal. In short, surround yourself with loving compassionate people.
Kenny also advises survivors to be tender with themselves – in the same way they would if they'd just had surgery. Experiment with social situations and find a balance between staying at home and going out. Kenny also recommends immersing yourself in whatever you find beautiful, whether it's taking long walks on the beach, painting, visiting a museum, or listening to your favorite music. Counseling can be extremely helpful, as well as support groups, which bring together people who are on a similar journey.
During her time of grief, Marshall started journaling. At first, it was her way to ensure her children would remember their grandmother. Hour after hour, she wrote stories and anecdotes about her mother and realized that writing was therapeutic. Less than a year after her loss, Marshall watched the tragedy of 9/11 unfold. Marshall decided to send journals to family members of victims and survivors, and in doing so, turned her personal sorrow into a mission to help others and an unexpected business.
All of us will go through the grieving process at some point in our lives, and there is no right or wrong way to experience it. It's important to honor the process, to take time and be still, and by doing so give your heart time to heal.