Once you stop believing them, you can find happiness again…

When someone you love dies, it’s natural to feel the pain of your loss—and to grieve. But too many people try hard not to feel the pain. While it’s understandable to want to avoid pain, it’s a mistake to do so. People who appear to be “doing well” with their grief sometimes develop chronic, low-grade depression, anxiety and/or addiction to alcohol or drugs as they self-treat their emotional pain.

Recent developments: An increasing body of research is now also linking this type of unreconciled grief (meaning an inability to move forward in life without the person who died) to a wide range of physical ailments, including fatigue, headache, high blood pressure and heart disease.

For many people, grief is prolonged and unresolved because there are so many misconceptions surrounding it. Among the most common—and dangerous—misconceptions about grief… 

MISCONCEPTION #1: Grief and mourning are the same thing. People tend to use the words “grieving” and “mourning” interchangeably, but they have different meanings.

Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings you have when someone you love dies. Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside yourself.

Examples of mourning: Talking about the person who died. Crying. Expressing your thoughts and feelings through art or music. Celebrating anniversary dates that held meaning for the person who died.

Many people grieve but don’t mourn. When you don’t honor a loss by acknowledging it—first to yourself, and then to others—your grief will accumulate. The denied losses then come flowing out in other ways, such as depression and physical problems…all of which compound the pain of your loss.

MISCONCEPTION #2: You should move away from grief, not toward it. Our society does not give people much time to grieve. They’re expected to get “back to normal” in short order. People who continue to express grief outwardly are often viewed as weak or self-pitying. The resulting message is, “Shape up and get on with your life.”

This attitude leads many people to either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means, such as overworking or abusing alcohol or drugs. Masking or moving away from your grief creates anxiety, confusion and depression.

What to do: Continually remind yourself that leaning toward—not away—from the pain will help you heal. To lean toward the pain, when you are feeling bad, stop and allow yourself to feel the emotion by talking to someone or writing about it.

MISCONCEPTION #3: Grief is mainly about the physical loss of the person who died. The death of a loved one creates many secondary losses—such as connections to yourself and the world around you.

Examples: You can lose the self (“I feel like a part of me died”)…identity (such as your role as a spouse or child)…security (for example, a widow may not feel as safe in her home)…and meaning (when dreams for the future are shattered).

Important: Understanding the range and depth of your personal losses can help you be more self-compassionate. This involves showing sensitivity toward yourself for what you’re going through.

Physical self-compassion can include eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep.

Emotional self-compassion can include claiming your right to feel a multitude of emotions and the right to talk about your grief.

Mental self-compassion can mean asking yourself two questions on a daily basis that will help you survive the difficult months of grieving and learn to love life again:

1) What do I want? (now that the person you love is gone). Ask yourself what’s doable and what you’d like to accomplish today.

2) What is wanted of me? (Who depends on you? What skills and experience can you bring to others?)

Social self-compassion can include finding a grief “buddy”—a friend who has also had a loss—and/or joining a grief support group. To find a group near you, check with local hospices and funeral homes.

Grief forces us to consider what life is about and what greater purpose there might be for our lives. Spiritual self-compassion can mean starting each day with a meditation or spending time in nature.

MISCONCEPTION #4: After a loved one dies, the goal should be to “get over” your grief as soon as possible. Grief is not a problem that you can solve or an illness from which you recover. Rather, you become reconciled to your grief—you integrate the new reality of moving forward in life without the person who died. With reconciliation comes a renewed sense of energy and confidence, an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of the death and a capacity to become reinvolved in the activities of living.

MISCONCEPTION #5: When grief and mourning are fully reconciled, they never come up again. Grief comes in and out like the tide. Sometimes heightened periods of sadness occur even years after the death. Example: My dad loved Frank Sinatra’s music—and I have bursts of grief almost every time I hear Frank’s voice.

You will always, for the rest of your life, feel some grief over a loved one’s death. It will no longer dominate your life, but it will always be there, in the background, reminding you of the love you had for the person who died. And you needn’t think of that as a bad thing.

If you follow the advice in this article but are still struggling with grief, consider seeing a compassionate grief counselor. To find one, consult the Association for Death Education and Counseling.

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