While we know the eventual loss of a parent is a shared human experience, this knowledge doesn’t soften the piercing blow when the time comes.
The parent-child relationship is powerful, and the loss of this relationship can leave a gaping hole in your life and your heart. The loss of any parent is heartbreaking, but the loss of a second parent can leave you feeling small and unanchored in a big scary world, especially if it has left you “orphaned.”
To make matters worse, the Western culture doesn’t offer much in terms of collective support during times of such hardship. According to the 2020 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey, while 89% of corporations in the U.S. provide bereavement leave, it’s primarily for practical reasons, like tasks associated with funeral arrangements, estate management, and sorting out finances. SHRM reports most companies only provide an average of three to four days to wrap things up and get back to work.
If the root of the word bereavement (“reave”) literally means “being torn apart,” then our cultural intentions around the process of bereavement – and grief in general – are misguided and grossly misplaced.
“Mourning in our culture isn’t always easy,” writes Alan Wolfelt, PhD, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, and author of “Understanding your Grief.” “Normal thoughts and feelings connected to loss are typically seen as unnecessary and even shameful. Instead of encouraging mourners to express themselves, our culture’s unstated rules would have them avoid their hurt and ‘be strong.’ But grief is not a disease. Instead, it’s the normal, healthy process of embracing the mystery of the death of someone loved.”
Wolfelt writes that there’s an urgent need for U.S. companies to realize they’re perpetuating common yet harmful societal misconceptions about grief and discusses many of the most common:
Misconception #1: Grief and mourning are synonymous
Although most people assume grief and mourning mean the same thing, their definitions differ in significant ways. Grief is the internal emotional and visceral reaction we feel after a loved one dies. Mourning, on the other hand, is the thoughtful and intentional outward display of that internal melee. Wearing black or sharing memories or stories about a loved one are examples of mourning.
We often hear implicit and explicit messages of “carry on” and “keep your chin up” when we’re grieving, which sweeps our grief into a discreet corner of our lives where it’s neatly tucked away and no longer a nuisance. However, mourning gives important structure to our grieving process. It’s not a way out of our grief but the only way through it.
Misconception #2: The experience of grief has predictable “stages”
Our culture likes to package things into stages, hierarchies, schemas, theories and frameworks. Grief doesn’t work that way. The shape, texture, taste and viscosity of everyone’s grief are uniquely their own—and unpredictable even to them.
The popularization of the “stages of grief” was unintentional. In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her landmark text “On Death and Dying” without intending that people also carelessly lump in her five “stages of dying” with the processes of bereavement, grief and mourning. As a result, countless grieving people believe they should be in this stage compared to that stage, when they’re really comparing apples and oranges.
Misconception #3: Grief is a race, and there’s a finish line
Many believe suffering should be avoided at all costs, and if encountered, should be dealt with and then discarded as soon as possible.
Grief is suffering. But, you can’t get rid of grief, even if you wanted to. Grief is not only normal, it’s necessary. And it’s as natural to our body as learning to walk.
Grief is not only normal, it’s necessary. And it’s as natural to our body as learning to walk.
Grief is a brutal “learning process”
People in grief states often report disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue and anxiety. Many report they feel like they are “going crazy” and that their grief seems endless.
Mary Frances O’Connor is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, who studies what happens in our brains when we experience grief. Her research finds that grieving is so excruciating, exhausting and seemingly endless because grieving is a form of learning: We are learning new habits and ways of doing things while in the new absence of a loved one in our day-to-day lives.
This learning puts tremendous stress on our brain because, just like learning any new skill, learning to live without our loved one requires time and experiential feedback (i.e., learning by doing). So, in other words, with every new experience we “live through” without our loved one – big and small – our brain has to create completely new neural pathways to “learn” how to live without the presence of our loved ones in our new life. We have to “learn” our new identity. That takes a lot of energy, and it takes a lot of time. Which is why grief experts and grief counselors sincerely urge you to cut yourself some slack and show yourself some grace. Your grief is normal. You’re not going crazy.
If you’re currently grieving, it might help to consider yourself a lonely stranger in a foreign land. At first, everything is new, different and painstakingly difficult. But with every small task you master – and with every new experience under your belt – the unfamiliar incrementally becomes familiar, maybe even friendly. Until one day, the foreign land no longer feels foreign. You’ve learned to make its terrain a part of you.
Later on down the road of life, you will likely find yourself in another different foreign land again. You’ll know to remember to take it slow and steady, showing yourself grace each step of the way.