Grief is a natural response to loss, and it can unfold in many ways. Unfortunately, well-intentioned onlookers -- dubbed "grief police" by grief expert Robert Neimeyer, professor of psychology at the University of Memphis -- often say things that mistakenly imply to the bereaved that there's a "right" way to grieve.
Consider these all-too-common grief myths:
Myth #1: It's possible to cry too much.
Everyone grieves differently. There's no single correct way to express the pain, sorrow, yearning, and other aspects of the transition of adjusting to the death of a loved one. Intense responses are sometimes seen as "losing control," when in fact they're simply how that person is actively (and productively) processing the loss.
Myth #2: If you don't cry now, it'll be worse later.
Some people never cry. Tears or outward expressions of anguish simply aren't everyone's grieving style, says psychologist Neimeyer. This doesn't mean they're grieving less intensely than a visibly shaken individual, or that they loved the person who died any less. Nor does a lack of obvious emotion mean the griever has an emotional block or problem or will face a longer, more difficult adjustment to the loss.
Myth #3: Grief is something you "get over."
Most people never stop grieving a death; they learn to live with it. Grief is a response, not a straight line with an endpoint. Many psychologists bristle at words such as "acceptance" or "resolution" or "healed" as a final stage of grief. The real stages of grief involve tasks of processing and adjustment that one returns to all through life.
Myth #4: Time heals slowly but steadily.
Time is the commodity through which a grieving person sorts through the effects and meaning of a loss. But that process isn't a steady fade-out, like a photograph left in the sun. Grief is a chaotic roller coaster -- a mix of ups, downs, steady straight lines, and the occasional slam. Periods of intense sadness and pain can flare and fade for years or decades.
Myth #5: Grieving should end after a set amount of time.
Ignore oft-quoted rules of thumb that purport to predict how long certain types of grief should last. A downside to six-week or eight-week bereavement groups, says Sherry E. Showalter, a psychotherapist specializing in grief and the author of Healing Heartaches: Stories of Loss and Life, is that at the end of the sessions, people mistakenly expect to be "better" (or their friends expect this). "Everyone tells me the same story: 'I failed Grief 101,' because they still feel pain," Showalter says. "We grieve for a lifetime, because we're forever working to incorporate the death into our own tapestry of life."
Learning how to grieve is ultimately part instinct, part stumbling along, part slogging along -- a bit like learning how to live.