The myths and truths of healing after loss

By Bongiwe Sokhela
The rituals of grieving and the culture of how we mourn are shifting before our eyes during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are all experiencing loss in some way and we are all in need of solace. But how do we cope with loss and grief in a socially distanced world? TSBU explores.

“Courage isn’t having the strength to go on – it is going on when you don’t have strength.” Napoléon Bonaparte.

Courage, in the face of grief, can be described as confronting loss by giving yourself permission to feel it. Today, we learn to heal with courage and to find courage in our vulnerabilities.

Grief is a normal and expected intense emotional and physical reaction to the loss of a loved one and is mostly a very personal experience. No two experiences can ever be the same and reconciling these losses plays a critical role in the healing process.

It is important to explore some distinctions between what is viewed as societal myths and the truths about grief and healing.

It’s just a myth …

Myth #1: Sharing your own experience helps the aggrieved know they are not alone.

Even though it may seem like the most natural thing to do, the worst thing you can do is share your own similar experience. The message it sends tends to minimise the other person’s pain, making them feel unheard.

When we don’t know what to say, we often project our own experiences onto others. So what do you do, when you don’t know what to say? You encourage them to continue to share their experiences, their emotions and their journey. The message you want to send is, “I may not understand how you feel right now, but I am here for you”.

The most sorrowful and complicated grieving process is “unshared grief”, where the loss is experienced by one person only (for example, the death of a child, a divorce, death of a spouse, loss of a job, etc.). In this case you want to meet the person where they are and not categorise their experience as a common occurrence. Instead, show pure love and support, by being present and make it all about them.

Myth #2: Seek trauma debriefing as soon as possible after the trauma or loss. 

Contrary to popular belief, rushing counselling is not always the most effective way to achieve acceptance and meaning. Being with family and surrounded by loved ones is the first step towards healing. Talking about your emotions and how you feel too soon after experiencing trauma, on the other hand, not so much.

Shock and numbness are the natural first phase of grief and in an attempt to protect oneself from impending threat the brain shuts down emotions while it attempts to make sense of a painful reality. 

Forcing someone to start talking about their emotions when they cannot make sense or name the emotion is futile and will only make it harder to open up later when the rawness of the emotions surface. As the numbness wears off and one is confronted by the harshness of reality, this is a perfect time to guide the person through the emotions and help them validate both the positive and negative feelings. 

While there are no specific timeframes to emotions, clinicians recommend that this should be no less than 48-72hrs after the news of the trauma.

Myth #3: Too much crying brings about more trauma or sorrow.

This is a common African myth to culturally help others not to dwell too much in sorrow and by so doing move them quickly through to healing. There are cultures where crying is discouraged, especially in public. As a society we tend to shun anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, including tears.

Crying is, in fact, a natural emotion to any grief process. It can be viewed as an intense release of emotions that were controlled during the numbness stage. It is safe to gently lead the bereaved through their vulnerability, with courage, to confront and release the emotions. 

In one anecdote, US author Rory Vaden describes the courage of buffaloes during the threat of a storm, “as the storm rolls over the ridge, buffaloes will turn and charge directly into the storm … and by running at the storm, they run straight through it, minimising the amount of pain, time, and frustration they experience from that storm”. 

Nature teaches us that until the person has gone through the process of confronting the pain, they will take time to let go of their attachment to the lost person and move on to discover new meaning and personal purpose. 

The truth is …

Truth #1: Children do grieve.

Grief is a complex emotional process for an adult, and for a child it can be extremely confusing. 

As adults we don’t often understand “death and dying” ourselves and what we know is what we have all been told by our own parents, authority figures or have read about. It is a normal human behaviour to fill in what we don’t know with facts to create our own meaning. This is called fantasising, which in most cases is quite normal for us adults, since we often know exactly why we choose to replace facts with fiction but for children fantasy is reality. 

Try not to fill a child’s mind with too many unknowns, for example, “she is gone” to a child means she will come back and “he is sleeping” means he will wake up again. This is later replaced by disappointment, resentment or distrust. 

By skirting the issue, we tend to cause more confusion. 

Children understand stories with a beginning and an end. It is alright to tell stories that end in tragedy, it helps children deal appropriately with the disappointments of life. Instead, create an end point that constructs positive meaning for the child, while helping them to confront the current reality.

Truth #2: The expression of grief is a redefinition of not just the loss but of potential relearning and growth.

Reframing the loss enables healing and shifting to new meaning and this is expressed by David Kessler at the final stage of grief; I call it rediscovering your purpose. We tend to attach meaning to the tangible things and people around us, and when those things are no longer there to give us the meaning and purpose we are accustomed to, we experience a sense of loss. 

When our sense of inner meaning has been deconstructed, how do we reincarnate our lives into the present? It starts by deciding what you want to move towards and starting with an end in mind. Finding your purpose means finding your own reason for existence and often ends with yourself being a gift to a greater purpose that creates personal fulfillment.

Truth #3: There is no “right” way to experience or respond to loss.

The stages of grief can be viewed as a universal way of understanding the process but it may not be a reality in the mind of a griever.

We have also learnt to find meaning in the expression of our grief through societal and community norms that seem to dictate the way we grieve. These social constructs tend to undermine the uniqueness of our personal experiences and robs us of authentically mourning our loved ones. In what way are these social constructs useful for human grief? They enable the sharing of the loss by the family or the community, showing the one who grieves that they are not alone and serves to compartmentalise the grief process in a meaningful way, for all involved. 

When all the rituals are over, the griever is left to process loss by themselves. The complication of Covid-19 regulations, for instance, is challenging how society experiences bereavement. Take courage and heal yourself first before you gain courage to be there for others.

To quote Rory Vaden, “We don't get to choose whether or not we have storms. The only choice that we have is how we respond to those storms.”