Sometimes people aren’t very understanding of the pain of grief. They can even be downright insensitive at times. One of the common insensitive phrase I’ve heard in my work as someone who specializes in grief is: “You just need to get over it.” That phrase has to be at least in the top-five all-time most unhelpful things to hear after you’ve lost something or someone you love. Yet we’re all likely to receive this “gem of wisdom” at some point, and most of us have probably even said it ourselves, even if only to ourselves. But why is grief something we’re supposed to get over?
There’s something unsettling at the root of much of the advice we hear following loss. Consider the following well-meaning sentiments:
“Time heals all wounds.”
“You have to be strong for your family.”
“Don’t be sad, he’s in a better place.”
“There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Just keep busy.”
What’s common among these generally unhelpful messages about grieving is an underlying judgment about your feelings: “What you feel is bad, so don’t feel what you feel.” We can internalize this expectation, and end up saying things to ourselves like “I should be over this by now.” Not only are such sentiments not especially helpful, but sometimes hearing them even seems to make matters just a little bit worse. We end up feeling bad for feeling bad. Or we might get angry with others who don’t understand, or isolate ourselves to keep from being punished for feeling what we feel. How unfortunate!
While our mainstream American culture usually affords some latitude for having strong feelings immediately following a loss, we are also expected to quickly “move on” and “put it all behind.” Yet it is incredibly common for people to continue hurting even after it isn’t socially acceptable to do so. If you’ve ever been rubbed the wrong way, felt misunderstood, or felt overlooked when someone has tried to take away the pain you feel following a loss, you’re probably on to something. Top grief researchers agree that learning to fully experience your feelings is a lot healthier than trying to stuff them down or make them go away. If you’re going to be in pain anyways, wouldn’t you rather live in a world where it was ok to feel hurt when you’ve been hurt, rather than adding judgment to the mix?
You have some say in this. Rather than trying to deny the hurt you feel from losing something or someone you love, you can learn to accept more fully the pain that comes with caring. Loss is indeed tragic, but feeling something about that loss is not a bad thing. Feeling strongly just means that you made a connection in life that truly matters, and feeling what you feel is an important part of acknowledging this reality. Grief is good.
Author: Paul Guinther, Ph.D
Dr. Guinther coordinates the Depression Treatment Program at Portland Psychotherapy. He is specialized in the treatment of panic disorder and has a special interest in helping people who are struggling with bereavement, grief, and loss.