It's Time to Change the Toxic Narrative Around Grief | Opinion

The weekend that I graduated from law school in 2009, my mother told me that she had been diagnosed with ALS. After watching her lose the ability to speak, eat and eventually breathe, she died the following summer. After two battles with cancer, my father passed away four summers later.

Before my parents died, I was blissfully unaware of mental health. A heartbreak was the biggest challenge I had faced emotionally.

After they passed, intense sadness and anxiety filled my days. I felt physically sick thinking about how many moments I'd miss with my parents, especially that my children would never meet them.

There were only a handful of family and friends that could sit with me and just listen to my sadness. More often, when I expressed my grief, someone would immediately try to cheer me up or force a positive perspective upon me.

"You are so lucky you had such a great mom!" they would say. "How lucky you are to have had so many amazing years with your dad!" or "Your parents would want you to be happy," were common unhelpful expressions I heard.

Other common unhelpful phrases I heard were, "Think about what you still have to be thankful for," or any statement that started with "at least, " like "at least she didn't suffer any longer."

Those phrases are unhelpful because rather than making a bereaved person feel better, they often just minimize their pain.

"When you say to somebody, 'at least you got to say goodbye to that person,' it makes that person that's grieving feel like 'I guess I shouldn't be this sad because at least I got to do those things,'" said Sarah Kroenke, a licensed social worker and co-founder of the Grief Club of Minnesota.

It's normal to miss someone that you loved, or someone that you had a complicated relationship with, and lost. And yet, most people encouraged me not to feel.

Because of the messages I received, I didn't understand that grieving is a natural and normal process. I felt ashamed and alone and I often judged myself for not being able to "move on faster."

"[Grief] doesn't just go away. It is as unique as your fingerprint. Grief changes over time. There are no rules, there are no expectations. There is no right or wrong way," said Kroenke.

I believe that many of the people that didn't support me the way that I needed wanted to help, but didn't know how.

A bouquet of roses
A bouquet of roses rests at the base of a headstone. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

"My experience has been that fear gets in the way of love. It's fear of making people sad, fear of talking about loss with people and not knowing what to say. It's fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. And it's also fear of mortality, it's fear of our own people we deeply love dying," said Joanne Cacciatore, professor at Arizona State University and founder of the MISS Foundation, an organization that provides support to families struggling with traumatic grief.

Despite this fear, we must begin to recognize the grief of bereaved individuals. Unacknowledged grief can "have significant impact not only on our immediate mental wellness but on our long-term mental wellness," Kroenke said.

Research suggests that strong social support may improve a bereaved person's capacity to cope. But, unfortunately, my experience is not an anomaly.

According to a recent study co-authored by Cacciatore, almost 40 percent of the bereaved participants stated that they received poor or very poor social support in traumatic relief and over half indicated the desire for more emotional support. Participants discussed the importance of others listening and accepting their emotional state without trying to "fix their grief."

It's a "real problem when grieving people feel lonely. And they feel lonely because they feel they have nowhere where they can share their grief or their pain. They have no one who will pour over photographs and videos of their loved ones who died. People don't want to say their name and everyone just tries to pretend it didn't happen," said Cacciatore.

People with good social support, of course, still grieve. But it can be easier to move through the painful feelings of grief when you have people in your life who are willing to just be there for you while you process those difficult emotions.

The intensity of my grief didn't begin to subside until I allowed myself to feel what I was feeling and until I found people who were able to support me through my grief.

There are countless Americans grieving today. Over 600,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19. For every person who has died during this pandemic, there are nine bereaved people on average mourning.

"It takes real courage to sit with someone and just be with them in their pain, knowing that there are no words that can take away their pain," said Kroenke.

For the sake of the mental health of bereaved persons, I hope we can all be more courageous.

Katie C. Reilly is a writer and attorney. Her writing focuses on women's health and social justice issues.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.