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Grief, American Style

Dealing With Loss

The Six Myths of Grieving

1. Don't Feel Bad

"It sounds stupid to tell someone not to feel good when they feel good, but when they feel bad we tell them not to," says Friedman. Although it's perfectly natural to feel bad when something bad happens, we tell mourners 'be glad your loved one is in a better place,' or 'God won't give you more than you can handle.' This is especially harmful because "telling someone 'don't feel bad,' implies that there's no reason to feel bad," he says. Instead, simply listen and acknowledge their grief, says Friedman. "You don't have to do anything more, because they've been heard. And if they're heard, they don't blow up -- or blow up others."


2. Replace the Loss


"When my partner John was 6 years old, his dog died," says Friedman. "His parents said, 'Don't feel bad, on Saturday we'll get you a new dog.' This is diabolical because it doesn't honor that all relationships are unique and irreplaceable." And while no one would ever say, 'Don't feel bad, you'll get another mommy,' to a child who's lost his mother, we often tell couples who've lost a child that they 'can have another,' or women who've lost a spouse that 'she can start dating again.'


3. Grieve Alone


The adage 'Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone' is patently false, says Friedman. "Witness the fact that we just spent three months crying together!" In fact, he says, infants cry together. Only later are we taught and expected to cry alone. But grieving alone can be deadly. "Heart attacks shoot up 250% following the death of a spouse, compared with non-widowed people of the same age," he says. This doesn't mean we should never be alone when we mourn. "There's a very important distinction between solitude, which we need, and isolation," he says. "Solitude is a choice; isolation is not."


4. Time Heals All Wounds


"This is perhaps the most life-threatening myth," says Friedman. "You wouldn't sit and wait for air to come back into a flat tire. You'd take action. And a broken heart is remarkably like a flat tire." But time is not an action. It can no more fix your heart than it can put air back in your tire. "When the will to live, to do, to go on, are drained, you need to take action." How? By focusing on your lost relationship -- the good and the bad, coming to terms with what was left undone or unsaid. It can also mean seeking professional help if you need it.


5. Be Strong for Others


Most of us are taught to hide our emotions, especially from our children. But this is false and misguided protection, says Friedman, and in times of loss, it can backfire. As children follow our example, they end up swallowing their emotions. These bottled up feelings may eventually explode. "Kids are very resilient," he says. "You can share your emotions in a constructive way. You can be strong and human at the same time." By teaching kids not to ever be sad, "you're also teaching them not to be happy."


6. Keep Busy


Often when we experience a major loss, we fill every waking hour with activities and projects, anything to keep from focusing on what has happened. "But keeping busy doesn't fix unfinished issues between you and whoever has died," says Friedman. "It's an illusion, and at the end of the busy day, you haven't done anything to heal." Again, we should focus on and analyze our lost relationship. It's the only way to come to terms with it and move on, he says.

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