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New Ways to Think About Grief

Woman in GriefThe so-called "five stages" of grief are deeply embedded in current culture -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But recently, researchers using sophisticated methods of data collection have begun to overturn this and other preconceptions about grief. Time Magazine lists some of the perceived wisdom that has turned out to be incorrect:

Myth No. 1: We Grieve in Stages

Most people actually accept the death of a loved one from the very beginning, and many people report feeling more yearning for their loved one than either anger or depression.

Myth No. 2: Express It; Don't Repress It

Expressing negative emotions can actually prolong your distress.

Myth No. 3: Grief is Harder on Women

In fact, relatively speaking, men suffer more from being bereaved.

Myth No. 4: Grief Never Ends

Researchers have now identified specific patterns to grief's intensity and duration; the worst of grief is usually over within about six months.

Myth No. 5: Counseling Helps

The only time this kind of counseling shows a benefit is when it is targeted at people having difficulty adapting to loss.

According to Time Magazine:

"One unfortunate result of all this mythmaking is that we've become more inflexible in our expectations of other people's grief -- quite a paradox, considering that awareness and tolerance were among the primary goals of the death-and-dying movement.

Instead of rushing to prescribe ways to grieve, it would be more helpful to spread a different, more liberating message based on what the science is beginning to tell us: that most people are resilient enough to get through loss on their own without stages or phases or tasks."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' book "On Death and Dying" describes the five most widely known stages of grief, which many a grieving person has clung to during their time of mourning:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages, however, are not a part of every griever's emotional process, nor do they need to be for you to recover. In fact, upon closer inspection, and as Time Magazine discussed:

"Kübler-Ross had based her theory on onetime interviews she had conducted with terminally ill patients, but she never asked them specific questions about the stages, because by her own account, she only conceived of them while up late at night after she had already been commissioned to write On Death and Dying."

The stages were originally meant to represent the stages a dying person goes through when they learn of their terminal illness, and only later were they extended to apply to those facing loss and grief, rather than their own death, as well.

Further, it turns out that many of the five stages of grief are actually myths, and not only may you not experience all of them, but you may be better off if you don't.

Top Myths about Grief You Should Know

Time magazine listed some important myths about the grieving process that are actually quite liberating, and therefore I believe important for you to know. For starters, there is no proof that you must grieve in stages. You may not ever feel denial or anger or even depression.

Further, a 2007 JAMA study found that acceptance is actually a widely experienced emotion by those who are grieving, and it is felt even in the early stages by most. In a JAMA letter to the editor about the study, George Bonanno, PhD and Kathrin Boerner, PhD stated:

"Acceptance of the death is purported to be the final stage of grieving. However, in their study, acceptance was the most frequently endorsed item at every measurement point.

Even in the earliest months of bereavement, the mean frequency of acceptance experienced by participants was between daily and several times a day, significantly more than any other grief item. These data are consistent with other evidence associating acceptance of death with widespread resilience to loss."

The study also revealed another departure from the usual five stages -- participants were more likely to say they felt a yearning for their loved one than they were to feel anger or depression. Again, this signals that you very well may not feel the five emotional stages of grief you may think you will, and, in fact, you may feel emotions that are entirely different.

Your Grief is Unique to You

For some, the loss of a set grieving process may be an unwelcome change. You may want to feel that you have a guide to get you through a difficult time and look forward to checking each stage off your emotional process until you reach the final stage of acceptance.

However, your grieving process, whether over the loss of a loved one, a job or other opportunity, a relationship or a pet, is going to be a unique process to you.

You might feel denial and anger, but you might not. You might feel depressed, or you might not. It's important to open your mind to the notion that whatever you feel during your grieving process is OK, and likely exactly what you need.

As Time magazine reported, research shows that people who used "repressive coping" (directing their attention away from their negative emotions) after a loss felt less depression and anxiety and experienced fewer health complaints than those who expressed their negative emotions freely. So if you feel like you don't want to talk about your feelings of grief, that's OK too.

Research has even shown that people who avoid confronting their loss experience similar levels of depression as those who actively work through their emotions. This doesn't mean you should ignore the situation by any means, as I'll discuss below, but it does further support the point that grief does not follow a set standard, but rather flows differently depending on the individual.

When Grief Gets Complicated

Generally speaking, the emotional intensity of feelings of grief will recede over time. But for an estimated 10-20 percent of people, grieving continues for months or years and makes a return to normal life virtually impossible. As researchers write in Depression and Anxiety:

"Bereavement is a severe stressor that typically incites painful and debilitating symptoms of acute grief that commonly progresses to restoration of a satisfactory, if changed, life. Normally, grief does not need clinical intervention. However, sometimes acute grief can gain a foothold and become a chronic debilitating condition called complicated grief.

Moreover, the stress caused by bereavement, like other stressors, can increase the likelihood of onset or worsening of other physical or mental disorders."

Research has shown that long-term, complicated grief activates neurons in the reward centers of your brain, possibly giving it addiction-like properties. In one study only individuals with complicated grief showed significant activation of the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain most commonly associated with reward.

What this means is that for people suffering from complicated grief, thinking about a deceased loved one activates neural reward activity, which gives the person temporary pleasurable feelings but ultimately can interfere with their ability to heal, adapt and move forward in their life. If you've been dealing with debilitating feelings of grief that last for a year or more, professional help may be warranted, and you should also try the technique I describe below.

An Essential Tool for Recovering From Grief

Whether you're experiencing normal or complicated grief, I recommend using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) as part of your healing process. EFT can be used as a do-it-yourself form of emotional acupuncture that balances the body's subtle energy system and resolves unrelenting emotional pain. Instead of using acupuncture needles, you use your fingertips to stimulate specific acupuncture points.

When your energy system is balanced, emotional pain dissolves, allowing you to move past the grief and embrace the next phase of your life. The basics of EFT can be learned by anyone and can be self-applied, but if you're experiencing complicated grief or want some extra guidance, I recommend using an experienced EFT practitioner.

And remember, while grief can feel insurmountable and become all-consuming, take comfort in the fact that virtually everyone is able to move past the dark feelings. Typically within six months, you'll begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

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