Grief expert aims to change the way we think about and experience grief.
When someone mentions that a loved one has died, the empathetic part of me wants to figure out what sort of comfort they need in the moment. I’ve stopped apologizing after being told more than once that it isn’t helpful, but there’s still a desire to make it better.
I know I’m not alone in this desire to “fix” situations that ultimately can’t be altered.
But grief is not an easy “fix” and doesn’t work on a timeline. Each person’s experience is unique and personal to them.
Some people can process their grief in a short time, whereas others might require months or even years. Remember: No one person grieves in the same way.
If you’re grieving or know someone who is, there are ways to cope.
Who is Megan Devine?
Megan Devine — licensed professional counselor (LPC), psychotherapist, grief expert, and founder of Refuge in Grief — has made a career out of helping people navigate their own grief and that of their loved ones, especially in light of the unhelpful ways we continue to approach the topic.
Many of Devine’s former clients were doctors and therapists who themselves found it challenging to navigate the sadness and grief they experienced around their work without an outlet to share.
She grew discontented with the way her practice was going and debated switching gears when the unthinkable happened: She watched her husband drown.
“When he died, I quit my practice,” she says. “I never saw my clients again. I couldn’t imagine going back into that clinical world, given what I was experiencing.”
Devine shared how going through this terrible loss herself illuminated the ways that she had fallen short with her clients, and the unhelpful and ineffective ways we’re all taught to deal with other people’s sadness.
“In this culture, we view happiness as the same as health,” she says. “So, anything that interrupts this positive, happy baseline or that deviates from that is seen as a problem. That shows up in our medical responses, our therapy-based responses, and it’s also a storyline that shows up in our media all the time.”
Devine adds, “I felt like I had a responsibility to make things better for people like me… I knew that I could make a difference for people like me and grieving people for whom the current models didn’t work, and in fact did more damage.”
What can you do for a loved one who is grieving?
Devine says, “The theme that underlies everything — no matter whether you’re a friend, family, or provider — is that grief is a problem, and you need to be cheered up as soon as possible. Basically, that you need to put this messy, untidy emotion behind you and get back to life. ‘Go back to normal’ is basically the theme.”
So, how can we support someone who’s grieving? Here are some tips from Devine.
Shift your goal from making them feel better to making them feel heard
“We think it’s our job to cheer other people up,” Devine emphasizes. “You can’t help but have a neurobiological response to somebody else’s pain. We’re neurobiologically wired for empathy — to feel with other people.”
This inherent desire to cheer people up, despite the good intent, often does more harm than good. Devine shares firsthand the things she’s heard from well-meaning people in relation to her loss:
- “At least you had him as long as you did.”
- “Now you know what’s really important and you really need to live your best life.”
Devine reminds us of the hard truth: You can’t fix it, and ultimately, it’s not your job to help someone stop grieving.
Rather than coming up with platitudes that you think may assist in the way a person is feeling, consider just simply offering your support instead.
Try to let your loved one know you’re there for them and you’re ready to listen. Try not to make people reach out to you to ask for help — they have enough on their plates. Offer tangible things you know could be helpful, like taking their laundry to the cleaners or picking up their kids from school.
Before speaking, run your responses past the question, “Am I trying to make them feel better, or am I trying to make them feel heard?”
Embrace the awkward
Some people concern themselves with saying the right thing at the right time when someone they know is going through a tough situation. Concerns like, “What if I say the wrong thing and I upset them?” may play in their mind, undoubtedly coloring the way they’ve historically responded.
Does this sound like you?
Devine shared that many of us have this concern, but the truth is no one is going to get it right 100% of the time.
“Embrace your awkwardness,” she advises. “You cannot do this perfectly. Human relationships are not perfect. We are awkward, awkward creatures. That is OK.”
She suggests trying to rid yourself of that responsibility to be perfect and instead just being honest and saying something like: “I have no idea how to support you. I am fearful. Whatever you need, I’m going to keep showing up. I’m going to [mess] it up sometimes, and it’s OK to tell me that I’m off.”
When people are dealing with their sadness, they notice who shows up and who doesn’t. Try not to let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from saying anything at all.
What if I’m navigating my own grief?
Whatever you’re feeling is natural.
Everyone experiences the world and their lives differently, and even though we’ve been taught to approach grief in a prescriptive way, there’s no one “right” way to deal with loss.
“If you’re still crying most of the day six weeks after your brother died, there’s nothing wrong with you,” Devine says.
Acknowledging your right to the space you need ultimately aids in your journey, as it rids you of the necessity to defend your own grief. Whether you find yourself having trouble returning to some sense of normalcy several months later — or you find yourself still angry when you think about the loss you have endured — it’s all OK.
Myths about grief
If you’ve ever grieved the loss of someone or watched someone else grieve, you know that it’s a process unique and personal to each person.
Our society has placed certain expectations on grief that often stem from misunderstandings and myths. Sometimes this can hinder the way we approach grief.
Knowing the common myths and misunderstandings about grief can help us when we’re navigating our own grief or supporting someone else through theirs.
Myth 1: There’s a proper end to your grief
“Grief lasts as long as love lasts,” Devine says. “There’s no expiration date. There’s no timeline. Most of what we’ve learned about grief isn’t correct. Grief evolves just like any other relationship, like there’s never a time where you stop loving your child. There’s never a time when you stop missing your mom.”
We’ve been taught lessons around closure and ultimately getting over the hard things that have happened to us. In reality, we learn to navigate them differently, but grief doesn’t just dissipate.
You can make progress — return to work, reconnect with friends, take time for yourself again — and still feel the sting of grief. And, that’s OK.
Myth 2: Grief only applies to the physical death of a loved one
Grief isn’t just about the literal loss of life. You can grieve the end of a relationship or the loss of a pet or a job. You can grieve your hometown once you move cross-country or plans that you’ve made for your future.
Devine says that grief is really just pain, and it can appear in many different ways.
Myth 3: The ‘five stages of grief’ are the proper way to navigate your loss
A majority of us are familiar with the five stages of grief:
Devine speaks extensively about the ways we’ve misused Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages over the years, leading those in pain to feel like they’re failing.
“The stages of grief were never intended to be applied to grief,” Devine says. “Dr. Kübler-Ross came up with five common things she was seeing when people were given a terminal diagnosis. So, they were actually meant as descriptors for the dying person about what they might feel, and it was a way to try to normalize a very not-normal experience.”
Because of the way the medical and clinical community latched on to the stages, they became an addition to the limitations placed on grieving, rather than a comfort to the ones who were dying.
Devine reminds us that it’s OK to feel anger frequently. It’s OK to spend many days crying. Healing is not linear, and there’s no prescriptive timeline we should aim to adhere to. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
Where to start
When selecting resources for grief support, Devine says there’s a lot out there masquerading as support, including people claiming to be “grief coaches” or specialists when they have very little training beyond their own lived experience.
“When you go looking for support inside your grief, it’s important that you look for resources (books, therapists, doctors, organizations) that make you feel seen and supported, not like a problem in need of a solution,” she suggests. “If a resource doesn’t feel right for you, it’s not right.”
Luckily, there are also accessible resources in varying modalities that could be helpful, regardless of your particular situation.
In addition to Devine’s book “It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay,” the accompanying new journal, and the Refuge in Grief Writing Your Grief course, she also shared a few Refuge in Grief approved resources to get you started:
- Dougy.org can be helpful for children’s and family grief.
- Grief.coach offers text-based support for the grieving person and up to four friends or family members. If this is a resource you’d like to try, Devine has an affiliate code for a lower price!
- For help managing logistics following a death, or to get help with end-of-life paperwork (wills, advanced directives, etc.), try Lantern.co.
- For support in miscarriage, stillbirth, termination for medical reasons (TFMR), and other reproductive losses, both the book and Instagram account “I Had a Miscarriage” can be helpful.
- The PBS documentary and website Speaking Grief can aid in both understanding what’s normal inside grief and serving as a starting point to open conversations about what you need with friends.
- For grief literacy, training, and support that focuses on people of color (POC), and grief literacy through an anti-racist lens, you can visit Being Here Human.
- For grief in the workplace resources, you can check out Alicia Forneret.
- For parents seeking support after a child dies, consider The Compassionate Friends.
If your grief becomes overwhelming, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. For help finding a professional or more support, you can visit Find a Therapist and Mental Health Support.
If in-person therapy or support groups are overwhelming for you, a virtual grief support group may be a good fit.
The bottom line
Grief is a natural part of life and one that cannot be defined or contained. Grieving can obviously occur after the death of a loved one, but the feeling of grief can arise during many other situations around loss or pain.
Our culture has valued happiness and “moving forward” as the ultimate goals at the end of an arbitrary timeline, but in reality, what’s healthiest for people is to have the room to feel exactly what they’re feeling.
If you want to support someone who’s dealing with a loss, try to show up ready to make them feel heard and supported, and try to avoid making it your mission to fix the problem — you can’t. Instead, consider doing these three things:
- acknowledging the tough situation
- naming the awkwardness you may be feeling
- continuing to be present
If you’re navigating your own grief, know that whatever you’re feeling is OK. There is no right or wrong way to grieve — you are not failing.
Despite the timelines we’ve been taught, there’s no “proper” amount of time or way you should grieve.