Bad Bereavement Advice: When Trying to Help Doesn’t Help
January 11, 2020
As I travel around the country teaching workshops on loss and resilience, I meet hundreds of people — mostly bereaved parents — who have been suffering deeply for years and even decades, and are not moving forward in the healing process. For my doctoral research on complicated grief, I accumulated a lot of data on this troubling phenomenon. A common thread among the parents was a belief that many of them echoed…… “The depth of your pain equals the depth of the love you have for your child.”
In my 2014 book, Turning the Corner on Grief Street, I talked about a nationally-recognized grief group for bereaved parents (I will refer to it as “Group X”) in which parents who’d lost children years earlier made comments that were indicative of complicated grief. Some of their statements included:
“I refuse to believe that my precious son was meant to die. Children are not supposed to die before their parents.”
“I pray and beg God every day to bring my daughter back.”
“I will NEVER accept that my son died. All I want is to have him back here with me.
“I spend all my time wondering what I did to displease God and how I can correct it so I can see my child again in Heaven.”
It was easy to see why they weren’t recovering. They believed that if their pain diminished, their love would diminish also. One man told me that his pain and anger are the only things that connect him to his child (who had been gone for six years), and he has no intention of letting those things go.
The more I interacted with grievers in my workshops and in online forums, the more I noticed that many peer-led grief groups — both online and in-person – were giving terrible advice to their members and followers. One woman told me that the first time she attended a Group X meeting, she met two women who’d been attending those meetings for ten years. The women described themselves as “always depressed and angry,” and they told her that grief “never gets any easier.” She decided not to go back to that group because, in her words, “I don’t want to be like them ten years from now.” I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people who had the same experience with Group X after just one meeting. Either they never went back again, or they stayed for years, sinking deeper and deeper into complicated grief. *
In the course of my research, I was led to a blog by a woman writing about her personal grief experience, but presenting it as advice to other grievers. Here are just a few of the things she said:
“People go on with their lives, but that is something that you, the grieving person, will never be able to do.”
“When someone you love passes away, it gets harder… the more time that passes, the harder it gets because you have not seen your loved one’s face or heard their laugh.”
It’s healthy and healing for someone to write about their own grief experience. But when they start “teaching” that their personal grief journey qualifies them to be advisors and counselors, they’re crossing a dangerous line. The above statements may be true for the writer’s own personal experience, but they are not true for everybody. To present these ideas as facts to a vulnerable audience is irresponsible and unethical.
It is also something that a qualified, skilled grief counselor would never do.
In a similar example, an article recently circulated on Facebook called “64 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Grief.” While many of the items were useful, several were completely untrue and downright toxic. Here are some samples:
“However badly you think it is going to hurt, it is going to be a million times worse.”
“You lose yourself, your identity, meaning, purpose, values, your trust”
“Holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays will be hard forever.”
While some of these things may apply to some people some of the time, they are absolutely NOT TRUE as general guidelines for coping with grief.
The popularization of these ideas is even more alarming when it is perpetrated by people calling themselves “grief coaches” or “grief guides” without any training or mainstream credentials, hanging a shingle based on nothing more than their personal experience with loss. I recently ran across a web page by a woman offering her services as a “master grief coach.” Not only does she promote this to grievers, she also sells a self-study training course that grants students a “grief coach certification.” She has no academic degree and no credentials beyond what she earned through other self-study courses as spurious as her own.
One of the most insidious examples of bad grief advice comes from GriefShare.org, which describes itself as a “biblical, Christ-centered grief support group ministry.“ While this can certainly be useful for someone looking for a Christian approach to healing, a deeper dive into the pages of the GriefShare website reveals something horrifying. This page tells grievers that they’re suffering because they’ve been disobedient to God, and relief can only be found by “agreeing that you disobey God and that you need Christ to die in your place to save you from experiencing the full penalty of your sin.” The griever is then instructed to recite GriefShare’s version of The Sinner’s Prayer, which begins with “Dear Jesus, I am grieving, and I need Your help. I know that I am a sinner and that my sin has separated me from You.”
I can’t imagine in a million years saying something like that to a grieving person. It’s not only guilt-inducing and terrifying, it’s the epitome of bad theology.
My point in writing this essay to is to help grievers be discerning about the sources they turn to for help. Social media has become a major gathering place for people to share their stories and offer support. But very few of these groups are moderated by professionals, and bad advice can run rampant. The same is true for many of the groups that meet in person, even some that are affiliated with well-known national networks for grief support.
If you have had negative experiences with support groups that did not provide qualified, professional grief guidance, please consider joining my Facebook group, BAD GRIEF GUIDANCE: A RECOVERY FORUM. You can find it here.
* NOTE: When I shared this article on social media, I received many angry comments from bereaved parents saying that I would never understand how they feel unless I’d lost a child of my own. For the record — because it does matter — my only child died at age 16 after an eight-year struggle with a debilitating illness. I do understand. That’s the reason I do this work.