This article was originally published on goodtherapy.org on February 5th, 2013.
It is not unusual for someone who experiences a loss to romanticize the person, identity, or object they are grieving. This can occur even when what is lost was not just imperfect, but harmful. This tendency occurs more often and can be more harmful with folks who experienced depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues prior to the loss.
Myths can be helpful in meeting the obligation of respect and mourning we may feel toward the person. They can push us to broaden our memory of the person who died or the relationship we had beyond just the negative event to more positive or helpful content. They can influence the “story” of what was lost in a way that makes thoughts and emotions associated with the loss more tolerable to access and communicate individually and within our support systems.
It is natural to go back in time and reevaluate our perceptions of events and the decisions made during that time. Those who struggle with depression or anxiety already have a distorted view of reality that usually presents a world that’s unsafe or themselves as incapable. Both of these factors can set the stage for harmful myths.
Beliefs that drive guilt, regret, and failure are usually present and, when applied to the loss of a relationship, can set the stage for a rewrite on reality. These factors can result in a person deriving a meaning or value from what was lost that is heightened and, in his or her mind, exposes an inability and unworthiness in obtaining and holding onto the things people deserve to pursue. Even if the person holds some, or the majority of, responsibility in the loss, what was lost was probably imperfect and the behaviors that led to the loss are changeable. We’re human, and life is usually a trial-and-error thing.
Myths can also amplify the lack of purpose one feels after losing a job, becoming hospitalized, or losing a relationship. This is particularly true if the loss involved something the person felt defined them: “This is who I was, and now that it’s gone, where does that leave me?” Myths can hold us to the belief that purpose is unchangeable and who we were before the loss was the best we could have been.
In reality, there may have been significant problems and costs to the identity that we were not attentive to; these costs may have been a factor in causing the loss. Myths hold us back from an honest analysis of what led us to “the problem,” which in turn, prevents us from changing our behaviors or priorities in a way that works for us now. Myths can make us risk averse because if it can’t be the same, what’s the point? The answer is that “it” being different may be what we need, and the loss could be used as a wake-up call. In holding onto myths, we may reenact patterns and behaviors that are maladaptive.
When the loss involves a person who was both a family member and a perpetrator, myths can act as an obstacle to accessing traumatic content. Survivors of childhood abuse utilize several strategies to survive their environments and maintain a positive view of those they love because of the meaning that relationship may have in their mind (“she is my mother; I’m supposed to love her”). From their perspective, pushing for change may have a greater cost than living with it. This capacity or inclination can prevent survivors from feeling as if they have permission to think about the person they lost in a negative light. These are common issues for any trauma survivor, but holding onto the myth after a loss may make the work in acknowledging and processing the trauma that much harder.
Within a familial context, myths can create a perceived demand for adherence to a “story” that may feel objectionable to some within the family. Trauma survivors can feel uncomfortable in processing the loss authentically with those they may feel closest to for fear of making waves or hurting them.
Grounding ourselves in fact can go a long way in helping us cope with a loss. Being factual means focusing on what we know, not what we believe, so that we can derive a reasonable meaning from the loss experience. It allows us to acknowledge and mourn the good while identifying what was harmful so that the work of adaptive grieving and behavior change can move forward.
One important aspect of remaining factual is communicating the emotional and cognitive content we hold to another person we trust. This allows us to expose any distorted beliefs or thinking to another person’s logic and perception. This is important because it creates an external brace against unreasonable thinking. By not allowing exposure, the only thing left to challenge the distorted narrative is the source of it.
Family, friends, and other natural supports (priests, rabbis, the lady who does your nails) are usually the best options if safety is not an issue because they represent long term, sustainable resources you can access anytime. If safety is an issue or you are experiencing symptoms that go beyond a normal grief reaction, seeking professional help (therapists, psychiatrists, medical doctor) can provide more intensive support and a greater assurance of confidentiality.