Myth One – Don’t Feel Bad

By Russell Friedman & John W. James

As children, we learn from the adults in our world. Some of what we learn is by observation. We see and copy what our parents and older siblings say and do. Thus the phrase, Monkey See, Monkey Do, which just happens to be the title of the opening chapter of our book, When Children Grieve. Some of what we learn is by teaching, as when our parents and other guardians and teachers, tell us how and what to do, and teach us manners and other life skills.

Over time, we have identified six major myths that are so universal, that nearly everyone can relate to having absorbed them early in life, although they can’t always explain what they mean and whether or not they are true or helpful.

The six myths are:

•     Don’t Feel Bad

•     Replace the Loss

•     Grieve Alone

•     Grief Just Takes Time

•     Be Strong and Be Strong for Others

•     Keep Busy

Today we’re going to address the first myth, Don’t Feel Bad. For most children the first time they hear that phrase is after something sad or painful has affected them. A little girl coming home from pre-school with tears in her eyes, when asked “what happened?” by her parent, responds by saying “the other little girls were mean to me.”

She tells the truth, but this is what she gets in return: “Don’t Feel Bad, here have a cookie, you’ll feel better.” The question is, does the cookie make the child feel better or does it make the child feel different? The obvious answer is different. The child is distracted by the cookie and the sugar, but her emotions about how the other girls treated her are not addressed.

The parent has inadvertently taught the child that feeling bad or sad IS bad, and that the thing to do is medicate those feelings with food. Later, food can morph into other substances, like drugs and alcohol. It’s pretty scary when you realize that parents are unintentionally teaching their children to rely on substances to deal with their feelings.

The bottom line is that we learn that it’s not okay to feel sad or bad, nor is it okay to express those feelings to others, because when we do, we’re told not to feel that way.

At the Grief Recovery Institute, we constantly get calls like this, “My mom died six months ago and I haven’t cried yet.”  We’re not surprised. If what you heard starting as far back as you can remember is “Don’t Feel Bad,” when you did feel bad, then you may have learned to hide your feelings for fear of being judged and found to be lacking.

It’s time to reconsider. If you can’t be sad when someone important to you dies, or when you get a divorce, or experience other losses, then when can you feel sad?

     Russell Friedman & John W. James are co-founders of the

Grief Recovery Institute and creators of The Grief Recovery Method.       

Myth One - Don’t Feel Bad