A couple of weeks ago, my family lost a wonderful man. He served many roles in his life, and was always very kind and generous with me as he and I entered my former husband’s family at the same time, 20 years ago. For me, the most dear role that he played was that of my son’s grandfather. They had a very special relationship and “Papa” added a dimension of experience and wisdom for my son that only grandparents can provide. He will be dearly missed. In the wake of his memorial service I am reminded of the stages of grief as our family processes this loss, each in our own way.
Change and loss are inevitable. We cannot get through life without encountering these challenges. They are necessary points of transition that provide perspective, growth, and appreciation. Thanks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, we have a concrete model that helps us understand the grief, and we have tools to normalize and move through these life events. If you have ever lost someone significant, been through a divorce, major illness, infertility, miscarriage, a major move, job change, empty nest, major relationship break-up, released a dream, or had a major upheaval in your life that turned your day-to-day life upside down, you have experienced grief. Some of you may be grieving right in this very moment.
Below, I have outlined my understanding of the “5 Stages of Grief” as presented by Kubler-Ross. These stages are visited frequently in my office and I have become quite familiar with them over time. Please remember, they do not go in order and oftentimes are cycled through repeatedly during your own personal process. Eventually, with time, the pain subsides and the depth of each stage is less and less. How long it takes is different for every individual and how you go through it is completely unique to you. The good news is that grief does pass, you will move through it and acceptance is possible.
Denial is a state of disbelief and a resistance to recognize the truth of your experience. Maybe this loss was unexpected, or you just never thought anything like this would happen to you. The pain may just be too great to allow yourself to sit in it. Although, even years after an event has passed, when you once again feel painful feelings you may find yourself saying, “I thought I was over this,” and deny that you have any residual feelings left.
It becomes important when denial shows up, to go easy on yourself and to allow the reality of your experience to sink in at your own pace. Yet, you won’t want to stay here forever, so give yourself permission to release your resistance to feel. Once you do, you will usually find yourself in one of the next two stages: anger and/or depression.
When you are in the anger stage, its a great time to get things done. You may find you have energy to speak your truth, move, or fight for what you need for yourself. You may be angry at God, at yourself, at the person who died or left you, at the world, at your family, etc. By allowing yourself a safe and healthy place to express your anger (i.e., counseling, exercise, screaming in a pillow, hitting a punching bag, venting to a friend, or writing it all out) you are able to acknowledge and release these emotions, which underneath such expression often provides clarity and a layer of peace and relief.
This is a stage of intense sadness. It is a very important one to go through, as it is often a time when you might rest more, cleanse yourself with lots of tears, and find yourself in a place where you need to ask for support. You will want to monitor the line between when sadness and depressed feelings cross over into clinical depression. If you spent all day crying or feel a sense of melancholy as you move through the motions, especially in the early days of a loss or transition, that would be expected and very typical. If you haven’t gotten out of bed for two weeks and cannot function in any of your daily activities, you have crossed over into a deeper depression and will benefit from therapy and/or medication during this time.
Here is where you begin to wonder, “what if?” And, “maybe if only.” Some of you may try to make deals with God or wonder where the heck God is at a time like this. You may try to be really good in your life or try to control everything that you can in order to feel less or try to make a different outcome appear before you. It is similar to denial except with bargaining you are dealing directly with the issue at hand. You are staring it square in the face and wondering if there might have been anything that you could have done to change it, make it better, or not have happened at all. This helps you to feel like you might have some power over what has happened to you and it is also an opportunity to realize that we are not in control of the universe and it may be time to let go.
In granting yourself permission to see your reality, let go of control, release sadness, anger, and process any other emotions that may be lingering, you are able to reach a level of acceptance. You realize you made it through the storm. You are able to feel the light of the sun upon you and know that you have weathered a lot and are now wiser and stronger for it. Hopefully along the way you discovered who your true friends were and maybe had some surprise friends show up. You learned how to ask for help and support and to receive assistance when you could not help yourself. You understand now the true meaning of what your therapist has been telling you that you have to go through it in order to get to the other side.
Again, it is important to normalize this process for yourself and to remember it takes time. If you have lost someone extremely significant in your life, or faced a major upheaval, do not expect that you will just “get over it” in a few days. Weeks, months, and sometimes years are involved in your full transition and recovery from such a great loss into the next phase of your life. Go easy on yourself. I just cannot say that phrase enough in all of my blogs. There is never a true reason to beat yourself up. Challenge yourself, take a risk, or do something different. Be brave, but do not be defeating or mean or impatient. You deserve love, which is kind, patient, understanding, and compassionate. Give that to yourself and may you walk strong through this initiation that we call grief.