The Five Stages of Grief
The five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.
Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss.
When we are in denial, we may respond at first by being paralyzed with shock or blanketed with numbness. The denial is still not denial of the actual death, even though someone may be saying, “I can’t believe he’s dead.” The person is actually saying that, at first, because it is too much for his or her psyche.
You may also be angry that you’re left behind and you should have had more time together. You know intellectually that your loved one didn’t want to die. But emotionally, all you know is that he did die. It was not supposed to happen, or at least not now.
Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
Morning comes, but you don’t care. A voice in your head says it is time to get out of bed, but you have no desire to do so. You may not even have a reason. Life feels pointless. To get out of bed may as well be climbing a mountain. You feel heavy, and being upright takes something from you that you just don’t have to give.
If you find a way to get through your daily activities, each of them seems as empty and pointless as the last one. Why eat? Or why stop eating? You don’t care enough to care. If you could care about what was going on, it might scare you, so you don’t want to care about anything.
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being all right or okay with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel okay or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. This is where our final healing and adjustment can take a firm hold, despite the fact that healing often looks and feels like an unattainable state.
An unimaginable, indescribable loss has taken place. It has inflicted a wound so deep that numbness and excruciating pain are the material of which it is made.
Everyone experiences many losses throughout life, but the death of a loved one is unmatched for its emptiness and profound sadness. Your world stops. You know the exact time your loved one died—or the exact moment you were told. It is marked in your mind. Your world takes on a slowness, a surrealness. It seems strange that the clocks in the world continue when your inner clock does not.
Your life continues, but you are not sure why. A different life appears before you, one in which your loved one will no longer be physically present. No one can give you words to make you feel better; there are none. You will survive, though you may not be sure how or even if you want to.
Your loss and the grief that accompanies it are very personal, different from anyone else’s. Others may share the experience of their losses. They may try to console you in the only way they know. But your loss stands alone in its meaning to you, in its painful uniqueness.
If you feel relief, it may be because your loved one was suffering and you are grateful it has ended. Watching or even thinking about a loved one’s suffering places a heavy pain on top of the sadness. Of course you wanted her to live long, fully, and well. But that was not an option.
It is her endless suffering you wanted to end, which is why you feel somewhat relieved that she is dead. Hence the confusion: the relief and sadness mix together in a situation that has no resolve. When this occurs, your relief is the recognition that the suffering has ended, the pain is over, the disease no longer lives. Your loved one no longer has that illness, that disease. It has stopped causing her pain.
It is important to understand that it is not unusual to feel relief, even in the midst of the sadness. This is a normal reaction and not a reason to feel guilty. The relief you feel is the calm after the storm
People experience a wide array of emotions after a loss, from not caring to being on edge to feeling angry or sad about everything. We can go from feeling okay to feeling devastated in a minute without warning. We can have mood swings that are hard for anyone around us to comprehend, because even we don’t understand them. One minute we are okay. The next we’re in tears. This is how grief works.
We can touch the pain directly for only so long until we have to back away. We think about our work, get momentarily distracted in something else, process the feelings, and go for more. If we did not go back and forth emotionally, we could never have the strength to find peace in our loss.
When a loved one dies, we are often left with many regrets about all those things we wish we had said, all those things we wish we had done. We may regret what we didn’t do or didn’t say. We keep going back over things we wish we’d said and things we wish we hadn’t. We are all human. There are very few people who can say they don’t have even a small regret. Regrets are part of loss, and you are not alone in the experience of regret.
Tears are one of the many ways we release our sadness, one of our many wondrous built-in healing mechanisms. Unfortunately, too often we try to stop this necessary and primal release of our emotions. In grief we often have only two main thoughts about crying. The first is the overwhelming thought of sadness that hits us. The second is, “I must stop crying.” After many people begin to cry they quickly move to stop this natural phenomenon.
Of course you will stop crying, even if you don’t believe you will. The worst thing you can do is to stop short of really letting it out. Uncried tears have a way of filling the well of sadness even more deeply. If you have a half hour of crying to do, don’t stop at twenty minutes. Let yourself cry it all out. It will stop on its own. If you cry till your last tear, you will feel released.
Long periods of denial are worse than crying. Crying is much better, but you have to cry your own tears because no one can do it for you. If you see someone else crying and you cry, it is triggering some sadness you feel inside. Sometimes you’d rather cry for any situation but your own, but regardless of your preferences, you are always crying for yourself.
Dreams are a natural part of sleep. They embody our hopes, our worst fears, and everything in between. After a loss, it is not unusual to dream that your loved one is still alive. After her husband died, a woman dreamed there was a knock on the door to tell her there had been a mistake at the hospital. Someone else had died; it was a terrible mistake and her husband was alive, recovering, and on his way home.
In the next moment of her dream, her husband was stepping out of the front seat of an ambulance with sirens blaring as if to herald the enormity of the mistake made. He walked toward her looking healthy and whole. She was overjoyed as she looked into his eyes while the sirens continued to blare—until the sirens became the sound of her alarm clock.
Dreams may serve many purposes, including a distraction from pain or a demonstration of the soul grappling with reality. Regardless of their meaning, dreams help us deal with incomprehensible feelings while we sleep, an aid to the grief process, as the unconscious mind cannot distinguish between a wish and reality. Perhaps you are aware of illogical dreams in which two completely opposite realities exist side by side.
The dream vision of a loved one can also represent unfinished business, the chance to complete something that was suddenly severed.
Dreams offer us the opportunity to say good-bye and to finish business.
They also allow us to give and receive permission for a loved one, and us, to find peace.
You are alone. There is a wall now where none existed before, standing between you and the rest of the world.
But your isolation is not related to your surroundings or the people in your world. You can be in a large group of friends and relatives and feel as disconnected as if you were lost in the desert. There is no port in this storm, and the one person who could bring you connection is the one person who is gone forever. And so, you feel you will be forever lost.
Friends are concerned that you have shut down and seem disconnected from the outside. In fact, this kind of isolation over an extended period of time may be cause for alarm, and indeed you may need help. But feeling isolated after loss is normal, expected, and healthy. Even when friends urge you to talk about it (they are certainly being caring), you wonder what there is to say. Sometimes people’s desire to deliver you from your isolation may have more to do with their own fear and discomfort than with a concern for yours.
Be strong.” These two little words are often declared to those in grief. Men hear them more often than women, and surviving parents are told, “Be strong for the sake of the children.”
We are often told to be strong by people with good intentions. “Take it like a man,” the message tells us. “You’re showing too much emotion. Don’t be a wimp.” As if we shouldn’t be affected by death. But sometimes our “be strong” means not being human.
That kind of bravery belongs to heroes who need to act in the face of danger. But bravery does not mean being unfeeling. In our society it has become confused with keeping a stiff upper lip. The bottom line is that strength can certainly be channeled into loss, but it can also violate it.
When we die, we will be surprised that not only those who loved us the most will be waiting, but there will also be many others. Ancestors, and strangers whose lives we touched and never knew it. It’s easy to imagine that when we die all our old friends will gather to welcome us to the next world.
Many people believe in reincarnation, that their soul leaves the body and is reborn in another one. It is said that we are reincarnated with the same people over and over, that we come into this world with lessons to learn in the midst of others who have the same task.
We are a society that demands proof for most things, but some things simply cannot be proved. For example, if a friend asked you to touch your nose, you could do that and you would both agree that it was done. It would be the same result if your friend asked you to touch your chin. But if you were asked to touch the love you feel for your child or your parent, what would you touch?
We will all wonder what the afterlife is and what it will be like. Some think the importance lies in the answer. But just the question is enough. What does seem to be important is that the bereaved are comforted by the thought and feeling that their loved one still exists somehow.
The Gift of Grief
The time after a significant loss is full of the feelings that we usually have spent a lifetime trying not to feel. Sadness, anger, and emotional pain sit on our doorstep with a deeper range than we have ever felt. Their intensity is beyond our normal range of human emotions. Our defenses are no match for the power of the loss. We stand alone with no precedent or emotional repertoire for this kind of loss. We have never lost a mother, father, spouse, or child before. To know these feelings and meet them for the first time brings up responses from draining to terrifying and everything in between. We don’t know that these foreign, unwelcome, intense feelings are part of the healing process. How can anything that feels so bad ever help to heal us?
With the power of grief comes much of the fruits of our grief and grieving. We may still be in the beginning of our grief, and yet, it winds its way from the feelings of anticipating a loss to the beginnings of reinvolvement. It completes an intense cycle of emotional upheaval. It doesn’t mean we forget; it doesn’t mean we are not revisited by the pain of loss. It does mean we have experienced life to its fullest, complete with the cycle of birth and death. We have survived loss. We are allowing the power of grief and grieving to help us to heal and to live with the one we lost.
That is the Grace of Grief.
That is the Miracle of Grief.
That is the Gift of Grief.