My small community has recently suffered the tragic loss of an 11-year old boy. If you want to read more about this or donate to the family click here.
Anytime we experience loss, whether it is the loss of someone very close to us, or someone in our community, we grieve. It is the normal process of tending to our emotions, saying good-bye to the person we have lost, and ultimately learning how to live with the new normal after the loss.
I have been watching over the past few days as me, my family, and people in the community, have moved through the various stages of grief. While everyone moves through grief differently, there are some common stages of grief that we often pass through.
Not everyone experiences grief in the same way. The five common stages of grief were identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. They can be a helpful model for naming the process of grief. However, not everyone moves through all five stages of grief, or does so in an orderly manner. The grief process is unique to each individual. To read more about the cycle of grief see On Grief Part 2, the next blog in this series.
When we recognize some of the common stages of grief, we can often be gentler with ourselves and with others. When I watch my children, myself, or a friend in one of these stages, I know how to hold them and console them appropriate to what they are feeling. Also, being aware of the stages of grief can help us identify when there might be signs that further help is needed.
Denial. Often, first stage of grief is shock and denial. This is often the first stage of grief. We say or feel things like, “How could this happen?” “It can’t be true.” The world can feel meaningless or overwhelming. This can be the stage where nothing seems to make sense, where we are overly forgetful, or we just keep repeating a phrase over and over again like “Why?” We are trying to make sense of the senseless and it leaves us bewildered and confused.
Anger. It is normal to be angry after a loss. We might be angry at ourselves, at the circumstances, at the unfairness of the death, at God, at someone who made a careless remark about the loss. Sometimes our anger might manifest as something completely unrelated to the actual incident. When my son was in a car wreck (he was fine but I still went through a grieving process) I was angry when I couldn’t locate my favorite pair of socks. I was mad at my husband for putting them away in the wrong spot (he didn’t), and the messiness of our house, and at myself for being so careless with them. In truth, I was deflecting the anger that was a part of my grief onto something much less important. It was a very normal reaction.
Bargaining. In this stage we start negotiating with God, or with the universe, or with ourselves. Before an actual death occurs, bargaining might look like saying to God, I’ll never yell at my husband again if you will just cure his cancer.” Or, “I promise I will call my mom more often if you heal her.”
Bargaining can also include the desire to trade places with the person who is ill or has died. When the loss is not as close to us that we would trade places with the person, we might bargain in different ways. If the person who did this is caught this situation will get better. Or, if people were only more careful, none of this would happen.
Bargaining is the stage of “if.” If I could. If they would. This is also where we second guess our own actions. If only I had told Dad I loved him, or, If only I had called Mom more often. Bargaining gives us the feeling of having some control, which is important when we are faced with uncontrollable situations like death.
Again, it is a normal stage of grief and helps us process incomprehensible losses.
Depression. This is the stage where life doesn’t seem worth it. We might say, “I am so sad, I can’t go on.” Or, “Why bother getting up in the morning?” Life feels empty and meaningless after our loss and we lose our sense of purpose and motivation. We might lose interest in activities we used to enjoy, especially if they included the person we lost. While this stage can feel hopeless and debilitating, it is also a normal part of the grieving process. If this stage continues on for a very long period of time, or seems disproportionate to the loss (for example, the death of a student at school that your child didn’t know leaves them not wanting to get out of bed for days on end) then it might be time to talk with your family doctor.
Acceptance. It is important to realize that acceptance doesn’t mean everything is ok. It simply means that at this stage we are ready to start the process of reintegration into life. We might find ourselves enjoying an activity or laughing. In the beginning, this is often accompanied by a sense of guilt. We might find a new purpose, born out of our loss, or we may return to our normal activities. Often times our lives are reorganized by loss and acceptance is the stage where we begin to reconstruct our life and figure out how the pieces fit together in our new reality.
The grief process is rarely linear. We might cycle through multiple stages of grief in one day. Also, even when we weren’t emotionally close to someone who has dies, we might still find ourselves cycling through these stages. That is normal.
If you notice that you, or someone you love, seems to be really struggling to move through grief, it might be time to talk to a family doctor or counselor.