Hello… Grief… Goodbye … and Hello again!
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance… Up, down, and all around… These 5 are the well-known stages of grief noted by the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. Other grief models discuss additional stages – as many as 7. It’s important to remember that no matter the number of stages, you won’t go through them in an orderly fashion. You may repeat one stage more than once, and you won’t go from stage 1 to stage 5 in a linear manner. You will cope, heal, and move through grief in your own way. It is important not to compare your grieving process to someone else’s. You are unique and deserve to honor your personal experience. My hope is to share my experience and offer suggestions, to help you feel less alone as you try to understand your experience and make meaning of your loss.
Grief can be experienced after death, divorce, broken relationships, and major unwanted life changes. It is not only about death, but also about the loss of the life you once had. Finding support through friends, community, counseling, family or support groups can help.
My father died last year. Every day I continue to find my way in a new world without my father in it. Knowing what grief can look like is a helpful reminder to be patient with myself and practice self-compassion. Friends who lost a parent, or both parents, cautioned that the death of a parent can run deeper than other losses. I am no stranger to death – it has stolen loved ones from my life before. I thought I knew the process intimately. I had no idea that the depth of losing my father would cause an ache so deep that I would feel it in my bones. Even with all my training and past grief experiences, this was deeper, darker, and more painful; casting a long, dark shadow that I recognize I am still finding my way out of.
I share my experience because grief is not something to endure alone. It helps to hear the experiences of others. We cannot control what others around us do, as they cope with the loss of the same loved one. Any loss is unique, not the same. No two people have the same relationship with another person. We can seek support from trusted others and do the best we can from one moment to the next. We can make personal meaning of the loss and draw closer to our safe loved ones.
1) Denial … When you learn of a loss or pending loss, it is normal to resist the truth. You don’t want to believe this new reality where your loved one will no longer exist. This new world can feel frightening and unsettling. In this stage, you may refuse to accept bad news. Helpful tips: The more you fight reality, the longer it takes for acceptance and healing to occur. It helps to talk to a counselor or trusted friends about why you resist this new painful reality.
2) Anger … It can boil inside, sneak up, and explode unexpectedly. It is a natural part of grief – even if you don’t normally consider yourself an “angry” person. You may lash out at others unexpectedly. Sometimes, you can be the target of someone else’s anger. In this stage, you may find yourself blaming others or being blamed. Anger is to be expected. This reality hurts and is out of your control. Helpful tips: Identify anger for what it is. Validate it. And do your best not to damage other relationships. It is okay to be angry in a time like this. Blaming is a sign that you may feel powerless – but it is not helpful; it increases your sense of powerlessness. Slow down, take deep breaths, and reach out to your trusted emotional supports. Take short walks whenever possible; sketch, doodle, or listen to music. Take control over one thing that is in your control.
3) Bargaining … “Let’s make a deal.” A plea for this reality to shift, a prayer, an earnest request for a higher power to spare your loved one. This, too, is a normal part of the process. You want life returned to what it was. You want your loved one, and life with them in it, restored. Guilt can often surface during this stage. Helpful tips: Recognize this as a normal part of the process. Notice when you find yourself thinking “if only” and “what if.” Find someone you trust to process guilt and get other perspectives. The reality is that death is a part of life, you cannot bargain a change in the finality of death. Faith can provide a great deal of comfort in this difficult time. Recognize that if you bargain and plead, but the result is still the unwanted outcome, anger and even depression can rise. The sooner you move to acceptance, the sooner healing can begin.
4) Depression … Sadness can overwhelm. It is normal to feel sad. Your reality has changed, leaving only memories of your loved one. This sorrow can feel dreadful. Anyone who has experienced grief would agree. Despite this normal and expected response, our culture does not seem to allow much space for grief, sadness, and healing after a death. You may crave company yet lack the energy to go places or be around others. You also may not want to see others; just be careful not to isolate for long periods. Give yourself alone time while finding balance in being with others. Others can help you avoid spinning too far into a state of despair. A loss can bring up other losses, and your mind and heart need time to recover from the new as well as past losses. Helpful tips: Don’t hide or ignore what you feel – find places or people you can be open and vulnerable with. This can be found in support groups, counseling, or with close friends and trusted family. Find healthy ways and safe spaces to process emotions. Distractions can help. Write, draw, or sing in the shower (research shows that singing releases endorphins to improve mood). If necessary, limit alcohol use. Be aware if alcohol use increases dark thoughts and mood. Dialectical Behavior Therapy teaches the concept of “Opposite-Action.” Sometimes when depression strikes, you may have to do the opposite of what you want; make yourself shower, wash your hair, brush your teeth, eat a nutritious meal, etc… Allow yourself to honor your loss. You cannot change this new reality, but you may find comfort in daily moments honoring your loved one’s memory with an intentional act; such as, lighting a candle, writing a letter to your loved one, painting with random colors – create a place on a canvas to express and contain your sadness. Plant flowers or a tree in honor of the person. Sadness will come and go, make space for yourself to feel it in contained ways.
5) Acceptance … Facing reality … It hurts! The heart aches. It can bring some people closer while dividing others. The fact is you cannot change reality. You can treat yourself with compassion, acknowledge the tough emotions, and slowly learn the beauty of a new reality. Helpful tips: Imagine a world where the loss nibbles without taking a giant shark-bite out of your heart. Imagine you can genuinely smile again as you recall a beautiful memory shared. Make personal meaning of who the person is or was to you. It can be helpful to donate to a cause that was important to them. Again, there is no one right way to move into this phase. It looks different from one person to the next. Some losses are more profound and poignant than others, acknowledge and validate this without judgment. Find a way to honor your memories, make a new memory that is inspired by them.
In sum, be gentle with yourself during this time. Notice when different emotions arise. Validate how you feel without judgement. Lean on people you trust. Some will rise to the occasion and be your grief warriors, at your side, never missing a beat. Others can’t. It’s to be expected; be compassionate with them as well as yourself. Grief is not convenient for anyone.
Learn who you can lean on and and who provides the support you deserve and need at this time. Join a support group on Facebook or search in your area for local grief recovery groups. You can make meaning of your loss. It may always ache, but the hope is over time the ache burns a little less.