Looking at the Stages of Grief as non-linear
You might have heard about the “Stages of Grief”, which are often talked about as though you progress through one stage to another. What Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the woman who came up with the model, actually said was a word closer to “aspects” which has been mistranslated from the original German. She didn’t intend the stages of grief to be seen as linear, but rather a variety of possible reactions that a grieving person might experience.
Denial: Failure to Fully Grasp the Loss
Denial of loss can take many forms. It doesn’t have to mean that you refuse to admit that you’re loved one has died – although that does happen to people sometimes. More typically, you may acknowledge in your mind that you’ve lost the person, but not really feel as if it’s true. Or, you may have moments of forgetting, thinking of something that you would want to say to the person you’ve lost or accidentally picking something up for them at the grocery station. These experiences are common and normal, and they represent the mind’s way of coping with loss.
Anger: Rage that the Loss Occurred
Anger is one of the most complicated reactions to grief that I tend to see in my practice. Often, there is no place to target or channel the anger. Nobody can be blamed per se for the loss you’ve experienced, and so there’s no outlet for the grief. In a situation like this, it can be helpful to make art, journal, or talk with friends or a therapist about what you’re experiencing. Anger can become even more complicated when there is a sense of anger towards the person you’ve lost as well – for leaving you behind, for any health behaviors that might have contributed to the death, or for unresolved parts of your personal history. Again, the most important pieces for dealing with this difficult feeling are to know that it is normal and expected and to get as much support as you can for dealing with it.
Bargaining: Consciously or Unconsciously Trying to Undo the Loss
Bargaining can be overt and conscious, or more subtle. If you are religious you may find yourself bargaining with a higher power by saying that if only you could have your loved one back you would be more generous, or more devout. For other people, bargaining can be very subtle. You may not realize that the reason you are doing x, y or z is out of a secret, unconscious hope that somehow by doing so you will get your loved one back. But often our motivations are fueled by fantastic hopes that we barely understand.
Depression: Coming to Terms with Loss
Depression is the aspect of recovery from loss that entails feeling your sadness. It shouldn’t be confused with clinical depression, which is not a part of the normal process of grieving. Depression as an aspect of grief means fully acknowledging that you have lost your loved one, fully feeling how this loss impacts you and fully sitting with the irretrievability of your relationship.
Acceptance: Placing Loss within a Larger Context of Meaning
Rather than being a “final stage” of the grieving process, acceptance is a state that we are continually achieving and then forfeiting again. In acceptance, we come to terms with the fact of our loss and are able to cultivate a sense of carrying our loved one with us through memories and traditions. We feel connected to the person we’ve lost, even while we simultaneously recognize and experience our feelings around the fact. Acceptance often brings us closer to our own mortality as well, causing a host of other difficult feelings but ultimately bringing us the opportunity to create more meaning with the time that we have.
The Upshot: There is No “Normal” Way to Grieve
Kübler-Ross outlined several experiences that are expectable, but that doesn’t mean that she covered every possible reaction to loss. The truth is that grieving is as individual as we are. – everybody needs something different. Taking care of yourself during this really difficult time means paying attention to what’s happening for you, whatever it is, and using it to guide you towards knowing what you need right now. If talking to someone is part of that for you, please feel free to reach out to Monarch Wellness therapists in Washington DC or go to Psychology Today to find someone in your area.