Grief is a ubiquitous human experience, but somehow we are never truly prepared for the many faces that bereavement presents. Perhaps our Western culture, with its emphasis on perennial youth and denial of aging and death, encourages us to turn a blind eye to the experience of loss.
Over the course of my life, in both personal and professional contexts, I have had the opportunity to sit and “bear witness” to grief with many people. So often, I have found wounded souls feeling bewildered and surprised by the experience of grief. In spite of my professional experiences with grief, I have found myself confused and frightened in the face of a recent loss.
In their pioneering work, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler introduced the five stages of grief. I have found these very helpful for people who find themselves hopelessly lost in bereavement. These stages provides signposts for individuals to find their way through the grieving process.
Grief is such a profoundly different state from our typical daily ups and downs that it is easy to feel overwhelmed and scared that nothing will ever return to normal. The five stages provide people with some context and understanding that things will return to a new normal. These stages do not necessarily progress in a linear, stepwise fashion and individuals may find themselves cycling through multiple stages in one day.
- Denial: This is often the first stage of grieving and is characterized by a sense of numbness and confusion. People are often struck with a sense of shock and consumed by the busyness of funeral arrangements and rituals. As the reality of the loss sets in many feelings begin to emerge.
- Anger: Many people report feeling angry while in the midst of bereavement. You may find yourself angry at your loved one for leaving you; at doctors or the medical system; at yourself for not doing something you wished you had; at your other family members; or at God and the universe. Anger is an activating and powerful emotion that often masks underlying hurt and pain. As Kubler-Ross and Kessler point out, anger can give some structure and definition to the great void of loss.
- Bargaining: Bargaining is characterized by endless, “what ifs?” People often find themselves consumed with guilt as they think of things they could have done differently. In this agonizing stage, people spend time in the past replaying what could have happened differently.
- Depression: As the reality of the loss sets in and survivors find themselves in the present without their loved one, a deep sadness descends. Often people have the urge to withdraw from others, feel as though they are in a fog, and sometimes wonder if life is even worth living without their loved one. It is important to distinguish the deep sadness and depression that accompanies grief from clinical depression. Often our society encourages mourners to “snap out of it” and get back to their normal lives. However, these deep feelings of sadness are a normal and natural part of realizing that your loved one is not coming back.
- Acceptance: Acceptance does not mean moving on or being “okay” with the loss. It really involves recognizing, bit by bit, that our loved one is physically gone and that the new reality without our loved one is permanent. We begin to slowly reorganize our lives and live in the now, gradually beginning to enjoy life and connections again. People in this stage are likely to reach back out to their friends and begin to invest in the lives of those around them.
With that as a backdrop, I received an email from a lovely lady who has written a beautiful and insightful illustrated book about the grieving process. Grief is a Mess by Jackie Schuld highlights the individualized and, oftentimes, strange nature of the bereavement process. The author points out how people grieve differently and require different periods of time to heal. It goes beyond the stages of grief, illustrating the frustratingly unpredictable nature of grief. What I love about this book is its emphasis on the unexpected grief reactions that sweep people off their feet. The book ends by offering the hope of growth following loss. Click here to obtain your copy.
While grief is a devastating experience that disrupts your life, it is important to be aware that complicated grief (click here to read more) may require additional support. If, after a period of time, you find that you are experiencing intrusive thoughts about your loved one, a sense of meaninglessness, or strong feelings of anger or bitterness, it might be time to seek the support of a mental health professional or support group.
Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She specializes in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention as well as mindfulness based therapeutic approaches. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email [email protected]
Schuld, J. (2015). Grief is a mess. Tuscon, AZ. Jackie Schuld.
Kubler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2014). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York. Scribner.