Finding Genuine Peace in Understanding Loss: The Five Stages Of Grief
Grief never ends… but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay.
Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith… It is the price of love.
Have you ever experienced loss? A loved one’s passing? A family divorce? The loss of a job? The illness of a loved one? The ending of a friendship? The giving up of a dream? A breakup? The loss of a life we could have had?
What did you feel? Angry? Sad? Guilt? Or just plain nothing?
Our Emotional Response to Loss
Grief is the emotional response to a loss of any kind. While most people consider grief a normal emotion related to a loved one’s passing, we can all experience grief in a broader range of life experiences.
- The divorce rate in the United States is still very high.
- Financial struggles continue to overwhelm many of us.
- Mental and physical health challenges can throw curves into family dreams and,
- The cycle of life continues…
Understanding Leads to Peace
Understanding our varied emotional responses to loss can lead us to a more genuine place of peace, acceptance, compassion and love.
Our Grief is Unique
Just as there are no typical losses, our grief in any situation is quite personal and individual. Two people can have the same experience and feel entirely different emotions. When we understand the various ways we grieve, we can find more peace, compassion and the ability to accept the varied emotional responses that can show up.
I recently spent time with a friend going through a family break up and painful divorce. She could not understand why her oldest son was incredibly angry with her, why her daughter kept bringing up ways that they could “bring her daddy home,” and her youngest son seemed to have no reaction at all. My friend herself said her own days were mainly filled with tears.
5 Stages of Grieving a Loss
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist and a leading authority on grief. She taught extensively about the five stages of grief and loss. Through her wise teachings, a broader range of applications continue to be developed leading to more understanding, compassion and acceptance of our multitude of reactions to loss.
While each person’s response to loss is unique, there is a framework of five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. Knowing and identifying these stages within ourselves and others is one path to understanding and finding peace in a challenging experience.
My friend’s divorce resulted in her children experiencing anger, bargaining and denial, while she experienced deep sadness.
No Right or Wrong Stage
There is no right or wrong stage. While we all may have unconscious rules about the way people “should” or “should not” be, remember not everyone shares those same beliefs. Know that those rules say much more about us than they do about the person we are judging. Judging someone’s grief limits your ability to support and love them through their loss.
Occur in Any Order
These five stages are not hard and fast destinations on a linear journey but rather places where people might need to spend time to process their own grief and emotions. There is no order to the stages nor do people have to experience all of them. There also may be other responses that do not quite fit in this framework and those responses may also be part of a person’s journey of grief.
Knowing these five stages can help us become better equipped to accept and cope with the inevitable losses we all experience in life.
Grief is Unique
Just know that grief is a highly individual journey and grief is as unique as each individual person. Some people wear their emotions openly on their sleeves, while others hold it more internally and may show no outward signs of sadness. The key is to avoid judgment and be open to love, acceptance, and understanding.
Reaction To Shock
Denial is often the first stage of grief. It is often the reaction to shock and can help us adjust to a painful situation and deal with an experience than can seem overwhelming. We can feel like life makes absolutely no sense. We might just feel numb and question the meaning of life. It’s your mind and body’s way of helping you cope and allowing only in as much as you can deal with. Denial and refusing to acknowledge a situation is a way to protect yourself from feeling vulnerable and not in control. You may find that there is a period of time when you just can’t face the facts. This is a normal part of the grieving process.
Denial Can Be Helpful
While denial may seem unhealthy, unkind and lacking in compassion, in fact, it might be quite helpful. Denial gives your mind a chance to absorb the painful information at a pace it can handle that won’t send you into an instant psychological overload and breakdown. It can give you a chance to sort out the situation and deal with it in a more mindful and healthy way.
When Denial is Harmful
The key with denial is to make sure that you do not get stuck in this stage to the point where you are ultimately not able to function or ever deal with the issue. Denial can be harmful at this stage if it prevents you from getting help or dealing with an issue before it spirals out of control. There is no hard and fast line that you cross from helpful to harmful, it’s more of an awareness and noticing when more damage is being done by denying the issue.
Take Your Time
I recently had a friend share with me that he did not want to deal with his cancer diagnosis. Like many of us, he feared the “C” word and the impact it could have on his life. Yet, life has a way of giving us what we need and he found himself caring for a dear friend in the hospital dealing with her late stage cancer. His denial reared its head and now he has found the courage to get clarity and certainty about his own diagnosis.
It’s really ok to say, “I can’t deal with this right now,” knowing that it is only temporary. While facing your fears can be challenging, the unknown can create more unconscious anxiety than dealing with the actual facts. Ultimately, you move through your denial as you progressively become more able to process your emotions around the challenging experience.
Emotions Will Surface
Know that as the denial fades, the underlying emotions will surface and a different kind of processing will begin. Your denial can give you the much needed time to be ready to handle these emotions as they begin to arise.
Helping a Loved One
While it can be frustrating to be with a loved one in the denial stage, pause and determine if they just might need a bit more time to process what is happening. Let them know you are there for them whenever they are ready. Give them a safe and loving space to open up and learn the important art of listening without needing to fix the situation.
Anger is an Important Emotion
Anger is part of the emotional spectrum of life. It can also be a very important stage in the healing process.
Society Teaches Anger is Not Good
Many of us learn that anger is not good. We suppress, deny and avoid our anger rather than feeling it. Others are taught that they are above anger and pretend not to feel it. Yet others even use anger as power and a way to justify unjust behaviors. None of these are healthy emotional responses.
Anger Can Be Helpful
While anger left unchecked can be harmful and unhealthy, there is another side. In this stage of grief, the more you allow yourself to feel angry, the sooner it will begin to dissipate and lead you toward healing. Anger can be a bridge to a connection back to life where denial can seem like you are lost at sea. Anger can provide a spark of energy and a vehicle to connect to someone, even if your connection is through anger.
Know that underlying the anger is a whole host of other emotions and underneath that can be pain. While moving through your anger may seem endless, just know that you will eventually be able to face your other emotions.
Angry at Everyone
During this stage, we can feel angry toward a whole host of people — family, doctors, our loved one that died, friends, yourself and even God. Many ask, “Why would God let this happen? Where is God in all of this?” If this is you, you would not be the first to question your faith.
Know that anger is a signpost of the depth of feeling you have about life. Anger can represent the loss of your deep connection to a loved one that is no longer there or a situation that has passed.
During moments of anger, ask yourself:
- What insights into yourself can you learn from your anger?
- What really matters to you and how has that been affected?
The Depth of Love
The depth and intensity of your anger also shows the depth and intensity of your love and connection. Move through it, learn from it, and allow it to pass naturally.
Let’s Make a Deal
Bargaining is the stage where we attempt to make a promise, a deal or an agreement to regain our perceived control of life.
Grasping for the Past
Before a loss, we declare we will do anything to avoid it. Sometimes we say, “I will do anything if she will please recover.”
After the loss, we attempt to bargain to reverse it. We grasp for our past and for our life to be as it always has been. We even bargain with our emotional pain, attempting to negotiate and do anything to avoid the feeling. Yet, wherever you go, there you are and the only way to heal is to move through it.
Sometimes miracles do happen. People do recover from terminal illness. Cancers do go into remission. Rarely is it due to bargaining and yet sometimes people feel their bargain has caused the change leading to more bargaining. We have heard declarations, “I will devote my life to serving others if only…”
Would, Could, Should
In the bargaining stage, there are endless “what if I…” and “only if I…” statements that we recite both silently in our heads and openly to others. We review the past and work to uncover all the things we believe we would have done, could have done, should have done, and maybe still can do to prevent the tragedy.
Guilt also plays a great role in this stage and we blame ourselves and believe we could have done something differently.
While at times we hope and pray that our bargaining will change events, it never really changes reality.
Moving through bargaining happens when you begin to accept your new reality and start to restructure your life based on what is in it now, not by what could have been.
Weave Through the Stages
Know that you weave in an out of all of these stages. Some only last moments while others can last days and weeks.
Sadness is Part of Life
Some people refer to this stage as depression. Depression seems to be such a loaded word these days and I prefer to refer to this stage as deep sadness. Know that sadness and even brief moments of depression are all part of a natural spectrum of life’s emotions.
You might question whether this sadness is normal, or someone may encourage you to, “Snap out of it.” Realize that the loss of someone you love or the loss of a life you dreamed of, can be very sad and at times feel depressing. That means you are human. You feel deeply for life and sometimes the loss of a loved one can seem so unnatural and something that possibly could be fixed. Yet, it may not help in the moment, but we are all really aware that this is part of the cycle of life.
A Journey of Goodbye
At this stage, the deeper feelings of grief enter our reality, deeper than we sometimes can imagine. It’s a time when we journey through our goodbye to a loved one or a situation. This type of sadness is not mental illness. In fact, it is quite appropriate and a natural reaction to a great loss, yet it can feel like it will go on forever.
Sadness Can Represent A Depth of Love
To not feel any sadness would not be natural. Allow the sadness and understand it represents your depth of love and feeling for someone. While it may seem that at times you are buried under the weight of a dense fog, know these feelings are a true and real part of life. As you move through the sadness, know that the contrast between joy and sadness allows you to appreciate even more of all of your emotional spectrum in all its colors of light and dark and many shades of gray.
The New Reality
This stage is about coming to terms with loss. It does not make the loss right or OK. It is merely the stage where we accept and begin to learn to live with our new reality. This is a deeply personal and unique experience. Acceptance does not always mean happiness but it can mean peace.
Many people who have lost a loved one, attempt to live the same life as when their loved one was alive. The acceptance stage is where we learn to reorganize our life with the new reality understanding life has forever changed.
This stage does not mean that you won’t miss them. You may even sometimes still shed a tear. What it does mean is that you have allowed yourself the gift of progressing through the stages of grief and have found acceptance and some peace in your new reality. You might even find ways to honor their memory and legacy that often bring you some joy, some inspiration and some memories of magical moments to continue to give their life meaning and purpose.
It is time where you can find peace amidst the challenges and realities of life.
30 years ago, my phone rang and I quickly realized that it was one of those calls we never really think we will get. The nurse on the other end of my phone was telling me to get to Marin General Hospital as soon as possible. She said my father had a heart attack and would not make it much longer.
How could this be? My father was a beloved ballroom dancer, loved every style of big band swing music, and lived his life with joy and love for God and his children. Yet, during the next 2 hours, I went through all five stages of grief.
While I drove to the hospital, I was numb and could not deal with the idea that my loving kind father would not be in my life. (denial)
When I arrived and was able to tell him I loved him and kissed his forehead, the tears and sadness swept over me like a harsh wave. (sadness)
When the alarm bells went off on his monitor and they rushed in with a crash cart, I began wondering how I caused the bells, and what if I was a bit quieter and more gentle when I arrived. As they pushed me out of the room, I though maybe I should have been more aware of his medical condition and payed more attention to the signs that I was sure were there but I missed. The dialogue seemed to go on forever even though it was merely moments. (bargaining)
When the doctor came out of the room and sat me down to tell me my father died, I felt a surge of anger. First with myself, then my brother and then my mother, and ultimately with God. Anger was useful because it blocked the sadness that was crushing my heart. (anger)
We honored my father in all the traditional ways. We said prayers. We united in our grief. And time passed. The tears at every photo slowed and shifted to smiles at magical moments we shared. I share his life stories with my children and honor his memory through living his legacy of, “The gift is the giving.” While 30 years have passed, I have moments where I miss his love and zest for life so much my heart aches. I periodically cry knowing I will never hear him say, “Kiss me goodbye my pumpkin princess.” Yet I find my peace in knowing that he lives in my heart every day and that the cycle of life continues through me and through my children and hopefully someday their children too. (acceptance)
A New Reality
Acceptance, I suppose.
A new reality. Definitely.
Time to grieve. Yes - a must.
We adjust. We change. We grow. We continue to love. We share our legacies of love and of life. Always. we love…
If today I lose hope, please remind me that your plans are always better than my dreams.
Be Well, Be Joyful, Be Inspired…
Have a Beautiful Day…