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For most people, the holidays are a festive time spent celebrating with family and friends. But for others, it is a sad time with empty seats around the holiday table. For them, the holidays are a time to mark the days, weeks, months or years since they lost a loved one.
This year there will be two conspicuously empty seats around my family’s holiday table.
On September 10, I received a phone call no one wants to get. A close family member had died by suicide. My mind was reeling trying to wrap itself around such unexpected and horrific news.
Just when the news began to sink in, I received another phone call. My brother-in-law found one of my closest friends dead after she had battled a variety of health issues.
As I began to grapple with the ever-present grief at the loss of my loved ones, I did what I always do when I am at a loss. I searched for answers. I became a student of grief, and today I will share with you what I learned.
On Grief and Grieving
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying introduced the world to the five stages of death. Decades later, Kubler-Ross joined forces with David Kessler to coauthor the book On Grief and Grieving which took those same five stages and applied them to grief.
On Grief and Grieving has become the definitive book on how we grieve. It is the gold standard. People have relied on this book for decades to work their way through their grief.
The five stages of grief have fascinated me since I attended a grief seminar in college. I filed what I learned in the back of my mind for the day when those stages would apply to my own life.
Grief Is Not One Size Fits All
According to Elisabeth-Kubler Ross and David Kessler, “The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help track messy emotions into neat packages…Our grief is as individual as our lives.”
I think people gravitate toward the five stages of grief because they want to quantify what they are feeling. They want to believe that there is a beginning, middle and an end to their grief.
Sadly, that is not the case. The five stages of grief are a starting point, but they are far from the complete journey of grief.
As I began to walk through this season of grief, I reexamined the five stages of grief and interpreted them in my own words.
Here are the five stages of grief revisited:
“For a person who has lost a loved one…denial is more symbolic than literal. It means you come home, and you can’t believe that your wife isn’t going to walk in the door at any minute or that your husband isn’t just away on a business trip. You simply can’t fathom that he will never walk through the door again.”
Denial may be the stage of grief easiest for us to understand. Although intellectually we know that our loved one has died and is never coming home, there is a part of us always waiting to wake up from the nightmare and see our loved one walk in through the door.
The death of a loved one is so overwhelming that it is nearly impossible to fathom that it is a reality. It is easier to believe that they will walk through the door any minute and ask us why we are so upset.
Personally, I am still waiting to receive a text from my friend, Shannon, and every time I walk into my sister-in-law’s house, I expect to see her husband, John, sitting in “his” spot.
“This stage presents itself in many ways: anger at your loved one that he didn’t take better care of himself or anger that you didn’t take better care of them. Anger does not have to be logical or valid. You may be angry that you didn’t see it coming and when you did, nothing could stop it…You may also be angry that you’re left behind, and you should have had more time together.”
I think anger is the natural next step once your mind wraps itself around the fact that your loved one really died. But anger doesn’t always make sense.
You may direct your anger inward or outward. You may be angry that your loved one was sick or that the accident happened. Or you may be angry that they left you behind, and the loss makes you feel like they ripped your heart out of your chest.
The death of my friend, Shannon, sparked anger at God for what I thought was an unjust end to a very sad life. I prayed for years for a new season in her life, and instead, her worst nightmare became a reality when she died alone.
In response to the suicide of my sister-in-law’s husband, John, I felt a different anger. It was self-directed because I am a mental illness awareness blogger who wasn’t even able to prevent the suicide of someone so close to me.
“…bargaining can help our mind move from one state of loss to another. It can be a way station that gives our psyche the time it may need to adjust. Bargaining may fill the gaps that our strong emotions generally dominate, which often keeps suffering at a distance. It allows us to believe that we can restore order to chaos that has taken over…As we move through the bargaining process, the mind alters past events while exploring all those ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ statements. Sadly, the mind inevitably comes to the same conclusion…the tragic reality is that our loved one is truly gone.”
I thinking bargaining is a stage of grief we can understand even if we haven’t yet experienced the death of a loved one. Most of us have had moments when we bargained with God or with ourselves hoping an outcome would be different. It is the same with this stage of grief.
This is the time we play devil’s advocate as we work through all the ways we could have made things end differently. We look back on past events with a distorted view of what happened. This is the stage that you conclude that your loved one is never coming back.
“After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. The depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to great loss.”
Once the truth that your loved one is gone and is never coming back, depression descends. It is important to remember that depression is an appropriate response to loss. It does not mean that you are clinically depressed or what you are feeling is a mental health issue.
This is the stage where people want to cheer you up, and doctors want to throw antidepressants at you because they feel uncomfortable. You don’t need to be fixed.
Allow yourself to slow down and embrace the feelings of sadness you are experiencing. Feel the loss down to your bones, so you can process your grief.
Even though depression is a natural response to loss, have safeguards in place if your depression becomes more dangerous than therapeutic.
“Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being all right or okay with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel okay or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality.”
I think there is a mistaken notion that when someone transitions into the acceptance stage of grief, that they are finally okay. There is a belief that the grieving process has reached its conclusion. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Acceptance doesn’t mean that you accept the loss or the sickness or incident that led to your loved one’s death. Acceptance means that you accept the fact that the new normal in your life is your permanent normal. It doesn’t mean your grief is over; it just means you have made the decision to adapt to your new normal.
A Valuable Framework
On Grief and Grieving is a valuable book because it provides a framework for our grief, but the authors never meant for us to view the five stages as a chronological progression of grief.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler want us to remember this truth: “People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one.”
The bottom line is grief is a highly personal journey. Your journey will not look exactly like mine and mine won’t look exactly like yours.
Give yourself permission to grieve in your own way. Accept the assistance of those who want to walk with you through your grief, but don’t let anyone dictate your process.