Grieving: A Brief Discussion

Many refer to grieving as part of a cycle; and it is. Grieving is the process of accepting, internalizing, and hopefully eventually accepting a significant death or loss in one’s life. In 1969, a study performed by Kubler & Ross showed that when individuals grieve, whether due to the death of a loved one, or a divorce, move, or other kind of significant shift, it typically happens in a five-part pattern:

The first stage is disbelief, where the pain or shock of the incident is so powerful, the human psyche attempts to protect itself via the defense mechanism of denial. This sounds foolish, but the coping methods of “fight, flight, or freeze” as dictated by Freud are fully applicable in the mental and emotional realm, not just physical. Although short-lived, the delaying effect of the mind convincing itself that the threat isn’t real is often an essential step in preparing the individual to completely feel, absorb, and eventually cope with the incoming pain and hardship.

The second phase involves anger, in a variety of forms and fashions. As the effects of the original disbelief wear off, the immense pain and anguish strikes the individual, often with ferocious intensity. Because the unconscious and subconscious parts of a person can only be so prepared, whatever pain cannot be immediately handled is redirected. It is said that fear is the mother of anger, and often we become angry because the psyche doesn’t have answers to the dangerous threat that this new death or loss has brought into the picture.

The third ‘step’ of grieving is defined as bargaining. Not as blatant or obvious as other stages, bargaining is the mind’s first efforts to try to accept the reality of the harsh situation. However, this typically occurs by consciously or unconsciously trying to rewrite the past, and it almost always occurs in the form of “if, then” statements. “If only I had paid more attention, then I could have done something differently” or “If I had just been there, then I could have prevented all this.” This eventually turns into oaths, vows, or ‘deals’ made with God or a higher power, again trying to regain control of something we may, or may not, have had control over in the first place.

The fourth and often lowest stage of the cycle is depression. Although this is not to be confused with clinical or chemical depression, it can easily (and often does) become that. It is a myth to believe that all who grieve do so fully and successfully. This area of grieving is associated with sorrow, lethargy, and sadness. Often considered the most important stage of true grieving, what happens here often determines the course of happiness or lack thereof for the future. All three of the prior stages are methods of trying to avoid facing up to the full brunt of the pain, but it must be felt…fully.

The fifth and final phase of grief is acceptance. It is important to note that it is not automatic or somehow guaranteed that everyone reaches this point. Furthermore, acceptance is most certainly not overwhelmingly happy, but rather a position of calm and an opportunity to make final peace with a situation. After acceptance, live becomes ‘back to normal’, and often, it is better. The death of a loved one or other profound loss is still missed and honored, but no longer painful or avoided. It becomes a part of one’s story, and a transformation of growth and love.

In all of this process, remember that the path is most definitely not linear; those who grieve move back and forth between phases, and often get stuck or even bounce between them, seemingly at random. This is a taxing, intrinsically deep and painful time of life, but does in fact bring greater meaning and purpose to one’s life moving forward.

Written by Clif, a freelance writer for SereniCare Funeral Home in Arizona