When we think of the word grief, or even Google the word for that matter, the first reference is to a literal, physical death of a loved one. Yet, are there not other times in or lives when we experience grief? The ending of a romantic relationship, even if it is the most mutual and “adult” of breakups, can still cause us to grieve for the loss of what once was. For a parent sending an adult child out into the world, we call it empty-nest syndrome, but it is still a grieving process. And ask anyone who has lost a beloved pet only to have someone callously remark, “it was an animal, get over it” we know a depth of unacknowledged grief that outsiders do not comprehend.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first published her work on death and dying and her theory on the stages of grief. These stages have been popularized and a bit misinterpreted as being static and more like steps , ie first stage one, then stage two etc. But as mental health professionals have learned about the Stages of Grief , the theory has come to be more understood as less rigid.
What I’d like to do is ask you to broaden your idea of what it is to grieve and use the Stages of Grief to understand loss.
Although it is listed as Stage 1 in the process, it doesn’t have to come first. You can experience denial at any point in the grief process. Denying that your relationship is unsalvageable as you grieve the loss of your marriage. Denying that your hair is greying and thinning as you grieve the loss of your youth. You might even deny feeling any emotions associated with a loss in order to avoid facing the loss.
Anger doesn’t always look like anger. Sometimes it looks like irritability, isolation or self-loathing, but that’s just anger wearing a disguise. Perhaps if you find yourself engaged a battle with a cashier over a coupon, this might warrant a bit of deeper reflection. Anger is a normal, natural reaction to grief and loss and there are many healthy ways to express it, sometimes though, we don’t choose the healthiest ways to do so. That’s where therapy can help us navigate our path.
Grief Bargaining is an emotionally charged plea, although it may lead to a changed lifestyle it feels more like a way to beat ourselves over the head with unmet promises. “If only I had worked harder, my boss would never had let me go.” “If only I had been a better partner, I wouldn’t be left alone.” “If only I had taken my pet to the vet sooner, perhaps they would still be alive.” Bargaining is a no win, but it allows us to express the pain that feels so frustrating and raw.
Like the other stages, depression can occur at any point. The deep wound felt when we have realize that our life has irrevocably changed settles into our being and weighs us down. We may notice that we are eating more…or that we are eating less. We may be using substances that dull our pain more and more frequently, or withdraw from those around us. Maybe we sleep all the time, or not at all; like anger, depression doesn’t always look like you expect.
Acceptance eventually arrives, but not on any particular path or timeline. And acceptance doesn’t always stick around. What you accept today may not be what you accept tomorrow. And change will have occurred that you didn’t expect. This is the process of growth and change. Do you remember you first crush, your first car, your first job, the first “something” that you thought was so amazing and wonderful and has now passed from your life? You once grieved for that thing/person/place/event/whatever as it, or you, moved on but, if you try, you can still recall the emotions of the passing. Have you accepted the loss? Is acceptance the pinnacle, or could you slip again into one of the other stages of the process?
This Blog is Not about Death.
This blog is about a different kind of grief, the grief that goes unacknowledged and untreated in our lives. This blog is an invitation for all of us to examine our emotions and take the time to understand that what may feel like anger, or sadness, or dysfunction may be unexpressed grief. This blog is my welcoming you to reach out to us if you find yourself feeling stuck in grief.