Although this article is geared toward grief over the death of a loved one, the grief cycle is relevant for any loss. The grief process provides a natural way for us to recover from our loss and move forward.
Generally the grief cycle includes: shock and denial, bargaining, pain, anger, depression and finally, acceptance. However, depending on the individual and the circumstances involved, navigating this terrain can be much more complicated.
Grief is experienced in many different ways and no two processes are exactly alike. That being said, these processes are similar enough that the following stages are like signposts, indicating to us that we are going in the right direction as we head down the path of our healing journey.
Although the stages below fall in a particular order, they can occur in any order, and at any time. Like the example of peeling an onion to its core, deeper layers being exposed may bring up previous emotional states, or even new ones. That’s good. Rather than denying these feelings, lovingly honor each emotional state that arises, however unpleasant. You will heal at a deeper level and at a quicker rate if you acknowledge and accept what you feel.
Shock and Denial make up a psychological buffer that helps us to deal with upsetting news. Its numbing effects protect us from going into complete emotional overload. This stage can last many weeks, and even, after much time has passed, it’s not surprising to hear someone say, “I’m still in shock! I just can’t believe this has happened!” While, in reality, we know this tragedy actually happened, this coping mechanism allows us to gradually adjust to our crisis, while keeping deeper pain at bay.
Bargaining pleas and promises are made in hopes of keeping our loved one alive. We might ask God, “If you spare my husband, I will go back to church.” Or, in a case after a death, “If I dedicate my life to service, please let me wake up from this nightmare!”
Guilt is very much tied to bargaining. This is a time that many get caught up in “What if” or “If only…” statements. Bargaining may also be a mechanism used to redirect our minds from the painful reality at hand. We may think we have some power and control in the situation if we offer up a part of ourselves, as if we could change the situation.
Pain sets in on even deeper levels as the denial fades. The real suffering begins now. There is an indescribable rawness experienced that is beyond hurt. We may try to describe the depth of our experience to others, but to them it is only a concept. Because of this, we may feel lonely and disconnected.
In an “above the fray” way, well meaning consolers may try to help us feel better with conceptual viewpoints. However, this tragedy is not just a concept to us, this excruciating and unbearable pain is experiential and is occurring at the deepest level of our being. The lack of connection leads to deeper feelings of pain and isolation.
Guilt and remorse may be experienced. We may pine over what we did and didn’t do for our loved one. We may regret wasted time while our loved one was still alive. These unproductive emotions only make the situation worse. Pain deepens with thoughts of “what could have been.”
This territory is treacherous. To avoid getting stuck in guilt and remorse, it is important to quickly take the lessons to be learned, and leave the rest. Dwelling too long in guilt can be difficult to escape, as it soon becomes a permanent view of reality.
In the world of our suffering, we wonder why people don’t always see the depth our pain. It is not uncommon to see dispassionate reactions from people who can’t seem to understand our crisis. We may even find ourselves wondering why those around us can’t better fathom our experience. Unlike seeing a physical body with its heart torn out, with blood everywhere, our emotional pain usually doesn’t register to others as such a traumatic event, unless they have experienced this sort of suffering first hand. Even then, no one can really feel exactly what we are feeling.
As a particular note of caution, if you, the griever, act like you’ve got it all handled, don’t be surprised if the people in your life believe you! If you appear stoic and unfazed, people may not reach out to you as much as they would with someone who is clearly suffering. Be authentic by allowing people to know your true feelings. Although it takes some vulnerability, allow others to assist. If you don’t let people know that you need them, after the fact, you could easily feel abandoned by the people who would have ordinarily reached out and supported you through this process.
After some time has passed, there will be “good days” and “bad days.” Even years later, we may suddenly burst into tears and we will know that its time to cry again. It’s okay to feel sad. We miss our loved ones. We may think crying will make us feel worse. The opposite is true. If we get our feelings out, we will feel better. The key is to keep feeling and expressing.
Anger can express itself in many ways. Feeling frustrated and helpless, we may be angry at the circumstances of our situation. “Life is not fair” is a common sentiment and death can be the ultimate validation that this is true!
We may drive ourselves crazy with “what if” questions. We may ask “why?” to everything. There is so much we can’t understand at this time, the “what if’s” and the “why’s” are impossible to answer.
We may be angry with God for allowing this bad thing to happen. We may have thought that if we were good, no bad could come to us. It may cause us to question our faith.
We may wonder if it was some sort of punishment toward us. But, the truth is both good and bad happens to everyone. Like it or not, this is part of the human experience.
We may be angry with ourselves for something we did or did not do while our loved one was still alive. We may be angry with another person we think may have contributed to our loved one’s death. We may be mad at our loved one for not taking better care while they were still alive. We may feel abandoned and be angry that we got left behind. We could be angry for a variety of reasons but underneath all this anger, is the deep pain of our loss.
There are many places to assign blame, but in the end, it’s futile. Anger rises out of the frustration that nothing can change the reality of the situation. Eventually, this anger will soften and fade.
Use caution during these times of anger. Anger is often irrational and erratic. Harsh words spoken may destroy remaining relationships, and cause unneeded trauma for everyone. Anger may create further feelings of isolation, so tread lightly. It may be helpful to write out your feelings. This way, they can be expressed without having to hurt another’s feelings and causing greater upsets.
Again, to progress smoothly on your healing journey, take the lessons and leave the anger behind. Many people have become bitter and resigned with such a dark cloud of negativity hanging overhead.
Depression is a time of quiet reflection, usually after all other emotions have expressed themselves. The realization has settled in.
We may spend many months in this painful funk thinking about, and missing our loved one.
A year of our life may pass by and we may still be unclear about who we are, or the purpose life holds for us. We may have thoughts of death and even wonder if we can go on living.
People around us may feel as helpless to help us, as we feel about our own situation. Because of this, some people stay away. Our loneliness expands.
People don’t like to deal with heavy subjects concerning death, for if they could actually descend deep enough to stand in our shoes, they would have to confront their own mortality. I mean, who really wants to deal with death when you’re living? That’s no fun!
Some may think we should “snap out of it” and look at the bright side. If only it were that easy.
Others will wonder if we are just trying to get attention, like that’s a bad thing. Attention is what we need the most! Our world has ended! We are in excruciating pain! We need someone to talk to and someone who will listen. We need to know that people love and care about us. We need to feel supported. If a good friend or family member can’t show attention and compassion to us, then who is going to?
Again, many of these mindsets are from someone who is operating from “above the fray.” “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” They truly don’t. But, because of these misconceptions, many walk this painful path alone.
Thank goodness for the brave ones who are there to lend continual support!
Feeling the loss of a loved one produces a lot of sorrow. Experience this sorrow. Grieving runs its own course and for this reason, it can’t be rushed. We need to take our time.
We may have to re-examine everything in our lives. There is a lot to sort through when a life falls apart.
We may think we will feel this way forever. It is hard to imagine that we won’t. But time does heal all wounds. Thank goodness for time.
Consider attending grief support groups or consulting a trained medical professional for information or therapeutic assistance.
Acceptance is when we finally turn the corner. There are flickers of hope and light that something is changing. Although, we will not ever stop missing our loved one, at least we are finally exiting the resistance stages of the grieving process. We are acknowledging and accepting the reality of our loss. The grief process is working!
Although there are still some “bad days”, our “good days” are a lot more common. Now, if we are to fully recover, we must begin to turn our attention from the sadness of death, to the joys of living. Our emotional state becomes lighter, as we gain strength, courage and wisdom from the experience we have been through.
Although we don’t have all the answers, we may come to a point when we realize that we don’t have to know. We are beginning to make peace with our loss and we know that we must continue to live without them.
With time and experience, we finally gain enough perspective to put our lives back together. As we begin to integrate into life, we begin to live again. We may make new connections, choose new paths and make difference decisions; it is possible that our lives will look completely different than before.
A lot has been learned about life and death along the way. We’ve learned about others and ourselves. We may have discovered our soul’s purpose and/or our life’s work. We’ve gained more love and compassion toward our fellow man.
Then, the day finally comes that we never thought would. Instead of crying every time we think of our loved one, now we smile, for we know that love is forever and they are never far away. Ironically, it’s not uncommon to feel a bond to our loved one that is even stronger then when they were alive.
Blessings on your healing path!
For an experiential perspective of the stages of grief, please read my personal experience entitled, “Grieving…How to grieve the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one”