5 Things to Expect When You are Grieving


When researching how terminally ill patients respond to the news of their medical prognosis, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross pioneered the now classic 5 stages of death and dying. These stages -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- became the model for the grief process. But notice that her work applied to the ones about to die rather than to the bereaved who survived them. Subsequent researchers now speak of the tasks of grief.

Nonetheless, the stages of the grief process are useful to keep in mind. I suggest thinking of them as experiences of grief, instead of stages, because they may not happen in this order for you.

Denial

When a loss is profound, it can be hard to accept. There is often an initial feeling of shock, which is disorienting and overwhelming, making it difficult to process the reality of loss and grasp its implications. This can lead to underestimating or overestimating the consequences of the loss.

People have all kinds of reactions to shock. Some try to shrug it off, and attempt to minimize the impact. Others may have a panic attack or emotional melt down. Either way, the ability to consider what the loss means for them and their future is temporarily disrupted.

In the case of the death of a loved one, we can be in denial for a while about how much life is about to change. We might be in denial too about needing support, or about whether knowing an exact cause will make any real difference in how to cope. Denial in all forms is a sign that a rational thought process is unavailable, but it may be in a small way an immediate, unconscious attempt to prevent feeling the pain of the loss.

Anger

Loss can feel, for some, like a supreme insult, or an unjust deprivation of an accustomed right or privilege. There's nothing like insults and having rights taken away that gets the blood boiling. We can even get angry with the person who has died -- for leaving us with guilt, fear, pain, loneliness, hassles with insurance and mortgage companies, and unexpected bills to pay.

Anger prompted by grief may be short lived for some, but experienced longer for others, depending on various factors such as:

  • personal ability to cope with change

  • stability of one's job during the initial period of mourning

  • other ongoing pressures such as childcare

  • inflexible clients or contract deadlines

There can be guilt around the state of the relationship when death occurs. Self judgment creeps in with thoughts such as, "I should have insisted he get a physical but I didn't and now it's my fault he died." Taking that kind of responsibility is a heavy burden, and anger at oneself is a way to avoid feeling paralyzingly devastated.

Bargaining

Bargaining as a stage or experience of grief is about desperately seeking salvation from the inevitable, or at least the hope that a miracle will happen. One form of bargaining occurs when we seek the comfort of the deceased's continuing presence "in spirit", believing their presence can be felt, that their voice is heard, that they are sending messages of being okay on the other side.

While such phenomena can seem quite real, they are also a form of delaying the psychological need to say goodbye. Psychologist William Worden calls such bargaining the avoiding of the need to relocate the deceased. His view is that one of the important tasks of mourning is for the bereaved to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. You can read more about Worden's tasks of mourning here.

Another twist on bargaining may also show up in indefinitely postponing responsibilities and obligations, or in loosening one's inhibitions about telling off the boss. In an odd but common way, people who are struggling to come to terms with a profound loss such as death can be trying to find logical reason for feeling guilty.

Failing to pay the rent for 3 months is something that can be a clear reason for regret and guilt, whereas feeling angry or guilty that your wife died doesn't seem rational. Sufferers are bargaining to find a seemingly logical reason for their confusing feelings -- but emotions are always logical, and this kind of bargaining rarely helps to get through the grief.

Depression

There is no set timeline for how long grief lasts, but many people are surprised to still be grieving after just a few weeks or months. Some of the symptoms of grief are the same as the signs of depression, including:

  • loss of taking pleasure in usual activities

  • withdrawal from socializing

  • disinterest in eating or self-hygiene

  • over-sleeping

  • anxiety and panic

  • mental confusion and poor judgment

  • forgetfulness regarding appointments, plans, and responsibilities

  • spontaneous waves of sadness and crying jags

Because of that similarity, it's easy to assume 6 months or a year after a death of a loved one that you now have depression. Most people who experience such symptoms are simply still grieving, and will likely benefit more from counseling than anti-depressants to help them understand the impact of the loss, and get through it.

Acceptance

The last of Kubler-Ross's stages of grief -- acceptance -- is reached when we have worked through the pain and sorrow of the loss, and adjusted to life's new realities. Acceptance also includes feeling sadness and loneliness as normal experiences of loss, and re-engaging in one's own life.

One marker of acceptance is when we begin to socialize again, or take part in pleasurable activities. Another marker for some is in allowing ourselves to be open to new relationships, and starting a new chapter in our own lives.

People can get stuck at any of these stages, and at more than one, during a grief process. And how long it will take to finish grieving is a highly individual matter. Counseling will help you to understand the new challenges of grief and loss, and how to honor your loved one without putting a halt on living your life.

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