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Losing someone you care about is never easy. And I’m not sure whether it makes a difference whether that loss is unexpected or not, whether the person is young or old, or how the loss came about. Loss is hard. I’ve lost my father, my stepfather, several grandparents, a cousin, and many others in my life, and I can tell you – it doesn’t get easier to lose the people you love. You just find ways to better cope with the pain. So many of us have learned that there is this cycle of grief you go through when you face a loss, and while that’s not entirely incorrect, it is slightly misinformed. You see, the cycle of grief is not what we’ve been told it is and the way each of us deals with grief is not going to follow a specific pattern.
The History Of The Grief Cycle
The five stages of grief were never meant to be applied to the trauma of losing a loved one, as so many of us have done. Rather, the original author of On Death and Dying, written in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler Ross, worked with terminally ill patients and noted that these are the stages experienced by those who are dying.
The Stages Of Grief
It is true that the loss of a loved one (or any dramatic change in your life, really) can stir up many of the same emotions. But it is a disservice to believe that every grieving person must experience all five of these stages in order (and often within a certain timeline) in order to grieve “properly.”
Instead, the cycle of grief is really more of a guideline to help you understand your emotions surrounding a trauma or life experience. Whether you’re facing a difficult diagnosis, you’ve just suffered the loss of someone you care about, or you’ve had a life-altering experience (even a seemingly small or positive change – a new job, new house, new spouse or baby – can bring up feelings of grief), the grieving process has a lot of similarities from person to person and situation to situation. But there are also a lot of differences as well. There is no one right way to grieve.
The first stage of grief, denial, is almost immediate and is what allows you to get through those early days and weeks after the trauma you’ve experienced. Having experienced several losses myself, I’ve noted that when someone you love dies there is a lot of planning and preparations to be done. There are notifications to be made, maybe even investigations to be done. This first stage of denial really helps you get through those things before the reality of what has happened really sinks in. It’s the early stage where you know in your head that things are different and you’re starting to think about what life will be like now, but you haven’t begun to truly fathom how to move forward. You’re simply existing, one moment at a time, not able to think much beyond the needs at hand.
Someone who’s received a difficult diagnosis may hold on to hope that maybe the tests were wrong or they got mixed up with someone else’s. When I got the call that my brother-in-law was gone, I was in shock. I kept thinking this can’t be right. There’s got to be a mistake. Surely there’s been a miscommunication or something. I’m sure I’ll hear soon that he’s fine and it was all just a big misunderstanding. I even told my friend that I wasn’t sure it was true. There seemed to be some ambiguity to what had actually happened. And I was hoping against hope that everything would turn out ok in the end. This is denial at work.
When I was in college, and only six months before I was to be married, my stepdad got sick. It started as something minor but progressed to a more serious situation. Because he was too stubborn to see a doctor, he ended up with pneumonia and by the time he finally decided to be seen, it was too late. He spent about a week in intensive care before his organs began failing one after another. We lost him at the age of 41 to an illness that was 100% treatable.
To say I was angry is an understatement. To be honest, I still feel angry sometimes. I feel angry that he didn’t go to the doctor sooner. I feel angry that he didn’t take better care of himself (he was extremely overweight and was a smoker, which both contributed to his rapid decline). I’m angry that my children now will never get to meet him, that he’s not here to be a part of our lives.
Anger is a very natural response to trauma. Maybe you are angry with God for allowing this thing to happen in your life. (It’s ok to tell God you’re angry with him, by the way). Maybe you’re angry with yourself, or your loved one, or with no one in particular at all. Anger in grief is natural and healthy. Just don’t let yourself stay there.
Pleading with God for a better outcome. Begging him to bring your loved one back, to take away the illness, to change your circumstances. This is the stage of bargaining. We begin to think through all the “if only’s” and “what if’s.” This was a big hurdle in our loss of my brother-in-law. See, the night before he died, he called my husband. We could tell he wasn’t well and he said he needed a ride home. But he was in another town, it was late, and we were heading to bed. Gilbert told him to see if he could find a ride from someone there and if not to give him a call back. Little did we know, that would be the last time we ever spoke to him.
My husband fought those “if only’s” for a long time. He felt responsible, somehow, for his brother’s death. If he had just gone and picked him up that night he could have saved him. He knew something wasn’t right with him, he should have gone. He should have taken him to the hospital. If he had, he might still be alive.
It was similar when my father-in-law passed away. He would often call my husband multiple times a day just to chat, so when he called him at work one day, my husband didn’t answer. And when he, in turn, called me, I didn’t answer either because I just don’t like talking on the phone. But when I listened to my voicemail and heard my father-in-law say, “I think I’m having a heart attack,” I sprung into action.
I called my husband, who by this time had already gotten the message and was speeding as fast as he could the 15 minutes or so drive it was from his office to his dad’s house. He called 911 and got his dad to the hospital but all the efforts to save him were too little, too late. He had what’s called an aortic aneurysm. Basically, in simple terms, his heart exploded. They did surgery and were able to repair the damage, but because of all his other health problems, his body just wasn’t strong enough to pull through. He passed away four days later.
My husband felt guilty for that too. If only I had answered my phone. If only I had gotten there quicker. If only we had gone to a better hospital.
But it’s not your fault. Eventually, you have to forgive yourself and move past your feelings of regret and guilt.
This, I believe, is the point in the grief cycle at which the reality of your situation finally, really, sinks in. You realize that there’s nothing you can do to change what’s happened. You can’t bring your loved one back. You can’t change your diagnosis or take back the terrible thing that happened. You just have to sit with the pain for a while. And it makes you want to just give up.
For me, I think this is one of the hardest parts of grief. We want so badly to go back to the way things used to be. But it’s not possible. You know, after my last major break up before I met my now-husband, I experienced a lot of this. I had truly believed that he was the one I would marry. I was beyond happy and felt like I had everything I ever wanted. And when it all came crashing down, I was devastated. At that time in my life, I wanted nothing more than to go back to what he had before.
But about a year later, he did come back and he wanted to take a second shot at a relationship. And I wanted that too, more than anything. But we were different people who had each hurt each other in the past. No matter how much we longed for what we had before, it just wasn’t there anymore and we couldn’t make it be. We had to acknowledge that things would never be the same and that we just couldn’t be together anymore. And that was one of the hardest realizations I’ve ever had to come to.
As the “final” stage of grief, acceptance is when you begin to come to a place of moving forward in your new reality. Of course it will be different, and acceptance doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s ok that this bad thing happened. Instead, you’re saying I’m going to be ok. Life is different now, but things will be ok again.
I’ve accepted all the losses and trauma’s in my life at this point, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still occasionally cycle through some of these grief stages again. There are moments when I feel angry or sad or even question what I could have done differently. But those moments are fewer and farther between now. And when they do happen, they tend to be shorter-lived. I’m able to pick myself up, dust off, and keep moving forward.
People say that loss gets easier with time. I don’t know if that’s really true. Sure, we’re able to cope better with time. The crippling pain we feel initially subsides. But that hole in your heart never fully closes. There’s always a part of you that longs for your loved one to be here, for your health to return, for a second chance. I’m not so sure the pain goes away, we just learn how to live with it instead of being consumed by it.
Grief comes in all shapes and sizes and the cycle of grief we’ve been taught isn’t meant to tell you how to grieve your loss. Each individual person handles loss differently and, chances are, each personal loss feels different even for the same person. While the cycle of grief does give us a good starting point for understanding our emotions, it doesn’t get the final say in how to grieve “right.” Loss is inevitable and yet still devastatingly painful regardless of the circumstances. Let yourself feel everything that comes up. Don’t stuff it away and pretend that you’re fine. Grief is healthy and holding it in will destroy you. If you’re struggling with grief over the loss of a loved one or anything else for that matter, don’t be ashamed to reach out for help and support. We all need help sometimes.