The Many Shades of Grief

Dad's casket close up

Grief in all its various shades has popped up in so many blogs of late. So I decided it was time to revisit and rework this post from two years ago.

It comes to all of us – the final farewell. A member of our family died earlier this year.   It was not unexpected. It’s sudden-ness was. Everyone had had time to think about the inevitable and perhaps prepare a little. Regardless of that, it still hurt. The finality of it. The knowing that someone you deeply cared for is no longer physically here. Raw, new grief has rough edges. Edges that cut and bleed. But, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds. As trite as it may sound, nevertheless there is a great truth in it. Time does heal. Time softens the rough, bleeding edges, the acuity and sharpness of it. Time softly wraps the remembering and reminiscing  enabling us to look back with love and a smiling heart.

This got to me to thinking. As it often does. Thinking about loss and grief from a wider perspective. It is not just death that leads us into that valley of hurt. It is all kinds of losses that life throws at us-

  • loss of a job
  • loss of a relationship
  • loss of a home
  • loss of health

These are just a few that come to mind. Those big life losses come wrapped in a package of other losses. Take a job for instance. It’s loss of income. That can lead to  a real rollercoaster of other losses – relationships, home, health, dignity, self respect.

I once met a man who called the parklands of North Adelaide home. He had been a highly paid and well respected professional who lost his job. Subsequently his marriage broke up. Along with that he lost his home and connections to all his networks, including family. When I met him he had recently been discharged from hospital after a significantly serious operation. He required regular dressing changes and treatment post discharge. The story he told with quiet dignity was harrowing. When he was ready for discharge no-one bothered to ask who was picking him up and supporting him. So he didn’t bother to tell them there was no-one.  He took himself back to live under the trees in the parklands in winter. He lived to tell the tale. To us health care professionals as part of our training. It stopped us in our tracks I can tell you. Such a simple thing to ask – and no-one thought of it.

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Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Wikipedia

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a passionate, minute French psychiatrist. She pioneered the way to a better understanding of grief and loss through her work with the dead and dying.  Her now famous Five Stages of Grief has been refined by David Kessler who worked with her for some time. He has this to say –

‘In our work, On Grief and Grieving Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and I wanted to revisit the stages for clarification in grief and loss. The  stages have evolved since their introduction and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.’

The homeless man  described his journey, experiences and emotions as he had lived them. Listening to him I heard him as if he were describing the stages of loss and grief in a higgledy piggledy way. Which is exactly what happens. Real life does not mirror a neat step by step framework.

So just what are the Five Stages ? Here’s a brief summary of them :

  • DENIAL

A sense of being overwhelmed, of life not making sense, of numbness and shock are the usual hallmarks of this first stage.  ‘Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process.’

  • ANGER

can be intense and directed at any and everything that could be blamed for what it is that you are experiencing. It’s important to allow yourself to experience it and work through it, for it too is healing.  ‘Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.’

  • BARGAINING

This is the domain of what if’s, if only’s and guilt. It is a time when we seek to find ways to bargain our way out of the hurt and pain. To undo what has happened, to return to a time when all was not as it is now, at the time of loss.  ‘…the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.’

  • DEPRESSION

A sense of surreal emptiness, a deep grief and loneliness, of feeling like everything is too much of an effort and a waste of time. These can be the signs of acute reactive depression. A response to circumstances beyond our control. It is a natural and normal thing to feel depressed when loss has been intense. As the healing process continues it will lift. If for some reason it becomes more long-term and pervasive, it may be indicative of a deeper clinical depression.

  • ACCEPTANCE

Learning to live with and realise that life has forever changed and is different is a part of this phase. Finding new ways of being in this differentness, recognising and accepting that it’s healthy and OK to move on with life is equally a component of it. Sometimes it means dealing with survivor guilt too. Especially for those who have suffered traumatic losses through war or other catastrophes. ‘Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life...’

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There are other frameworks for explaining stages of loss and grief that have more steps in them. For example Jenni Wright-Parker, an RN, identifies seven of them. Her work too is based on extensive experience of working with people suffering loss and grief. It seems to me an extended version of Kübler-Ross’s. There is no right or wrong. If either model helps make sense of what you are experiencing, well and good. Or a merge of both. Or another one entirely. Normalising a painful experience somehow makes it seem more manageable. It validates that what you are going through is something that happens to most people at some time or another in their lives.

This is Jenni’s model  :

  • SHOCK & DENIAL-

    You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. 

  • PAIN & GUILT

    As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs.

  • ANGER & BARGAINING-

    Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame….  This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion. 

  • “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS-

    Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. 

  • THE UPWARD TURN-

    As you start to adjust… your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your “depression” begins to lift slightly

  • RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH-

    As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life 

  • ACCEPTANCE & HOPE-  

    During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward. You will start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. 

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‘Life has many ways of testing a person’s will,
either by having nothing happen at all
or by having everything happen all at once.’  
Paulo Coelho

 

 

What to do if loss comes to roost in your life:

  • Be gentle with yourself
  • Be aware that it will get better
  • Know that it will take time
  • Remember that it’s OK to cry, be angry, feel hurt…and that your feelings will yo-yo
  • Spend time with those who care for you
  • Do things that you normally enjoy
  • Talk about it as much as you need to
  • Make sure you eat and drink
  • Sleep and rest when you need to
  • Remember you are not alone
  • Remember too that seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness

Life happens to all of us. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s downright hard. They are the times when we need to dig deep and find those inner reserves. BUT we don’t have to do it alone.

© Raili Tanska

Steps for Peace
Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself, and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
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19 thoughts on “The Many Shades of Grief

  1. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my son’s death. I know I will never get over this loss but I am moving more every day to the place where memories don’t hurt and usually make me smile. For me, that I think is the place everyone wants to arrive at and need to be reassured that the day will come.

    1. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for a parent to lose a child. To find that sense of peace and a restful place for memories is so important. Sending you much love, Bernadette xx

    1. You’re right, Opher, we’re both at that age when there are many leavings to deal with. Somehow, it doesn’t seem to get any easier. I’m glad you found it useful.

  2. Thank you for sharing Raili. I’ve been thinking a lot about my grief and Journey as mine and Jims wedding anniversary moves closer as well as the 20 month mark of his death…..I’ve come a long way.

  3. Oh yes…anniversarys…Our day is coming up. One month eight days after our 50th he left …never to return. I think we knew time could be short but I really wasn’t ready when it happened. I’ve been through all of the stages, except
    being mad. Who would I be mad at? Certainly not my husband because he would want to be with me. Certainly not God. because I fully trust his will for our lives. The doctors….no they did what they could and didn’t do what they should not do. Life is different and I am still finding my way through this after almost two years.

    1. Anniversaries can be so hard. A lifetime together and then – left to create a new way of being. My sister is going through this now, but her journey has only just begun. It’s a journey that is very individual, and the stages and phases certainly are not linear, or even always experienced by everyone. I wish you every blessing x

  4. Thank you for this post. May I disagree on something, though? I don’t believe in the 5 stages of grief, as I have not experienced it this way. If I understand the 5 stages of grief correct, Kuebler-Ross developed this after her experience with terminally ill patients who were confronted with their own imminent death and the subsequent grief they went through. If I understand it correct it isn’t about having lost a loved one, but being close to ones own death after having received a certain life expectancy.

    In my own grief I have not experienced these 5 stages, 2 or 3 of them, but neither in 1, 2, 3 chronological process, and also not in general.

    Grief is extremely individual and whatever “stage” it all depends on so many factors. …

    1. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment. K-R spent a lifetime working with and researching grief. A lot of it was with the terminally ill, but not all. And she would be the first one to agree with you that grief is very individual, is not a linear process going neatly from stages 1 -5. Hers, like all models, is a way of explaining and demystifying a process, providing a framework, some context and understanding to what people experience. Like all pioneers in a field of research, her work has been expanded and developed further by many others.
      Like you, I know from my own personal experiences with grief that it is not a neat process. It waxes and wanes and can come back to unexpectedly ‘bite you in the bum’ even years later after you thought it was all done and dusted, Some would label that PTSD – triggered memories, flashbacks from perhaps a place, even a smell or a sound…
      As you so rightly say, it is very individual.

  5. Thank you for your response. Yes, of course I don’t aim to critique or question an “expert” and I’m sure she has a lot of strong points and experience. I share only from my own grief, and that is a load. If I was to summarize in one word what grief s (for me) it would be: Messy.

    Quote: “providing a framework, some context and understanding to what people experience.” … I can live with that. 🙂

    Great article, though. Thanks again.

    1. I did not take your comments as criticism at all. It is good to question and critique – in fact, most ‘experts’ would welcome that as it gives them more food for thought and opportunities to tweak their work! Frameworks are like coathangers (think models strutting their stuff down the catwalk) – it’s a way of showcasing an understanding about something. its never the end all and be all. What it does do is open doors to new ways of thinking.
      Messy is a good word to describe grief.

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