It comes to all of us – the final farewell. We recently had a loss in the family. It was not unexpected. Everyone had had time to prepare for the inevitable. Regardless of that, it still hurts. 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. It leaves scars that serve as reminders. 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.
However, 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.
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 :
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
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...’
There are many other frameworks for explaining stages of loss and grief. that have more steps in them. Jenni Wright-Parker, an RN, identifies seven of them. Her work too is based on extensive experience of working with people who have lost much.
There is no right or wrong way to mourn. If either model helps make sense of what you are experiencing, well and good. Or a merge of both. Or a different one entirely. It validates that what you are going through happens to all of us at one time or another in our lives.
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.
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.