The Stages of Grief: Myths and Realities
Let’s admit it, if we have a choice in our life between chaos and order, most of us will choose order. Order gives us a sense of control and order helps us find meaning and understanding when something bad happens. The death of someone close to us is one of the most difficult challenges any of us will face in our life, and so when it happens, we look for something, anything, to help us makes sense of and navigate the turbulence that follows.
There are no Fixed Stages of Grief
Let’s first understand that grief is not an emotion. Or rather, grief is not *just* an emotion. Grief is all of the reactions we have following a loss. Those reactions are certainly emotional, but grief affects us in every part of our life: mental, social, physical, and spiritual. The more profound the loss, the more profound the experience and reactions that follow.
You’ve probably heard of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (DABDA). These stages are attributed to the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. It was never Kubler-Ross’s intention that her work be used to create a linear model to describe the grief experience, but over the years her early pioneering work into the experience of people who were dying was attributed to the experience of people who were grieving, and so the “stages of grief” were born. However, over the decades, researchers and grief counselors alike have been unable to validate the existence of any linear, compartmentalized experience of grief. Simply put, grief is messy and there is no direct path through it and no model that predicts what it will look like. Our grief experience, the way we work through it, and the time it takes, is just as unique as we are and the relationship with the person we lost.
Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds
Following a major loss many of us have heard, or perhaps even said to someone else, “it gets better with time,” or “time heals all wounds.” But the passing of time alone does not heal the wounds of grief. Griefwork, over the course of time, heals the wounds of grief. If we were to put you in stasis for 20 years and wake you up after that time had elapsed, your grief would be just as real then as it is today. Why? The reason is because simply passing time leaves the pain of grief right where it is: unresolved and unprocessed. We must face the pain of our loss to work through it, and not just keep ourselves busy and distracted in the hopes that after enough time passes we will feel better.
Beyond Acceptance: Doing the Griefwork that Follows
As a therapist who has specialized in grief counseling, over the years I have found that acceptance is a tricky word. Sometimes acceptance is interpreted to mean that you are ok with what’s happened. Well, try telling a parent that they are supposed to be ok with the death of their child, or telling someone who lost their partner to suicide or murder that it’s ok. You never have to be “ok” with losing someone you love, because often saying you are “ok” can feel like you are saying that you approve of what has happened, or like the relationship wasn’t important. I’ve worked with many clients who have said to me that they’ve accepted the death of their loved only to still being suffering tremendously following their loss. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you don’t hurt anymore, instead, acceptance is more about facing the reality of the loss. This is where the real work of grief begins, not ends. Grief work includes facing and carrying the pain of the loss, learning how to make adaptations in your life that the loss creates, and about finding ways to stay connected with your loved one while still finding a way to stay connected to life.
Your Own Path to Healing
Your loss is your own experience, and there is no one-way to work through it, and your path forward will certainly will not be a linear, one-size-fits-all path forward. Part of your individual struggle will be understanding your own grief and then finding a way to work through it. In recent years many new ways of understanding and working through grief have emerged, and while most people will be able to work through their grief on their own, sometimes we can stuck, and that’s where having a specialist with experience in working with grief can be a very helpful aid.
Finding peace and order in the midst of chaos is what we want, and it’s why I think the stages of grief have had such a popular hold in the public mind, but clinging to this model can present challenges for people struggling to work through their loss. If you find yourself really struggling to understanding your grief, or working through it on your own, I encourage you to reach out to an experienced grief professional for help. A major loss will leave us forever changed, but we can learn to live with the loss, and we can find hope that through our griefwork over time, things will be different, and that different can be ok.