Grief...and the 'Stages' - Part 1

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist, developed the five stages of grief in 1969. Her book “On Death and Dying” was written following her observations after years of working with terminally ill people. The stages she identified have become quite well known, and are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While I can see there is some benefit to being able to describe the human reaction to news of approaching death, my experience as someone who has suffered the sudden traumatic loss of a spouse is that these stages don’t necessarily apply. As human beings, our brains always want to make sense of life events; interpret them to fit a schema or story; put them in a box. It helps us feel safe. It has been clear to me at times that those around me have wanted to label my grief as “Skye’s going through the ----- stage” to help diminish the fear and anxiety of the story they are watching unfold. Life feels less confronting if we have a sense of control and predictability.

This is dangerous though. Because the truth is, these stages are not linear. Just as with life, grief is something uncontrollable and unpredictable. There is no timeframe, or timeline. We cannot tick off the stages - “ thank goodness I’ve gone through the ----- stage” as if it’s a roadmap and we’re marking off destinations. Sure, the stages can help us identify what we are experiencing, and perhaps feel a little more normal in our reactions, but they don’t have a prescribed order – grief ebbs and flows however it damn well wants to. Some emotions are fleeting; others remain simmering away for a very long time. Not everyone will go through all the stages of grief. Indeed, some people will experience other stages that aren’t listed in these specific five. Grief is unique. It’s unique to the individual, the circumstances around the death, the relationship you had with the person who died, their age, the internal resources the griever had before losing their loved one, the level and type of support the griever as, their belief system… grief is not prescriptive.

This makes grief scary (how long am I going to be feeling so desperately dark??? Is there ever a light at the end of the tunnel??). It’s uncontrollable. It’s unpredictable. It’s something that support people can feel out of their depth being around, because who knows what emotions they are going to be met with when they visit their grieving person today? Even myself, over the last 2 and a bit years, have felt angry when I have landed ‘back’ in heavy, immovable grief (why aren’t I DONE with this already???!). I’ve often said that exact thing to my psychotherapist – and her answer is always “Skye….you’re expecting too much of yourself. You’re exactly where you should be”. This is helpful. But also, CAN SOMEONE JUST WAVE THEIR MAGIC WAND AND MAKE THIS BE OVER, PLEASE???. Only a few months after Nathan’s death, I wrote these words (my therapist at the time kept telling me I was “over achieving” in grief – in hindsight, only 3 months in – she was totally right!):

“The thing about death, is that it's permanent. I know that's an obvious thing to say. But I've been mulling over why I keep expecting myself to wake up one day and "feel better". And I think it's because most hard seasons in life and painful experiences we go through are transient. They can last for hours, days, weeks, months - but generally they end. We get therapy, we learn lessons, we choose to see the silver lining, we learn tools to help us through. It's what I've been trying to do these past 3 1/2 months and yet I keep waking up feeling like I don't want to live through another day, crying, exhausted and getting annoyed at myself that I'm still 'stuck' here. Maybe I'll have a couple of days of a little bit of emotional respite, and then I'll fall into the dark well of grief again. And it makes me angry. And I've realised. This is unlike any other experience I've ever known. It's like living on a different planet. And it's because death is permanent. I'm never going to see his face (this side of heaven) again, feel the warmth of him, or wake up in the morning to the cup of tea he's left beside my bed. Every time I reach my arm across my bed, it's empty. Still empty. Always empty. I'm forever going to be watching his two young daughters growing up without him. And it never stops hurting like it hurt on that very first day. The loss will always be indescribable. The gaping hole in our lives always too deep to see the bottom of. The wide open crevasse always there. The crater left by the meteor that slammed into our world, always a scar on the landscape of our lives. As much as I try to put words around this experience, the truth is there are no words. No words adequately describe the depth of pain that losing your soul mate, best friend, your life partner at 40 brings. No words for the longing to hear his voice, have one more goodbye. Somehow we start building a new life without him in it, because what choice do we have? But that gaping hole, that wide open crevasse, that crater? It's a scar on the landscape of our lives forever. Life may grow again into something with pockets of beauty, new memories will be made - and are being made - despite us. But it will never be our Plan A. And that's almost impossible to accept.”

Grief – it lasts a lifetime. Because the people we loved, and lost, cannot return to us in the vibrant, full of life, very present form that we want them to. Grief is never “done” with. We never “get over” it. We learn, in time, to live with it. To assimilate our grief into the new life we are living. To slowly adjust to the new normal. And even perhaps to believe that there may be goodness ahead of us. The simple message is this: some experiences in life don’t fit into a box. I’m learning, slowly, that emotions and reactions to devastating life experiences need to be allowed to have their own space and expression without me trying to control them. It’s not easy. It’s helpful to try not to label, or prescribe, when you are talking to your grieving person. In my experience, labels have not helped. Even though it’s incredibly difficult, the most wonderful gift you can give is your listening ear. Just listen. Embrace. Love. Cry. Be present. Believe it or not, that’s enough.

Part two is coming…my own personal experience of the ‘five stages of grief’.

Image: Nathan's memorial seat in the beautiful Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains that he loved so much.

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