Grief is not an easy road. Universally and across all people, it is one of the most debilitating human experiences. It is an indelible experience that can feel inescapable at times, numb at others.
Grief happens and it hurts. But there are good reasons why grief strikes us to our core so awfully. Grief is evolutionarily important, and universal to all humans. It feels not simply emotional- but grief can feel physical, it can intrude of your cognition and thoughts, energy and health. Grief is all encompassing- and for good reason!
As harrowing as it feels to grieve, grief and worry come part and parcel with accepting the gift of being able to love and care for one another. The trade-off for the ability to love deeply, to care for another and to forge strong connections is that when we lose these- we have to hurt.
It is sometimes hard not to feel weighed down by the pressure to move on and ‘let go’, yet also feel shame for doing so and disconnecting from the important memories.
While grief is often thought to have 5 stages, there is no uniform way to grieve and these stages do not follow a fixed progression. In reality, grief is not a logical, linear process that comes to an end once you’ve hit the stages nice and neatly. The phenomenon that is grief may not be unique, yet there is no one way to move forward with grief.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s famed five stages of grief are below; these have come to be known better as guiding ‘states’ of grief, in which people may find comfort in recognising their own distinctive and changing experiences in these universal states. While for some this journey map of grief can be helpful, it is important to not let these stages take over how you need to feel and what you need to do to honour your grief.
Stage 1- Denial
An air of shock, or numbness, or nothingness. Perhaps the loss has not yet felt real, or really hit.
Stage 2- Anger
This is a time of demands; a demand to know why this loss had to occur. Sometimes this anger will turn inward, sometimes outward, while yearning for answers.
Stage 3- Bargaining
The bargaining stage entails an ‘imagine if’ mindset. It is common to play a loop of ‘other’ scenarios wherein you could have intervened to ‘undo’ the loss. This is a yearning for repair, for time travel, and a desperation to find an alternative solution to loss.
Stage 4- Depression
Despair, and withdrawal. Depression is common and ranges widely in time and severity, an experience that for some can last years.
Stage 5- Acceptance
A full acknowledgement of the loss that has taken place. In fact, this stage very commonly occurs early on in the process, with the sense of acceptance gradually becoming larger as time goes on. This may be a stage where peace is found in accepting the grief and loss.
Grief is also cyclical. The states of grief are not something from which to ‘graduate’- the impact of loss can hit many different times, and across the lifespan.
A Different Way to Think about Grief
Often for a grieving person, the idea of stages moving to closure can feel like compounding pressure- to know the right way to grieve, or not to ‘do it wrong’. While intended to be helpful, sometimes its effect is the opposite- it can feel like there are milestones to hit to progress and then move on.
Grief is profound and painful because love and care is profound and beautiful.
And while grief can at times make you feel completely numb to feeling, and at other times overwhelmed with the distress of emotions, what matters most is finding ways to honour how YOU need to grieve, how to cherish the memories that made them so loved and actively hold these with you as you move forward through life.
What if grief is not something that must be fixed or ‘closed off’ and instead becomes part of your tapestry. Grief can be enriching; to be knocked sideways in accepting the wonder of life, and to respect life by feeling its loss. Grief can also take a village; healing sometimes involves the social support of others rallying around the bereaved, creating closer social bonds in the aftermath of loss.
Expressing grief has been shown not only to increase coping, but also to improve our immune system. Using the arts- poetry, writing and reading, art and music- can facilitate expression for many.
The medical idea of healing or closing a wound does not seem appropriate for grief. We WANT to keep our connection to that which we have lost, and we want to cherish the bond we have as unique and irreplaceable. And in fact, we get to live more enriched lives when we do.
Grief can be an evolving and creative opportunity for story development and change, rather than an unpleasant task to be worked through as quickly as possible. The acceptance of a loss can enable the next steps of grief; to process pain, to experience the stories, to find ways to actively remember a lost one and feel their influence.
Grief alters your lens through which you view life; and coats it with wisdom, with reverence for life and with the complexities of what it means be a human who can connect deeply. Moving forward while keeping those bonds and memories close, is not only conducive to thriving, but helps to mobilise greater joy and more richly felt experiences.
Often it can feel like you’re struggling to progress while at the same time hold on to these memories of lost ones in a really precious way. Grief counselling can help us give privilege to the voice and memories of our loss, with enough momentum to keep travelling.