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Myths about grief

Myth 2: Grief follows predictable stages

To grieve is to be human. We grieve when we are separated from those we love, through death, through divorce, through separation or alienation. A child may grieve a divorce, a parent may grieve the loss of a precious child or you might receive news of a terminal illness and grieve for a future that will no longer be as you had planned it. Grief is unfortunately the price we pay for love.

‘Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Grief has been the subject of many studies, the most commonly quoted being the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Naming the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) helps us make sense of our loss. But are the stages the same for everyone and do they follow a specific pattern or order? Is it as simple as working through each stage and arriving at acceptance?

Before we answer these questions, let us examine the five stages of grief in a little more detail:

Denial

When you meet grief, you bump into denial.

Denial is a strong defence mechanism that operates at an unconscious level to help you ward off unpleasant feelings.  You confront reality and immediately deny its existence. You cling to false hope that you are mistaken and that everything will return to normal. In the denial stage, you are not living in ‘actual reality,’ rather, you are living in a ‘preferable’ reality to help you cope with the grief event.

This alleviates short-term pain but also prevents you from making positive changes.

Anger

When you meet grief, you feel anger.

Anger is void of reason, blind, like beasts and monsters. (Robert Burton)

Once denial is overcome, anger arises because of feelings of frustration, of injustice and unfairness. There is a need to find someone or something to blame. Your anger may scare those around you and they may try to get you to suppress your feelings. Research suggests rather than keeping anger inside, you should express it and by venting your anger will grow weaker. Directing your anger toward something or somebody is what might bridge you back to reality and connect you to people again. It is tangible. It’s something to grasp onto – a natural step in healing.

Bargaining

When you meet grief, you begin to negotiate and bargain.

When you are confronted with traumatic news you seek to negotiate or compromise in the hope that you can change the situation or outcome. People often seek to negotiate with their God or a higher power, bargaining for more time to live or for the return of a loved one in exchange for a reformed lifestyle or some personal sacrifice. Guilt may also surface and you may play many “what-if” scenarios in your mind.

When grief is at the door it is too late, but we bargain still.

Depression

When you meet grief, you see depression in the mirror.

Depression sets in when you give up hope. You despair at the recognition of your own mortality and your inability to change reality. You draw down the corners of your mouth, you breathe slowly, and your blood barely circulates. You feel weak and your eyelids droop, your head hangs down.  You may even rock to and fro.  You may cry and you may even scream.  You might just sit for a time. In this state, you may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.

When you meet grief, you wish you never had.

Acceptance

Acceptance sets in when you come to terms with what has happened and you determine that you are going to be ok by learning to live with your new reality. You embrace your mortality or inevitable future. It’s not a “good” thing – but it’s something you can live with. Acceptance only visits when you are comfortable with grief.  We are all afraid to sit alone with our grief, when you are ready – invite grief in.

Grief is unique, personal and unpredictable

As much as the five stages model helps us to identify what we may be experiencing or feeling, it is not to say that grief is linear or predictable. Grief is messy. Grief never truly ends – you simply learn how to live alongside it as you adapt to your new reality.  You may repeat stages.  You might skip stages. You may travel a road that seems to have no destination.  You may get stuck on one stage or all the stages at once. You should not suppress or deny your grief. It is yours and nobody else can tell you what you should be feeling or how to grieve. Seek out family and friends who give you space to grieve in your own way but who are there when you need them.

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