5 stages of grief

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Life doesn’t make sense. Everything on earth is vanity upon vanity, we often say when faced with difficult, high-impact or irreversible life situations such as death of a loved one.

People from all walks of life and across many cultures—at some points in their lives—go through the stages of mourning identified by David Kessler as:

  1. Denial and isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the author of “Death and Dying (1969), noted that these stages of grief are universal; for example, people mourn in response to the painful reality of terminal illnesses, separation from a once-sweet marriage/relationship, loss of valuable property, disability, or death of an animal.

In our bereavement, it is important to understand that there is no specific length of time to be observed at any stage of grief. The levels of intensity also vary at different stages, and contrary to the popular belief, there is no specific order among the five stages of loss. This is normal and perfectly ok.

The key understanding for everyone is that you don’t really need to go through these stages in a chronological order. Rather, knowing that the steps can serve as useful guides in the grieving and healing processes matters most.

You should note that people grieve differently; some wear their emotions on the sleeves and mourn outwardly whereas others cry less but silently suffer intense grief. Additionally, people often pass through two or more stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death. Unfortunately, not many people have the patience required to reach this final stage of grief.

It is a truism, however, that the death of a loved one prods people into evaluating their feelings of mortality. Throughout the five stages of grief, it is common for us to find comfort and courage in these words: “As long as there is life, there is hope.”

Here’s a brief explanation of the five stages of grief:

Denial and isolation: Immediately after learning of an individual’s own terminal illness or death of a loved one, the first response is denying the reality of the situation—sometimes, with the words like “it’s can’t be true” and “this isn’t happening”. This impulsive action is normal, according to experienced psychologists, because it helps us rationalize our strong emotions.

Denial is therefore a common defensive action that helps us absorb shock from our losses and—to a great extent—numb us to our overwhelming emotions. We get some kind of relief once we are able to block out the words and shield ourselves from the facts. We also try to convince ourselves that life is meaningless and nothing matters to us anymore. For many people going through a mourning period, this temporary response to grief helps us deal with the first excruciating wave of pain.

Anger: Once we successfully manage our grief with “denial and isolation,” it takes little time before the masking effects begin to wane. Then pains from the irreversible situation re-emerges, but at this time, the intense emotion is directed towards friends, family members, complete strangers or inanimate objects.

It is common for people to direct their anger towards a deceased or dying loved one even though we know they are not to blame. Emotionally, we tend to begrudge the person for leaving us. Rationally too, this makes them “responsible” for the immeasurable pain we feel. We eventually begin to feel guilty for being angry and this worsens the situation—making us angrier for a longer period.

Anger, in most cases, extends to even the doctor who diagnosed the illness but was unable to provide a permanent cure for our loved ones. Although health professionals are easy targets for people at this stage of grief, it is important for us to understand that health workers handle emergency situations every day and are used to death and dying but none of these make them responsible for our losses—notwithstanding few exceptions. Health professionals share the pains and suffering of their patients, including those that mourn for them.

It is advisable that you ask the doctor to offer more explanations on your loved one’s illness, or plead with him to give you extra time. Book a special appointment to meet the doctor for face-to-face discussions or wait to ask more questions over the phone—preferably, at the end of his day. Request for clear answers to each question regarding your loved one’s medical test and treatment. You need time to understand the available options.

Bargaining: When you feel helpless and vulnerable, it is normal for most people to regain their mental balance by asking “if only” questions such as:

If we had visited the hospital earlier than we did.

If only we had asked for a referral to a better hospital.

If only we had treated them better and showed them more love.

These attempts to bargain with shortcomings of the past can’t change the pain we feel. But to lessen the grief, another weak line of defence we often consider is to make a secret pact with God, our maker who alone has powers to postpone the inevitable. Christians believe in miracles, and with faith, expect a sudden turn of events capable of protecting us from such painful realities.

At this stage of bereavement, we often blame ourselves for doing something we could have done differently to save our cherished ones. Bargaining is often accompanied by guilt.

Depression: The two types of depression linked to grief are: (a) a reaction to practical implications connected to the loss. This stage is highlighted by sadness and regret. For example, we worry about the huge cost of burial rites. In our grief, we also worry about ignoring or not spending enough time with other loved ones who depend on us for their happiness. The negative impact of this phase can be reduced by simple clarifications and use of more reassuring words. On the other hand, we may need few kind words and helpful cooperation from friends and family.

(b) Secondly, depression can be more subtle and private in the sense that we need time and space to prepare for the final separation i.e. bidding our loved one farewell. In such situations, all we really need may be just a hug.

Acceptance: Not everyone can afford the luxury to reach this last stage of grief. This is more so because death can come unannounced and we may never go beyond the denial or anger stages. The acceptance stage focuses on those left behind rather than the one being mourned.

Mortals are not created with the metaphysical power to resist the inevitable and deny ourselves the chance to make our peace. At this stage, people are often withdrawn and calm. Although this isn’t a joyful period, it must be distinguished from depression.

It is important to understand that some of our dying ones go through this final stage of withdrawal even without being aware of the looming death. Limited social interaction is normal since only physical decline may produce a similar response. This grace and dignity shown by our dying cherished ones should be accepted as their parting gift.

What you should know

It is hard to cope with loss of loved ones. Grief is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience that no one can waive for you. In other words, nobody can help you pull through it more easily since you understand your emotions better than anyone else. However, friends and family can be there for you—to provide the needed comfort through this process. The best you can do is adapt and allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes. Your natural healing process will be prolonged if you show resistance.

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