“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” ~Norman Cousins
Feelings of loss we experience when we lose a loved one through death are often profound and can send us into dark places. We feel stuck in a black hole, a vortex of feeling deep sadness and despair, hopelessness, and uncertain about the present and the future.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross has written extensively on the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, there are actually seven stages that comprise the grieving process: shock and disbelief, denial, pain, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance/hope. The process moving through each of these stages is not simple or easy. And we do not progress through these stages in any linear or defined way, rather one that is very individualistic. Further, it is also possible to experience more than one stage at any given time. So, understanding each of these stages will help you identify and cope with your grief.
The emotions of shock and disbelief start the grieving process and become heightened, especially if the death of a loved one was sudden and unexpected. When a person is in a state of shock, they feel numb, closed off, empty, and express dread. It is also possible that a person doesn’t feel anything. The disbelief a person feels is profound. It is difficult for them to process what has actually happened because ‘they just cannot believe it.’
As a person feels shock and disbelief, denial often sets in. Denial is when a person refuses to accept what has happened. Often this happens as a way to avoid pain and deny the reality of the situation. It could also be self-preservation in the moment as they are so overwhelmed with emotions, that denial might feel, in some ways though unconsciously, comforting. With denial, the person would not appear sad or possibly express any reaction to the loss. Denial can be short-lived or in more extreme cases, extend for several weeks.
We have all experienced pain because that’s life. But with death, the pain is exponentially much more intense and life-altering. When the feelings of shock, disbelief, and denial begin to wane, deep pain and guilt are often experienced. While some people may look to others for support to help them manage their pain, others turn towards potentially destructive behaviors such as using drugs or alcohol. Feelings of chaos and uncertainty that overwhelm them become difficult to manage and cope with.
Feelings of anger are all too common. In some ways, it’s an almost accepted and expected feeling. A person may lash out at others and question why this is happening to them. Subconsciously they may look for people to lash out at another person or create incidents to ‘give them permission to express their anger’ because they need to release these strong emotions. It’s important to understand these feelings so that when or if this happens it doesn’t destroy your relationship with this person.
When a person is in this stage, they are racked with guilt and feeling vulnerable. They may express the difficulties in their relationship with the person who died and all the things ‘that were left undone and unspoken.’ A person will often use the word, ‘if’ a lot. “If only I had done this or said that, things would be different.” Or, “if only I had been a different person, been nicer, more empathetic.” This is a very difficult stage for a person because despite where they are in the grieving process, they have no control over this situation. The person is gone and they cannot rewrite their narrative or have the opportunity to do things different or over. They feel stuck in this regard and blame themselves for the death.
Moving through the grieving process, depression is something that a person can and often does, move in and out of. The feeling of depression often aligns itself with the other stages of grief. When a person is depressed, they will experience great sadness, hopelessness, frustration, and loneliness. They may turn their back on any type of encouragement, be less inclined to do the things they once did and feel stuck. They cannot get out of bed. They feel there is a black cloud over their life. They can also experience a loss of appetite and their sleeping habits change. These are things to look out for.
This is the final stage of grief and the place where the person finally accepts the reality of what has happened. This is a positive and growth-oriented stage. It is a place where a person starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel and comes to accept that the death was beyond their control. They seek to move on and forward in their life. And although the death of a loved one can still bring sadness, the unbearable pain and extreme uncertainty they once felt, has dissipated. Acceptance can also be learning how to live with the loss in a way that is healthy and promotes positive well-being and mindset to living life.
During times of death and loss, we seek and need closure. The essence of closure means coming to a place of complete acceptance of what has happened and learning how to honor the transition away from what is over and final onto something new. In essence, finality. Closure allows us to move on. Draw a line in the sand. Turn the page and start a new chapter. It can also be a time of reflection. Not just what we have lost, but the understanding and accepting our own personal journey through the death of a loved one.
The most important thing to remember is that your journey through grieving the loss of a loved one, is simply your journey. No one can define it for you – nor should they. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. If you hold yourself to a specific time table, you may actually prevent yourself from healing because the focus is on the time not on the process or yourself.
The reality is that death and loss is inevitable in life. Yet, how we manage it and learn how to move through and eventually beyond it, is critical.
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