During a time of loss, it can be helpful to know the stages of grief. First described in 1969 in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying, they can be helpful as a reference to understand the process of any loss – be it losing a wallet, a job, a pet, a relationship, a loved one, or yes, your preferred political candidate for office.
The first stage is shock and denial. This stage needs no real explanation. Perhaps many of you reading this are in shock right now. You may feel disembodied, disconnected from reality. Perhaps you feel like you are in a fog. Nothing seems that real, least of all your loss. How can that loss be real? It is unreal that it happened at all. Your brain is turning off to protect yourself from this reality. You deny its existence. You may wake up and say to yourself, “That did not happen.”
The next stage is anger. You are mad! Your anger may be directly related to your loss (for example, you’re furious at the surgeon who botched your surgery), but you may also be mad at a lot of little things that seem disconnected from your loss – for example, you may be mad at your dog for barking, at your roommate for being noisy, at your children for playing loudly, at your spouse for doing something normal. You feel like you’re going to snap often, and you do, or you may stuff your anger and feel even worse. You may be driving and flipping off other drivers or even screaming in your car. You are pissed off, and rightfully so. Your anger feels strong and powerful, even while it’s sometimes confusing since you’re not quite sure why you’re so mad. Rest assured, it’s a stage of grieving.
The next stage is bargaining. This comes disguised as “if only…” statements. If only I had gone to the doctor sooner. If only I had brought my dog to the vet earlier. If only so-and-so had done this or that so that this would not have happened. If only if only if only. Our mind is playing games with us to distract us from the painful reality.
Sadness is the fourth stage. We’re realizing the loss fully and realizing what a loss it is. We are so sad — we miss our dog, or our spouse, our healthy knee — and sadness is a hard emotion to sit in. It isn’t an active emotion like anger. It sits in our hearts, in our bodies, and seeps throughout our being. Sometimes it prevents us from getting out of bed, or from sleeping. Sometimes we stop eating, or eat a lot. Sometimes we have a hard time getting to work, and lose our interest in previously pleasurable activities. (Sadness is a normal part of grieving, but if you are feeling significant distress or significant impairment in normal functioning, I do recommend you get help from a therapist or get evaluated by your physician.)
And finally comes acceptance. Acceptance is not the same as happiness, but rather, a calm knowing that this reality is true. It is a type of peace, even though it’s a resigned peace. Your head is a little higher, as is your heart. Your loss still hurts, but not as much. Perhaps you have a renewed sense of who you are and where you are in life. Perhaps your next step becomes clear.
If we understand the stages of grief, we can understand our own processing, and understand that we’re not actually going batty – our head games or anger or sadness is simply a stage in the process. It’s also important to know that there is no timeline for your grief. You may cycle through to acceptance fairly quickly, or it might take years. As well, the stages are not linear, even though they were first described that way, and you may not go through them in order or visit each one necessarily. It’s helpful to view the stages of grief like a spiral, since we can revisit stages we’ve already been through. Even when acceptance is reached, you may be triggered by something and return quickly to anger, or sadness. However, we usually revisit these stages with less intensity and duration than the first time.
My wish for you is that you fully experience your emotions during your grieving process, even though it’s difficult to feel anger and sadness. Find times to fully feel them, and process them by talking to a friend, journaling, or seeing a professional. Befriend them – they are getting you through to the calm on the other side. Be willing to sit in the disequilibrium by grounding yourself somehow – perhaps by being with a loved one or stroking your cat. Know you’re not going crazy – you’re grieving.
With naming comes self-knowledge. With naming comes strength. With naming comes intention. And with all of these comes a transition to a more integrated self. I wish you peace if you grieve, as you grieve.