We have all heard of the five stages of grief made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These are denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. Although her book On Death and Dying was intended for the dying, it has also been used as a reference for the bereaved. The myth is assuming this is a complete list of stages, that they come one at a time, and in an orderly manner. A more realistic and comprehensive list should include shock, numbness, denial, emotional outbursts, anger, fear, searching, disorganization, panic, guilt, loneliness, isolation, and depression. We gradually develop new strengths as we begin the healing process through old and new relationships, begin to see hope, help others, and eventually, accept and adjust to the loss.
Although many or all of these stages can occur, my experience has been that there is no order, length of time, or logic to the emotions we experience with severe grief. They can come in any order, often multiple emotions appear simultaneously, and if that weren’t confusing enough, many of these same emotions will keep circling back. Or, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Grief is like a circular trench. You might think you’re past one phase, but then it suddenly appears again.”
As bereaved parents we can feel as if we are losing our minds when these wild and unpredictable moods hit us. Some have compared grief to a roller coaster with its unexpected twists and turns, ups and sudden downs. Others see it as very large waves, which wash over them at unexpected times, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and unable to catch their breath. Familiarizing yourself with and recognizing these possible stages of grief can help you to be somewhat prepared when they come. Additionally, when we let go of other people’s expectations of how they think we should grieve, we can follow our own individual journey. This is the only way we can experience each of our true emotions.
Fortunately, these erratic and troubling emotions do not last forever. The time after the initial numbness wears off is often the hardest. In my case, the first year was the most emotional with excessive crying, inability to concentrate, and difficulty functioning. The second year was different but just as difficult. By this time the reality of his death had sunk in and I was shrouded in anxiety, irrational fears, and depression. Around the third year I began to “get my feet under me.” I slowly began resuming a fuller and more normal life. I could function better and began to see glimmers of joy - even to laugh again.
I have heard grief compared to finding yourself in the water after a shipwreck. You must hang on to some piece of the wreckage, or another person, to avoid drowning. As you are surrounded by the ship's pieces you are reminded of the beauty of what it had been. Then, as you desperately hang on, a huge wave engulfs you and you nearly drown. Before you can even catch your breath another huge wave washes over you. But with time the waves gradually get smaller and further apart. Sometimes you can even learn to anticipate them and be prepared. You can breathe again and begin functioning between the waves. Grief will reappear unexpectedly from various triggers: a memory, a song or even a scent, causing another wave to crash over you. But with time, there are fewer waves, and they are smaller, and you are able to gradually move forward into what will become your new life after the tragedy.
About the Author
Linda Zelik is a bereaved mother who lost her 24 year-old son in 2010. She struggled through the early years and healed enough to eventually rebuild her life. She wrote the book she wished she had in the beginning in hopes of helping other bereaved families. From Despair to Hope, Survival Guide for Bereaved Parents, is an easy-to-follow guide that deals with the important issues and provides many helpful suggestions. Linda is a USC graduate, retired occupational therapist and is currently the facilitator of the South Bay/L.A. Compassionate Friends chapter.