My latest insights on love and courage.
Human beings are complex, each with a unique experience of grief to be honored
The human experience of loss is commonly shared, no matter who you are or what status you have in the world. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, identified five stages of the ensuing grief that follows a major loss. These stages have commonly come to be known as: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
This brief list of the classic stages makes it relatively simple for anyone to understand the dynamics of grief, whether it be her own or somebody else’s. And this simplicity is good, when we struggle with a wide range of emotional states that we don’t have the energy to process or explain.
Though it’s helpful to have a simple framework to understand the process of grief, human beings are complex, and the grief each of us feels is likely to be accompanied by other stages. It’s normal and likely that you’ll experience something beyond the classic five stages of grief. When you realize this during a time of loss, it’s important to honor your individual experience and be compassionate to yourself. Additional stages of grief may include but are not limited to:
Confusion. In the classic stages of grief, anger and depression can cause emotional flooding, which circumvent the thinking ability of the brain. Confusion is one of the symptoms of this, and you might experience anything from forgetting where you put your keys to the inability to make what are usually simple decisions, like deciding what to have for dinner. On a bigger scale, existential confusion occurs when you have no clue how to adapt to living without the person or thing you just lost.
Fear. This is the counterpart of the classic grief stage of anger. More often than we realize, fear precedes then becomes expressed as anger. We grieve not only what has been lost but we fear the loss of the familiar and the uncertainty of what life will be like from here on out.
Illness. Our physical bodies do not exist apart from our emotions, so sustained emotional states can manifest as bodily symptoms. For instance, the classic grief stage of depression is often accompanied by fatigue. Additionally, you might find yourself more susceptible to catching a cold or the flu, plus your appetite might disappear for a while. The key is to be extra aware of your body’s need for loving self-care and attend to it.
Seclusion. This is related to the classic grief stages of denial and isolation and of depression. As such, seclusion might be regarded as a symptom of these stages. It manifests as a complete withdrawal from being in the company of others. It’s also an unfortunate byproduct of our disconnected society, in which a person might feel she is being a burden by calling on someone for help. If you know of someone going through grief, one of the most compassionate things you can do is call to check in and offer your presence in a non-pushy way. At the very least, the person will find comfort in knowing somebody is available even if she doesn’t take you up on the offer.
Seeking replacement. In the classic grief stage of bargaining, a person might wonder what she could have done differently to mitigate the pain of a loss or even to have prevented a loss all together. Seeking replacement goes further than bargaining, whereby a person attains something in an attempt to fill the hole of a loss. Buying a new car or going on an elaborate vacation immediately after a loss are examples. Seeking replacement also occurs when someone loses a beloved pet then adopts a new pet the very next day. Of course, life goes on so this behavior is understandable. However, to seek replacement in short order denies feeling one’s grief fully, and those feelings are likely to come flowing back with great force even years later. If you experience a powerful tendency to seek replacement quickly in the wake of a loss, slow down to ride the wave of your emotion. It might feel unbearable but it will subside in time.
Doubt. When someone experiences a profound loss, everything she was ever sure of feels like it’s been shattered to pieces. For the most confident among us, we come to doubt our fortitude. For the most spiritual of us, we doubt our faith. The paradox – and the comfort – is that enduring the gut wrenching of doubt builds even greater fortitude and faith to take us through the darkest depths of our grief.