Adjusting to a loss or misfortune is called grieving. This is a natural process of healing, just as our physical body recovers from an infection or mends a broken bone. Unfortunately however, many of us fight the benefits of grief with an air of artificial toughness and feigned resilience. Many see grief as a sign of weakness or helplessness, no matter how temporary, which circumvents this important emotional healing process. The psychological scars that remain affect us thereafter, especially in relationships.
There is no set course for grieving. There is no fixed timeline for grieving. There is no prescribed method of grieving. However, recognized experts who have studied this important area have charted the natural grief process and explained the fundamentals involved. The most recognized of these is from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, outlined below. John Bowlby and Colin Parkes were the first to suggest a multi-stage mode of grief (Shock-Numbness; Yearning/Searching; Disorganization; Reorganization), incorporating physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements. J.W. Worden has focused on children’s loss and grieving (e.g., loss of a parent), conceptualizing the tasks to be accomplished for the child’s eventual recovery. My own conception of the grieving process ends this section.
The most famous of these experts is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who offered the 5-step sequence of overlapping stages shown below. In my experience, this is merely a rough sketch of grieving rather than a tidy map of the process, since people vary considerably in how they handle a loss or traumatic event. It is nonetheless quite useful, since it helps us understand that the thoughts and feelings we experience are natural, normal and expected.
- Stage One: DENIAL When the news first breaks (i.e., you are in a serious accident, you are told of your job loss, you learn of a loved one’s death), it is typical to have a least a momentary “this can’t be happening” moment. Sometimes this stretches into a longer period of time, mostly depending on the circumstances and amount of solid information you have.
- Stage Two: ANGER As reality is absorbed, many people find wanting to blame someone or something for the tragedy or trauma. It might be the driver of the car that hit you, the employer or boss who fired you, the inept doctor or hospital, or God or life itself. Not all people experience this, but it’s wise to keep this irritability from spilling over to family or friends when it is felt.
- Stage Three: BARGAINING This phase -- not experienced by everyone or in every situation -- is a mental effort to reshape the trauma into something a little more acceptable. One might ‘bargain’ with God that you’ll be able to walk again someday or won’t have to lose your arm to amputation. A newly unemployed person might adopt a “but this is only temporary; they’ll be rehiring soon” mindset.
- Stage Four: DEPRESSION When it becomes obvious that the loss or misfortune is real, there is typically a time of emotionally disconnecting and retreating inside ones’ self. The individual looks and feels sad, may brood, cry, or seek isolation time. This is a critical stage in grieving, and can be dangerous as well (suicidal thoughts? prolonged depression? excessive drinking?). This makes it difficult for friends and family, who need to be caring and supportive while avoiding the “hey, cheer up buddy, don’t be down” rescue.
- Stage Five: ACCEPTANCE This is the recovery segment of grieving. It begins sometime during the depression phase, and slowly evolves into an increasingly stable sense of “I can do this...I can get on with my life”. The leg may be gone, but life goes on now in a different, but acceptable way. The job may be history, but there are other opportunities our there and it’s time to polish the resume and get some interviews.