By Thomas Michael Simmons, IPE
From PHN Issue 29, Summer 2016
Grief is a normal and natural experience that often involves powerful feelings—a reaction to significant emotional loss. Traumas such as catastrophic illness, job loss, divorce, abuse, harassment, amputation, injury, rape, and death of a loved one can trigger a process that brings intense anguish. Despite its inevitability, most are unprepared for its roller coaster ride of shock, anxiety, isolation, numbness, confusion, depression, anger, sadness, irritability, and sense of emptiness. Concentration is lost, eating and sleeping patterns shot. A world once familiar is now foreign and hostile to us. Yet, tomorrow still comes.
We try to mask it, deny its existence, maybe through a haze of addiction and abuse. Many of us are raised to “bottle up” such emotions, told that our suffering must be ours. Grief is not eased by hiding these powerful emotions. Such avoidance is denial, which leads to despair, and ultimately, profound depression.
Many find themselves in prison or jail after poor choices made as a result of unresolved grief. People often see going through the grief process in such surroundings as being weak, which almost guarantees unresolved grief issues to develop.
Prison itself can cause grief. It is a test of real courage and strength of human spirit to go on, especially in prison. We are brutally reminded of the fragility of life, and the need to treat every moment as precious.
Life is about change. No matter what we think or do, our world has changed. There is no going back to recapture and somehow change something in the past. One thing that can cause unresolved grief after the loss of a loved one is the fear that if you were to end the process, to move on, that you’d be dishonoring your loved one. Or that you’ll forget them, or stop loving them. These are all very real concerns.
People trying to help may say that time heals. Time doesn’t heal—the actions within time do. To witness progress in grieving, you must look back, not forward. Grieving isn’t linear; it’s circular, as we move forward, then backtrack, retracing our steps. It’s not continuous, but recurring as any number of situations. Sights, sounds, smells may trigger memories of loss we suffered.
Here’s something to think about: Grieving is not something done to us, it is something we do. Grief is a process unique to each of us—ours and ours alone. It can’t be rushed. There is no magic formula, no template that predicts how the process will go. But there are some guidelines that might light one’s way through this dark and narrow path.
The 7 Stages of Grief
Shock & Denial: Shock helps provide emotional protection from being overwhelmed by the totality of the loss. This can last days, or even weeks, after the event. Trying to replace the loss often is a form of denial and delays the process. The same applies to “keeping busy” at work, etc. You are just throwing up walls that keep you from going through the process.
Pain & Guilt: Shock subsides, often replaced by pain that seems unbearable. Why ME? WHY Them? WHY NOT ME? It is crucial that you let this manifest itself fully—try not to mask, hide or avoid it. Guilt may arise over what you did or did not do, or what you think you should have done. It all seems chaotic and fearful, as we cannot accept the fact that maybe there was absolutely nothing anyone could have done.
Anger & Bargaining: We may lash out at others or seek blame as we look for answers to the frustration and pain. This is critical to keep under control, as damage to others and relationships can result. Yet this is the time for bottled-up emotions to be released—but carefully, and as constructively as possible. We may find ourselves railing against “fate,” or whatever we think caused such pain, and attempting to strike a bargain with whatever “powers that be” for some way out of such despair (“I’ll change, if you just bring them back.”)
Depression, Reflection, Loneliness: Just when others think you should be moving on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is normal. “Encouragements” from others are of no help during this time, when the true magnitude of the loss is realized and strikes hardest. You may feel despair and emptiness.
The Upward Turn: Thoughts clear, and a path through the darkness appears. You make adjustments for a new life that seems calmer and more organized. The physical symptoms wane, and depression lifts.
Reconstruction & Working Through: Recovery involves seeking realistic solutions to problems raised by the loss. Most of us haven’t had the knowledge needed to do this: what options exist and how one can explore them, and how to enjoy fond memories without them turning painful.
Acceptance & Hope: You learn to accept and deal with the situation, acknowledging that it’s okay to feel sad from time to time. You learn to talk about those feelings, no matter how others react. This does not mean instant happiness. It could take a lifetime. You’ve gone through a lot. The world you once knew is changed—gone. But you will find a way forward.
Elizabeth Levang, PhD. When Men Grieve: Why Men Grieve Differently and How You Can Help. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fairview Press, 1998.
John W. James and Russell Friedman. The Grief Recovery Handbook. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2009.
Jennie Wright, RN, GC-C. Back to Life: Your Personal Guidebook to Grief Recovery. Recover-from-grief.com, 2008.
David Kessler. 10 Best Things to Say to Someone in Grief. http://www.healyourlife.com/10-best-things-to-say-to-someone-in-grief. Website article. Published July 30, 2010.