Exactly two weeks ago, I lost a family member. About two and a half years ago, I had met her through another cousin and the wonders of DNA testing on Ancestry.com. That first year, we texted back and forth, getting to know each other and sharing tidbits of our lives and backgrounds. She was technically my father’s second cousin, making her my second cousin once removed. Her grandmother was the elder sister of my great-grandmother.
When I was first told of her demise, I was shocked, followed by sadness. The shock wore off pretty quickly, as it wasn’t unexpected. She was already dying, as the cancer slowly took over her body, like a guest who shows up uninvited, unsuspectingly hidden in the trenches until it is too late. She had been going through chemo to get rid of this uninvited guest that had somehow made a refuge in her body, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. But despite her old age, she still fought hard and for a long time, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough.
This was my fourth time losing a family member to that unfathomable and often unforgiving antagonist–death. Since this was my fourth time experiencing a loss, you would think that I would know how to cope and deal with this. But the thing with death is that no matter how many times you experience it, it is still hard. It still needs time to process, to cope, and then to figure out where you go from here without them. In this article, I’m not going to give you a surefire way to magically make dealing with grief all better, as that’s not going to happen anytime soon — if ever. What I will do is to show you that dealing with grief after a loved one passes is normal and okay. In other words, you have to feel before you can start feeling better.
The 5 Stages of Grief
Whether it is due to a death, divorce, or the demolition of something in your life, you will irrevocably find yourself going through the 5 stages of grief. The 5 stages of grief, or the Kubler-Ross model, is understood as the way that people deal with grief. After facing a loss of any kind, we go through denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, until finally we come to acceptance. Many say that we must go through each of these steps in order to fully get past and start to heal. I believe that each of these steps happens instinctively without any conscious thought. Some of the steps happen as a way to protect us from the pain, some to figure out how to cope, and finally some to help us accept the knowledge of the loss.
The way that you might deal with each of these stages differs for everyone. The length of time that you spend during each of these stages also differs for everyone. The important thing is that we must all go through these 5 stages of grief in order to finally reach acceptance, recovery, and however difficult it may seem, some semblance to a new normal.
The first stage is called denial. When you first receive the news that someone died, or that something horrible happened to you, your mind instinctively wants to deny that it happened. This can be in the form of using distraction techniques to simply not think about the loss, or to actively say that it didn’t. By putting yourself into a state of denial, your mind is protecting you from immediately feeling the affects of the loss. It is protecting you from feeling the full repercussions of it.
Some may say that this stage, though protective, can be cumbersome and even unnecessary. Some might argue that you should deal with the problem right away. And some might even say that waiting to deal with the loss can be an unhealthy thing to do. But there is evidence that going through denial lets you slowly absorb the loss. By slowly absorbing the loss, you won’t break down quickly, but instead it will be a more gradual, even graceful, way to cope. By going through denial, the mind is protecting you from whirling completely out of control in a frenzy of agony and angst. It lets you keep yourself together until the moment that it is safe to break down, and when that happens, it will be in a more safe, controlled way.
The second stage of grief is called anger. Once denial passes, after an hour, a day, or even a month, you will experience anger. You will find yourself feeling angry at the situation and the circumstance behind the loss. You might even be angry with yourself. It is okay to be angry with what happened and to even be angry with yourself. It is natural to feel out of control and at a loss for what happens next so you feel anger.
You feel anger because you wish that that had never happened. You feel anger because you wish that you could have stopped it from happening. You feel anger at your own powerlessness in the situation. It is okay to feel these things because it is normal. We should stop, let ourselves feel angry, and then move on. It is also important to realize that you may feel angry because of the realization that that person is no longer there with us. You may wonder what you should do now to deal with this realization. The best way to deal with the anger stemming from the loss is to simply let yourself feel angry. There is nothing wrong with feeling anger, and can be healthy to be angry especially after a loss.
Once you get past the anger stage, you will start to bargain with yourself. You might tell yourself, or a higher being, that you will do this, or say this, if you could somehow turn back time and change the situation. I believe that this act of bargaining is the mind’s way of understanding the situation. By begging for a reversal of time or to change our behavior just so we can have x, y, and z, we are trying to insert some control in the situation. People don’t like feeling out of control so we try to be in better command of the situation by seeing what we can do to somehow “fix” the loss.
Instead of asking for certain concessions, it is advisable that you start to use positive affirmations about the situation. Tell yourself that your loved one is at peace and no longer in pain. By telling yourself this, you are bringing the focus from you onto the loss. You are reminding yourself that the situation, however terrible, can still make you feel better knowing that your loved one is no longer suffering. After all, we all want our loved ones to be happy and safe. To know that they are no longer suffering on this Earth can be a tremendous antidote to the pain, and help deal with the next step of the grieving process.
The fourth stage, I believe, is an important one in the release of emotions. This is the depression stage. This is the stage in which you might suddenly feel an outburst and outpouring of tears sometime after your loss. When this happens, don’t try to bottle up the tears. When this happens, simply let yourself feel all of the emotions. By doing so, it will prepare you for the final stage of grief.
But before you get to that final stage of grief, you have to face the undulating waves of depression. Sometime after the loss, you have to let go. Because that moment when you can let go, you will finally be ready to face the final stage of grief. That moment after you let go, you can finally start to accept the loss for what it is, understand it, and then take those first difficult steps toward a new life. It is important to remember that this, along with the other stages, is an important stage, but when the depression becomes prolonged and affects your daily function you can seek help through support groups and hotlines.
Finally, the final stage of grief is called acceptance. When you reach this stage, you begin to understand and accept the loss. You will still feel sad about the loss, as acceptance does not equate to getting past the sadness. Rather, acceptance equates to the understanding that it happened. Acceptance means attempting to find some semblance of a new reality. It means being present in the moment, communicating honestly, and engaging in healthy behaviors.
Acceptance is the moment that you realize that not only did the loss happen but that you are able to respond in a way that is beneficial to your wellbeing. By using positive affirmations instead of negative self-talk, engaging in distractions to help cope, and engaging in healthy behaviors to move on to the next stage of your life are all attributes to the road of acceptance. It is important to remember that acceptance is not a one stop method. Really, none of these stages are simply one stop, or happen in a linear fashion. They can happen in any order, for any length of time. What is important is that you go through each of these steps, let your body and mind process the loss, and then learn how to cope with it effectively so that you can move on.
While the other four stages might happen haphazardly in any order, acceptance is always the final stage. By reaching this stage, it means that you understand your grief. By reaching this stage, it means that you have accepted the loss. You now know who you are and what role this loss plays in your life. You may not like or agree with what happened, but you have accepted it for what it is. Only by accepting the loss can you begin to finally understand what happened.
Whether it takes a few weeks, a few months, or even several years, there will come a time when you, believe it or not, can move on. There will come a time when you can look back on your loss, not cry because of what happened, but rejoice because it did. However hard it may seem to get to that point, you will get there because you must. And when you do, you will emerge the stronger person, one who is capable of vanquishing almost any weakness and watching is succumb to your immense inner strength.
These 5 stages of grief are by no means conclusive. You can experience them in any order and at any time. They are each important to experience in order to finally come to a point where you can understand what happened and begin to journey forward to the next stage of your life. Grief is always terrible. It happens to the best of us. You can stop and let yourself feel the true ramifications of the grief. And then, you will finally come to a point of understanding.
As for me, I have experienced grief several times. I have experienced a few family members who have passed during my life time. Each of these times were awful and devastating, each requiring time to grieve and give myself time to process and eventually understand what happened. Looking back now on each grief, I am no less sad that it happened. Each grief still makes me want to curl up into a ball in a puddle of tears. But what keeps me moving forward is simply that life goes on. We carry with us the memories of the past, tuck them away and bring them out when needed, but keep moving forward.
Life is not meant to be stagnant. Life is meant to be lived, learning from each experience, no matter how traumatic or grief-stricken. Keep living and know that you can overcome every obstacle that life throws your way because each of these obstacles will make you stronger.