Grief is a complicated and very powerful emotion. Unfortunately, it is very likely that at some point of your life you will go through it. In any case, the stages are nearly exactly the same for each person.
Some people go from one stage to another quickly, or skip some of them. Others get stuck and need help to go on.
Knowing the stages of grief, knowing what to expect, can help you to deal with your emotions.
Once you are faced with your own personal loss and grief, it helps enormously to know what is going on. It does not matter if what you experience is slightly different than the theory. It will also give you a sense that you are not alone with your pain. Others have gone through it and survived it. So will you.
Knowing the stages of grief also helps when you are trying to help a person you care for to deal with his or her grief.
Each stage of grief has a meaning. When going through them, your goal is to process each stage with all its issues and move on to the next. Until you are able to accept your loss and can move on with your life.
These are the 5 classic stages that affect everyone who encounters a loss of some kind. They are just guidelines, not strict rules. I hope that they will help you to go through the pain of your loss. I also hope that what you learn and what you experience will make you stronger. One day you will need that knowledge and that strength to help with someone else's grief.
1. Shock and Denial
The first reaction of most people when hearing the news of a devastating loss is shock. Frozen disbelief and denial follow. If someone brings the news to you that someone very close to you has passed, it is very likely that you will react with shaken "no, no, no." Your mind is simply not able to process such horror and is protecting you by completely denying the reality. You might decide to believe that someone is making a practical joke. Or you might even laugh when hearing the news, the way children laugh in the dark to dispel fear.
The numbness follows. It is the nature's way of letting you deal only with emotions you are capable of handling.
Denial is a very helpful stage of grief. But, at some point, you will be ready to face the reality. Reality means a range of very painful emotions that will follow.
There is no rule how long should you be in denial. There is no rule that everyone has to go through the denial stage. You might be able to jump straight into highly emotional stages such as anger or guilt.
If you persist in denying the reality of your loss, you need help. It can be a close friend or a relative who knows you. Sometimes the help of a trained therapist or a grief counselor might be necessary. You need to accept that the loss is part of life and that the pain that comes with loss will slowly pass. The love you feel will remain. You will always have the memories. You need to let yourself continue to grieve, in order to reach the acceptance. Only then the life can go on.
2. Pain and Guilt
Once you get out of the denial and face the reality, the pain will hit you will full blast. It might feel overwhelming at times. It is very tempting during this stage to try to dull the pain with drugs or alcohol.
But, the pain can be healing. Like the pain of birth, it results in the new reality, the reality of your new life.
The feeling of guilt is very common during this stage. It may come from unresolved issues. It can be the guilt of surviving, especially if the loss you experienced is the loss of someone younger. You might feel guilty for not showing your love while you could, or showing proper appreciation.
The excruciating pain experienced during this stage may lead to anxiety, especially with more emotional people.
While the feeling of guilt will pass once you are able to think rationally, the pain will remain. It will be part of your life throughout the grieving process, and beyond.
But, slowly, you will be able to function and live with your pain and the reality of your loss, and move on.
3. Anger and Bargaining
Your overwhelming pain takes many forms. It is very common that people feel powerful feeling of anger. Anger against doctors who could not do more, against relatives who did not give more time, against God or destiny. Why me? How could this happen to such a nice person?
Anger is healthy after the destructive feeling of guilt in the previous stage of grieving. Pain leaves you without anchor. You feel totally out of control of your life. Anger puts you back in control - we are trained to control anger from very early age. Anger gives practical outlet to your devastating pain.
It is very important not to vent your anger to those closest to you. They are also grieving. You need them. You do not want to lose them. You have lost enough already.
The stages of grief do not follow each other in the same order for each person. Anger can easily combine with guilt and turn on yourself. Even when you lash at others, deep down you might feel that you failed your loved one in some way.
If someone you love is terminally ill, you might try bargaining. You might try to bargain with God, or with destiny. You might promise to be a better person, or to stop smoking or to be more generous, if only...
Bargaining is particularly powerful stage of grieving for people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Bargaining for your own life can offer hope, or a channel for pain that gives more control.
As with other stages of grief, anger and bargaining can last a short time, weeks, months, or you might skip them altogether. It is important to look for signs of uncontrolled anger which can irreparably damage your relationships with those closest and dearest to you.
4. Depression and Loneliness
All the powerful emotions that follow denial are exhausting, but they represent hope. Strong emotions are one way your pain shows its ugly face. But, at some point, the hope fades and you face the reality. The reality is devastating. The loved one is really gone.
There is no way to change that fact. The life will never be the same. You are left alone. You might feel that the life makes no sense any more. The depression sets in.
Feeling depressed is normal reaction to a devastating loss. In a way, if you do not get depressed, you are not really facing your loss.
Those around you might have difficult time seeing you so low. "Snap out of it' you will hear a lot. You will be offered anti-depressants and phone numbers of therapists.
Your priest will offer counseling. Your friends will offer numerous casseroles. Everyone wants you out of the blues.
At some point, you will start noticing that life goes on. The depression will slowly start to lift. The pain will remain, but with less intensity and with less hopelessness.
Sometimes the depression continues to deepen and you might refuse to fight the hopelessness. Thoughts of suicide start intruding. That is the time when help is necessary. People who suffer from deep clinical depression they cannot shake are not able to look for help. The help has to come to them. Family members and friends need to be on the lookout for the depression that keeps getting worse instead of better and look for professional help.
There is no rule how long should you allow depression to wash over your soul. Days, weeks, it depends on your personality, the enormity of your loss and the support you have from those that love you. Alone or together, you need to rejoin the life with all its pain and memories. Don't forget, it will get better in time.
Accepting your loss does not come in a moment of epiphany. It is a slow and painful process. It is the result of all the stages your grief went through. It is the new form your pain takes, the form that will be part of your new life.
Accepting your loss does not mean that you are through with it. It just means that you accept that death is part of life. You accept that you are starting with the new life. One enriched by the person who was part of your previous life. The life that you will build on the ashes on the previous one. The life that will celebrate the loved one you lost and not mourn.
There will be times months and even years after your loss when you will revert to one of the stages of grief, for a moment or two, or even longer. There will be painful reminders which will drag you back into the depths of your despair. But, they will be rare and you will be strong enough to deal with them.
Holidays will be for ever painful for you, because they will remind you how they looked like when you celebrated them with the person you lost. You can prepare for them and deal with them in your own way.