By Katie Murray, MFTC
What is Grief?
Grief is a unique, yet common, experience that all individuals will navigate at some point in their lifetime. This process involves a perceived loss that a person has just experienced involving a person, situation, or other occurrence that can physically, emotionally and spiritually impact the world around that individual.
Grief is a natural and expected reaction after experiencing a loss, and it does not just involve the passing of a loved one. Grief can occur after a break-up or divorce, after losing a job, after a child moves out of the home, when a decline in personal health occurs, or even after an experience where safety and security are threatened. These are just a few instances where grief can be present in a person’s life, so it is important to understand what grief looks like in order to move through the various stages with a clear perspective.
Maintaining the understanding that pain is present in so many situations will assist in knowing how grief can show up in our lives. It is most crucial to understand that no one individual will experience grief in the same way as another person. This concept is even true in family systems, where every member of the family has just lost the same person. Every family member will begin to grieve in a unique way, which can feel extremely isolating at times.
Because this process can last a lifetime without ever having someone understand one’s perspective fully, it is beneficial to ascertain what resources are available for grief processing in order to have an individual’s story analyzed. This write-up will include exploring the 5 Stages of Grief and also introduce general therapeutic services that are available and tailored based on the psychological needs of each unique individual.
“Grief is not an illness or a mental health problem. Grief is a natural part of life.”–Julie Kaplow
5 Stages of Grief
Denial and Isolation
The first stage of grief can be a lonely, numbing, and meaningless time in a person’s experience with this somber emotion. Denial is often a stage where situations do not make sense, and the world may feel overwhelming while society continues on with its everyday events. Along with feelings of denial, isolating from society and other family members or friends is also a common experience.
Since every individual tackles grief in a different way, it can be difficult to make connections or even share immediate feelings with someone else. Due to differences of opinion and experience, individuals managing grief tend to isolate in order to keep their emotions and feelings private from external interpretation or judgment.
Although this stage can be overwhelming and possibly lonely for a person, denial helps affected persons pace the difficult feelings of grief. As a person begins to question the reality of the loss they are experiencing through denial, they are beginning their healing process in an unknowing way. These questions and components of denial will begin to resurface over time as the grief process continues. However, since these raw feelings have already been considered, it should be easier on a case by case basis to process the loss.
Examples of Denial:
In a breakup or divorce: “They just had a long day today. They will probably be over it by tomorrow morning and we can talk then.”
With the death of a loved one: “He’s not gone. He never gets sick. The doctor’s are wrong, he’s just fine.”
Just as denial and isolation are an important aspect of how an individual begins to process a loss, anger is just as necessary to evolve the healing process. Anger is often utilized as a secondary emotion to hide or mask the real emotions that a person is encountering. It is easier to portray behaviors that involve anger than it is to present a person sadness or disbelief. While one’s brain understands that the meaning of their anger isn’t the one to blame, the majority emotions and feelings in the moment may be too intense to understand a better way to express itself.
Although the stage of anger may feel longer than others as a grief victim moves through its various stages, one should be open to experiencing this emotion as it can serve as a reflective experience later in the healing process. Asking oneself, “Why was I so angry when this person did not show support for me after the loss? How did it feel to be angry at a person or relationship that was lost for so long?” These types of reflections maintain substantive meaning when understanding how a loss has impacted an individual’s life.
Examples of Anger:
In a breakup or divorce: “I hate her! She doesn’t understand what she’s walking away from. She’ll never find another person as good as me?”
With the death of a loved one: “If they would have been paying attention to the road instead of texting, they would still be here.”
Bargaining is yet another difficult grief stage to wade through because it is so closely partnered with guilt. After a loss, thoughts of “what if” become more present in regards to things one believes they could have done to stop the situation or keep someone from passing. Although these thoughts may bring a derived level of comfort to ponder the best case scenario, these bargaining thoughts may keep a grief patient stuck in the past with reasonable cause to talk oneself out of the hurt. Bargaining is a form of defense against the hidden emotions one is truly feeling from the grief by stonewalling the sadness, hurt and disbelief.
Examples of Bargaining:
In a breakup or divorce: “If only I had brought her on more dates, she would have stayed with me.”
With the death of a loved one: “If only I went to visit Grandpa more often, then we could have had more time together before he passed away.”
After experiencing the stages of grief that come directly after a loss, there comes a time where the present comes back to focus. This time period can often proceed to a stage of depression for the individual. Empty feelings and a deeper level of grief may arise as one begins to maneuver back into everyday events.
Feelings of depression look different for everyone, so there is not a certain number of symptoms that an individual needs to be experiencing to be considered depressed. For some, not having enough energy to get out of bed to complete basic activities will be present. Still for others, there may be a high level of functioning happening involving activities, but they may be excluding social groups from their routine due to a strong aversion to being around other people.
Losing a loved one, or experiencing a break-up is a very sad experience for so many people, so it is important for everyone to understand that depression is a normal and appropriate response to these types of life events. Most importantly, one is not “mentally ill” because they are experiencing these sad feelings. On the contrary, this a beneficial time for an individual to seek a therapist who specializes in grief therapy in order to conquer this unique stage of the grief process.
Examples of Depression:
In a breakup or divorce: “What’s the point in trying to love again?”
With the death of a loved one: “How can I live without her in my life?”
The acceptance stage of grief is often confused with an uplifting or “happy” stage, where an individual “moves on” from the loss. This concept, however, is not true when it comes to how a person actually arrives at this place. For many people, moving on or getting over a loss completely will never occur.
There will always be times where the relationship or person will be missed, so there should not be an expectation to completely move on from a loss. Instead, the stage of acceptance is a time where the individual is able to accept that the person or relationship is no longer present and are able to come to an understanding of how that affects their life moving forward. A strong mindset to possess while steering through this stage is that although there may be good days ahead, there will also still be bad ones. This rational mindset is healthy and appropriate. This level of acceptance will benefit a person’s ability to live a life that is not constantly stuck in their grief experience.
Examples of Acceptance:
In a breakup or divorce: “We are both better off being friends than romantic partners.”
With the death of a loved one: “I am lucky to share so many joyful memories with Grandma that I can reflect on now that she is no longer here.”
Once an individual feels they are ready to understand their grief in a deeper way, there are numerous resources available related to grief counseling. This type of service is intended to help the individual grieve in a healthy manner, while simultaneously gaining an understanding of their emotions and their experience. This mental health maintenance can be completed in an individual, group, or family therapy setting.
Interpreting this knowledge of how an individual’s emotions have been impacting one’s experience since the loss, should positively impact their ability to view the event from a different perspective while also shining light on the strengths and limitations one utilizes when dealing with grief.
In grief therapy, each individual is the expert of their own experience and story. Everything that is shared in this therapy setting, is based on an individually constructed grief process and how it has led a person to today. There is also exploration of how the loss will continue to impact one’s life, even after the acceptance stage has occurred.
Although isolation while grieving can feel like a survival mode directly after experiencing a loss, sharing one’s experience and memories of the person or event with another individual can help gain insight on certain things that may not have been considered before. Memories or nostalgic stories of joyful times experienced in the past are often shared among grief victims to explore avenues to continue honoring the lost loved one, even though they are no longer physically present.
Not everyone will receive grief services directly after a loss of a person or relationship, however finding time to share one’s story at some point after the pain of the loss is gone will only benefit an individual’s ability to accept the loss and determine purpose of life once again.