It is important to realize the following stages of grief do not necessarily happen in this order. We may cycle back and forth between stages as we navigate our grief. Some individuals who experience a phenomenon known as ‘complicated grief’ have difficulty recovering from their loss or dramatic life change and moving on with their lives.
Some causes of being “stuck” in the grieving process may include avoidance, reliving memories that continuously trigger strong emotions and bring the event top of mind, or our unique mental and physiological makeup. Experiencing a tragedy or any unexpected dramatic life change can influence our progress, in addition to our connection to the person, event, or thing that we are grieving. And while these stages are not time restrictive, if we cannot move past our grief after a year, it is recommended to seek the help of a professional.
Denial is the first stage of grief. This stage insulates us from the harsh reality we have just encountered. Denial can be a positive and protective force. Like a faucet, it will only let through what we can handle to avoid a flood of emotions we are not yet equipped to manage. It is our co-pilot navigating us through the pain and may be accompanied by a sense of numbness or dullness to life. Time may seem to move differently; familiar faces and places may look different.
Denial begins to dissipate as we begin to accept the loss or change that has occurred. The ‘faucet’ turns and begins to let more emotions flow through us. As we experience a flood of intense emotions, we will likely enter the next stage of grief—anger.
Anger is a critical stage in the grieving process. We should be willing and prepared to feel and embrace this powerful emotion. Allowing ourselves to fully experience it is essential to get through it. In a society that looks to silence uncomfortable emotions, anger has its work cut out for it. Anger has no limits. We must do all we can to open the door and let this foe in. We might also view anger as a companion as it gives us something to hold onto at this stage in the grieving process. Something that grounds us to reality when we feel like escaping it. [BC1] In this stage, it is normal to lash out, blame, and look for a reason outside of what is. We may feel abandoned and left to our own devices to manage the unthinkable. This facet of anger is not reasonable or just – it just is.
Most of us bargain with whatever higher power we believe in throughout our lives. We promise to do this in exchange for that. We try to make deals with the universe to bring us what we desire. When we suffer a loss of a loved one, bargaining takes on a different role. Intellectually, we know we cannot get them back, but we want the pain to cease. We want things to be as they were. Was it only a dream? What could I have done to prevent this from happening? We try to negotiate our way out of the pain. Bargaining is a means of dealing with the anguish. Circumstances outside of our control render us powerless. Bargaining is a means to take back the power we have tragically or unexpectedly lost.
As we cycle through the stages and reality takes a firmer grip, we find ourselves faced with a reality we hate. We know we cannot change what has happened. We encounter desperation, loneliness, and hopelessness. It is a natural response to what we have endured. Well-meaning friends, colleagues, or loved ones may try everything in their power to “snap” us out of this state, but it is necessary to heal. It is not a sign of mental illness but a pivotal step to accepting what has happened and moving on with our lives. We need to feel it, embrace it, examine it, and let it live organically.
Acceptance does not equal being happy about a situation. It means we have processed and immersed ourselves in our loss or circumstance and are coming out the other side. Slowly, we come to realize that while things might never be the same, we will go on.
I am not a fan of the expression “new normal.” Normal just is. It may go through several interactions during our lifetime, but eventually, it is just what we do daily, monthly, and yearly. Our roles throughout life continuously evolve. There will be good days and bad, but eventually, how we gauge the quality of the day will be less about our loss or situation and more about actual events and experiences.