It’s not something that most of us like to think about, but we are all going to experience grief in our lifetime. Many different situations can cause grief – not just the death of a loved one. For example, couples feel grief when they realize that they cannot have a child, and we all grieve to some extent when we lose our jobs. Grief can even occur when we end a relationship – we may be glad to be out of it, but we still feel deep sorrow for what we have lost. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are experiencing grief – so it’s important to know the symptoms.
There are actually five well-established stages in the grieving process – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Not all of these occur in every case, nor do they always happen in the same order. However, they are fairly universal and a good way of recognizing when you are suffering from grief – or when someone else is.
The first stage – denial – is that feeling of shock you have just after someone close to you has died and you are sitting in the American Cremation & Casket Alliance trying to arrange the funeral. Nothing seems real – the event really hasn’t happened, and everything will be all right soon. The important thing at this stage is not to try to break through the denial – it is a natural defense mechanism that helps us to cope with overwhelmingly distressing events.
Once that denial does start to lift, people then become angry. Someone must be to blame for this – perhaps the doctor, or God, or even the person who is feeling grief. When anger does turn inward, it becomes guilt, which is far more destructive than anger directed outwards. At this point, grief stricken people need to be able to work through their anger and guilt with someone else, who needs to be sympathetic and nonjudgmental.
As anger diminishes, grief takes a paradoxically pragmatic turn. There has to be a way of rolling up the sleeves and fixing the situation. Of course, the reality is that this is irrational, but people believe fervently that they can bargain to change things back. Again, this bargaining may be with nature or with a supernatural being, or it may take the form of someone begging to restart a relationship that has nearly destroyed them.
Next comes depression – the bargaining has failed and the person is left with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. This depression is often accompanied by worry – what will become of the person who is grieving and how will they cope? At this point, grief is approaching an end – the person is preparing to come to terms with their loss and needs reassurance and kindness to help them to do this.
Finally comes acceptance. This is not about the pain lessening – this only happens over a very long period of time and is never complete. Instead, it is the point at which a person is able to start to function with the pain, and accept the reality of the situation. It is not the end of grief, but instead the starting point for a lifelong journey where distraught memories gradually transition into fond recollections.