There is no rule book to grief. Nor should there be. Everyone copes differently.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously wrote about the 5 stages of grief. Others speak of 7. But it seems to me that there is no set number, nor any set order to the stages. Although what seems to be universally true, is that reaching a level of “acceptance” seems to be the moment at which people affected by grief are able to lift their eyes to the horizon and begin to step into to their forever-altered, new normal.
How you will cope with your grief will be unique to you. You may experience one “stage” quickly and then never experience it again, or you might re-visit that emotion time and time again. Somewhat like walking up the tower of Pisa, touching on the same vertical columns several times, as you walk the upward spiral.
We all have grief moments in our life. It might be the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, a forced career change, difficult rifts within the family, the death of a pet, a missed opportunity, a natural expectation crushed, or a devastating health diagnosis.
Knowing how different people react to grief can be helpful if only to know, that you are not alone.
In the coming posts I thought I would explore each stage of grief.
The Saving Grace of Denial
Denial is often stated to be the first stage of grief and it is usually a completely healthy and necessary part of the grieving process. In fact, spending a few days or weeks in a form of denial can literally help us to survive the loss. I wrote a bit about giving ourselves permission to “lose it” in my earlier post “when the dumpers keep coming”.
Receiving the harsh news generally comes as a shock. In the instant we go cold and numb. Things can seemingly happen in slow motion. Our minds work overtime, trying to process the news but we can’t. It is too much to take in. It takes everything within us to focus on the next steps, the motions we are expected to, or know we should, take – but we do these things almost in a dream like state. Everything seems surreal.
In the days that follow, everything around us becomes meaningless. We wonder how other people can even go about their daily lives when all we want is for the world to stop. In fact, what we really want is for time to reverse. We wake up day after day and for fleeting seconds we hope that it has all been some awful dream. Our own world has been shaken to the point where routine daily tasks can feel quite overwhelming and sometimes life itself makes no sense. At times we wonder how we will cope and whether we have what it takes to go on.
A healthy denial stage can at this very critical point, give us a period of grace. It is as if the denial shelters us so that we are left dealing with only those things we can handle. It gives us time to absorb the distressing news at a pace that doesn’t send us into a destructive tailspin. As we absorb the possibility of the reality slowly, we then start to subconsciously consider our rational next steps.
C. S. Lewis put it this way:
Denial is the shock absorber for the soul. It protects us until we are equipped to cope with reality.
Coping with the denial phase
Denial is necessary, but for it to be healthy it must be temporary. While there isn’t any set time frame that applies, there must be an end to this phase, or it will destroy you or those around you.
That is why it is so very important to have some strategies to help you to surface from the denial phase.
They might include keeping a journal, so that you can express all your feelings without censoring them for others. Reading back over those thoughts might then help you identify your fears about your future and what your “new normal” might entail. Reviewing your thoughts might also help you identify honestly any irrational beliefs you might have about your circumstances.
Another strategy might be to open up to one or two trusted friends or to find a support group if you feel your friends can’t understand your circumstance.
A professional psychologist will also be able to help you work through your emotions and give you the tools to help you find your own confidence to take next steps.
Supporting others in denial
If you know someone going through grief – it is really important to allow them the time to navigate this denial phase.
It is tempting to “jump in” and try to fix things, or to dismiss denial thinking as irrational and unhelpful.
But that is not helpful. Instead give the grace of time and allow your loved one to live for a while in denial, Give them the mental space to process the distressing circumstance they face, and then walk alongside them as they slowly come to terms with the gravity of the reality they face.
If you don’t know quite what to say (or what not to say) then jump online and have a read of resources that will help you to support others. The 10 best and 10 worst things to say to someone in grief is a great place to start!
If you genuinely fear that your loved one is stuck in the denial phase, then do what you can to encourage them to visit their doctor (perhaps offer to go with them) so that they can get the professional advice they need to move forward.
As denial fades and reality is brought into focus, the feelings that were also denied, will begin to surface.
Next week’s post will address the anger phase of grief.
If you have any of your own insights to add on how you have dealt with denial (or helped others in denial), please feel free to comment. I always love to hear your feedback!