“When will I be done with my grief?”
She was a woman with a lot of things to do. The thought of stopping her busy life to respond to her internal process of grief seemed at best inconvenient. At it’s worst she was afraid it would send her off the rails. I explained that she could try to postpone it, but it will probably find her again, eventually, in one way or another.
Her father had died over twenty years ago. Why was she experiencing symptoms of grief now, as an adult with a full life, a family, and a task list that filled her day, most of her evenings, and often her weekends? She wiped a tear away from her brave face working to maintain her composure.
“Because grief is timeless,” I replied. “It doesn’t have a schedule or an expiration date. It’s bigger than just dealing with loss. It’s about facing the truth of your vulnerability.”
As soon as I said this I realized we were onto something profound. It had been a spontaneous response to my own experiences with grief and a recognition that so much of the work I do with clients is related to this universal feeling. Grief is certainly about loss, but it is really a recognition of how little we can control, and how much we have to lose.
When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross proposed the stages of grief she was working with terminally ill patients and their families hoping to make sense of their overwhelming emotional turmoil. Her original model described five stages that occurred in a particular order as part of a universal coping process. While the theory published in 1969 has been enormously helpful and remains prominent, a great deal of modifications and revisions have been offered.
In my work I have seen that grief is far more mysterious and pervasive, connected to many situations other than death. It occurs in response to almost any type of loss, including the loss of a marriage, or a job. It may happen after an illness or crime shatters someone’s sense of safety. Some experience grief when they realize they will never have the family they feel they deserve.
Most importantly grief can arise unpredictably at any time. It happens not as stages of grief but as a state of grief expressed in different ways. Grief may wait until an adult has reached a place of emotional stability before it begins to address childhood trauma. Grief may be triggered by the sights and sounds and smells of a sentimental visit to familiar place. Grief can intrude subconsciously as an underlying crisis in a person’s daily life that looks like other mental health issues.
If we examine grief from a timeless perspective the stages proposed by Kubler-Ross in her original theory can take on a whole new meaning.
Denial – How often do you find yourself holding back and repressing emotions that threaten to derail your busy lifestyle? In our culture of distraction we have endless options to live in a state of denial about our existence as vulnerable humans. When grief shows up it is calling you to face the deeper truth of our vulnerability and it will wait until you are ready.
Anger – You may not recognize that anger is a mask to cover feelings of frustration. Underneath those heated emotions lies deeply held insecurities about how little control you have over what happens to you. The loss associated with grief is a stark reminder that life is subject to unpredictable and uncomfortable change.
Depression – Many people who are depressed discover that the real problem is a mismatch between the person they want to be and the life they are living. When you experience grief day after day from minor losses to significant events it reminds you of how difficult it is to have a stable sense of self.
Bargaining – This “what if” stage of grief is more clearly understood as an attempt to rewrite the past or negotiate a different future. Wanting to make sense of what has happened can lead to an internal dialog about what should or could occur. This type of grief is a mental exercise in suspending reality that transcends time and leaves you coping with uncertainty.
Acceptance – As a child you were a natural at taking life as it comes. Even with emotional tantrums you had a built in resilience for vulnerability. Ironically the older you get your need to control makes it harder to accept when things don’t go your way. The work of grief is not an isolated season but a lifelong exercise in accepting your limitations.
If you would like to learn more about coping with grief in all of its complicated expressions take some time to read Six Signs of Incomplete Grief.