Grief happens whenever we lose something that we love or become attached to. The five stages of grief can happen in any order, and some people bounce between the five stages more than once before reaching acceptance.
Sometimes people go through more than one stage at once. Grief can happen even if what we are losing is something we don’t want or need anymore. It is a completely a normal process that everyone goes through when faced with the loss of anything that has become familiar to them. It is even normal to grieve the loss of something that you hate, such as an exhausting job.
Grief is about adapting to life when something is missing. This is the reason we even grieve over things that are no good for us. Before writing this article, I spent a lot of time pondering the reasons why it’s so painful to lose even the horrible things. I thought about the popular statement that there is a fine line between love and hate, and I have always believed this to be true. In order to really dislike something, it must have a large impact on your life. Otherwise, it could be easily ignored, and thought of as nothing more than an annoyance rather than something to be hated. It is the impact on our lives that triggers the grieving process when we lose something or someone familiar to us.
The best analogy I could come up with in my mind was of a weight tied to a person's back. Imagine if you were to drag a weight behind you for years, and you got used to it always being there. It would probably be unpleasant at best, and it would certainly slow you down, but after a while it would just become a fact of life, and wherever you would go, your weight would go with you. You wouldn't be able to do certain things with it, but after a while even that would become a fact of life.
Then imagine that one day the weight tied to your back suddenly broke free from you. Believe it or not, you would immediately start going through the 5 stages of grief.
You would think that the moment the weight came off, you would run around cheering and jumping for joy, but much to the contrary, your first reaction would be to turn around and stare at it, wondering what just happened. You might cry, partially from joy, but also because the shock of losing it would be overwhelming. You might inspect the way it was attached to you, and might even try to fix it!
You might just stand there in complete disbelief, unsure of what move to make next. You might then try to decide that it was never a big deal, and you can move on without missing it at all. You may even try to stop believing that it ever existed. Walking normally without the weight you have been carrying around for years will feel completely unnatural and could even be physically painful if you tried to stand up completely straight after hunching over while dragging it for so long. This would all be perfectly natural, because it was a part of your life, and now you will have to adjust to life without it, even if you never wanted it in the first place.
I personally encountered denial after a friend of mine died from breast cancer. I remember walking away from the hospice house and getting onto the bus to go home feeling like I had just been through a pleasant and empowering experience. Another friend of mine called to see if I was okay, and despite that fact that I had not slept in two days, and had been holding her hand for nearly 24 hours before she passed without moving from my seat more than once, I felt energetic. I told my other friend that I was okay, and I really felt like I was.
I felt happy that I was able to be there for my friend as she transitioned from this world to the next, and I even smiled as I described the way that she looked at me during her moment of passing, and that I watched as the life left her eyes, and was thankful because I knew it meant that she was gone before taking her last breath.
When I got home, I explained it the same way to my roommates with the same smile on my face. I got online and received several emails thanking me for being such a “rock” during the whole ordeal, and felt triumphant over the situation, and proud of myself for never breaking down even though I was diagnosed with PTSD and feared being triggered by watching her pass. The truth was, I just had not been triggered yet, because I was in denial.
I laid down to take a nap, and woke up around two hours later with the image of her face as she took her last breath in my mind, and it suddenly hit me. I woke up terrified, hyperventilating, choking, and in physical pain. I stood up, got my breathing back to normal, and walked out to the kitchen to get something to eat. I thought I was over it, and that I had just scared myself by waking up choking that way, but my physical pain began to intensify, and before I knew it I was in tears, and remembering all of the moments that I had felt helpless to save my friend from such a horrible fate, and realizing that she was only a year older, and it could have just as easily been me in that bed.
While denial is a normal part of the grieving process, it can amplify the effects of your loss, or cause reckless behaviors and distort your reality.
How to Handle Denial
As I said before, denial is perfectly normal, and it serves a purpose. It is a survival mechanism designed to keep you calm during traumatic experiences so that you can handle what is happening in the moment. When the trauma has passed, it can sometimes take a while for the mechanism to pass. In most cases, it passes on it’s own, but in other cases, it can linger, and cause cognitive distortions that lead to unhealthy behaviors.
It’s Okay to Examine the Rope
As I said before, when we lose something that we have been attached to, our first reaction is usually to turn around and look to see what happened. This is not only normal, it’s healthy. Take your time in thinking about your loss, what you learned from it, and whether or not it may help you in the long run. In many cases, even when dealing with the death of a loved one, loss will in some way help us to move on to things we would not have otherwise experienced. In my case, losing my friend opened up my perspective about the importance of life, and living it to it’s fullest potential. It also introduced me to a few new people that I am very happy to have met.
What to Avoid
It’s important to avoid trying to believe that what you lost never existed, or to try using drugs or alcohol to numb your emotions during this stage of grief. You want to do your best to let yourself go through this as naturally and honestly as possible.
I think anger is one of the most unpleasant stages of grief, and yet it can give you a sense of power, especially if your loss is involuntary, or you are losing something that you hate. At this stage you begin to realize that your life is about to change and you are uncomfortable with the discomfort of it all. In the case of the weight, you might mock it for being attached to you in the first place. You may be angry that it never came off sooner, or that you feel weird walking without it. Again, this is a perfectly normal part of grief, and it is perfectly acceptable to be angry about your loss.
My most memorable encounter with anger during grief was felt when I lost my husband. Our relationship was terrible in so many ways, and it really needed to come to an end, but I was so angry about losing the life I had, and watching him build a new one without me. I had a thousand reasons why I didn't deserve to lose my family, and that he didn't deserve to be happy after hurting me the way he had. I ended up having an unhealthy amount of anger, and I didn’t deal with it in very healthy ways.
My anger consumed me, motivated me, and held me down. I spent a lot of time yelling at him in my mind, and explaining my side of the story to people both real and imagined. I felt like I just HAD make other people understand how unfair it was, and make them agree that he didn’t deserve to be happy while I was left with nothing. I had violent thoughts that I had never had before, and this stage of my grief lasted for years.
Letting my anger last for that long was not the best decision. I think my biggest mistake was not letting it out until I was completely devastated. I held onto my relationship with him even though I was angry, and we were unable to reconcile. I think if I had accepted that I was angry sooner and dealt with it in healthy ways, I could have gotten over it without causing myself so much emotional harm.
Obviously, holding on to anger for too long can create a problem, but so can trying to deny that your anger even exists.
How to Handle Anger
The best thing you can do about your anger is accept it. Admit that you are angry, and get it out of your head as quickly as possible in the healthiest ways you can think of.
Get it out
When I am angry I like to create something that reflects my feelings. I usually write a poem or a short story that illustrates my feelings, or a letter that I don’t send to the person I lost. I have also been known to paint a picture that represents the way I feel. Sometimes it takes more than one type of outlet to move past anger.
Some other suggestions:
Hit a punching bag
Scream into a pillow
Practice shooting (only inanimate objects where it is legal to shoot)
Sing a song that fits your mood
Find someone you can be open and honest with and talk it out. You don’t have to make the same mistake I did, and talk to everyone, but choose one friend that you know will have your back, and take an hour or two to talk about it. If you can’t talk, write. If what you lost was a person, sometimes it only seems fitting to talk to that person about it, even though you may not ever be able to talk to them again.
I recently lost another friend. This time it wasn’t due to death, but due to some mistakes made by both of us, and my decision to walk away from the friendship. After I walked away, I tried to go to him, apologize and work things out, but things ended permanently on a bad note. Since I was unable to talk to my friend I wrote him a letter, but I didn’t send it. Instead, I kept it in a word program and saved it to look at the next day.
When I opened the letter the next morning I was surprised by the amount of profanity I had used. I was definitely in the anger stage! I removed the profanity, chose better words, and added a few things that I had forgotten to say. This made me feel a little better, and I continued this process editing the letter for three days before it sounded less angry, and I finally came to terms with the fact that the friendship was over, and there was nothing I could say or do to change what had happened.
It also offered more clarity to my perception of the situation. Until I really went over all of my thoughts about it, I didn’t realize how irrational some were, and how intelligent others seemed to be. This created a sense of partial acceptance that helped me move on to the next stage.
The bargaining stage can be a very healthy thing, because that is the time when you will want to fix the situation. It can also become very damaging if you dwell on something that can’t be fixed. Remember that some things are only weights that we don’t need in our lives. Fixing the rope that the weight was attached with is not always the best choice. Sometimes it is better to just leave it behind.
The reason the bargaining stage can be healthy, is that it causes a drive to get back what was lost. It can happen at any time in the grieving process, and will most likely happen more than once. Anger can be a great motivator, but don’t let anger be at the base of your decisions, unless it will drive you do something good for yourself or someone else.
How to Get Through the Bargaining Stage
Remember that the past is in the past. This is easier said than done, and I personally stay in the bargaining stage for longer than I would like to in most cases. We may not be able to recover one thing that was lost, but there may be other things that been have missing in our lives for a while that we can, and should try to get back during this stage. If there is nothing that you want back in your life, now is a great time to do something new.
Join a gym or nutrition class
Make a major purchase
Reconnect with old friends
Change your appearance
Start a new hobby, or pick up an old one
Start a new physical activity
Take a trip
Learn something new
Do anything that gives you a sense accomplishment or gain.
Depression in my opinion is the hardest stage of grief. If it becomes severe enough, it can completely immobilize you and crush your motivation. It may feel like you will never be happy again.
I almost always deal with depression after a loss, and it is almost always completely debilitating for at least a few days. I have learned to accept this as a natural reaction to grief, and give myself the time that I need to cry, feel sad, be unmotivated, distracted, or just sleep it off. Learning to accept depression instead of beating myself up for it and labeling myself as “pathetic” or “lazy” has really helped me get through it more quickly. I once heard that depression is anger turned in on yourself, so it made sense to me that in order to beat my depression I could not be angry with myself for feeling it.
How to Handle Depression
In the case of loss, depression is perfectly normal. Remember that is okay to be sad. Loss is a terrible thing, and you don’t have to accept it as okay, or just a part of life. Your feelings about your loss are normal and justified, no matter how the loss happened, or how unbeneficial your loss was to your life.
The only thing you need to accept is that the loss happened, and that you deserve to feel the way you do about it. Once you have accepted that, do what you can, when you can, to get through the other stages of grief and your depression will leave as well.
Again, acceptance doesn't mean that it’s all okay. What is does mean is that you are finally able to move on with your life without constantly thinking of your loss, denying it, trying to fix it, or being angry and depressed about it.
It means that you are free to move forward without what you lost, and that YOU are okay.