If you’ve lived on this planet any length of time then you’ve almost certainly heard about the stages of grief. Our friend, Gabriele, shares her unexpected journey through grief.
In July 2014, Werner and Gabriele Rienas and I shared speaking duties at Alberta Beach Family Camp. Jocelyn and I sat on the front row every morning and soaked up Werner and Gabby’s humour and practical wisdom. A few months ago Gabby was unexpectedly thrown into a personal and horrendous acquaintance with unrelenting grief. She lost her husband, Werner of 41 years. His death was dramatic, unexpected, and abrupt. Gabby says the pain of the loss has been like none she has ever known. This is her writing, shared with permission for you or someone you love.
The idea is that grieving people go through a step-by-step process of experiencing denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. You know the stages that are referenced everywhere – from literature to media? We observe a grieving person vent their anger and we say to ourselves, “Aha, anger”, and we pinpoint where they are in their process of grief.
Short history lesson: Those stages were presented by a scientist named Elizabeth Kubler Ross in the 1960s. I’m sure she was a great scientist but her studies were very specific to terminally ill patients and she used a narrow sampling of patients from a specific hospital to reach her conclusions. Still, the results of this study have become world renowned and widely accepted as a grief standard.
Because the stages are so often referred to (even by well-meaning comforters) I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I want to say that it is my opinion that we need to move away from this framework for grief.
Grief is not Linear
The concept of stages implies that there is a linear process to grieving. Stage 1…..Stage 2…..Stage 3……We expect grievers to proceed through these stages and therefore look for signs and clues to reveal the progress. However, stages imply movement and an ending point. In Kubler-Ross’ theory, the final point is “Acceptance”.
So if you buy into this widely accepted theory you might observe a grieving person. You might know and believe that grief is individual and that it takes long time, but you are looking for stages and (by implication) movement. The assumption is that the grieving person moves forward toward some sort of resolution. And our desire to see progress makes sense, because the forward momentum really fits with our Western obsession to find purpose, meaning, and personal growth. We like the idea that in anything there is a beginning point and an ending point and steps to walk in between. It’s so much neater and predictable that way. With this in mind, we wonder if the grief that we observe is healthy or not and we may even suggest counseling or prayer if it appears that forward momentum is hindered. But I have grown to be wary of this incessant need to demonstrate growth and progress….
Grief is Circular
It turns out that real grief resists this kind of momentum. It is not linear. Nor does it “progress”. It does not move forward from one step to another. In actual fact, it is much more circular. It moves up and down, back and forth. Instead of moving forward it seems to loop around and regress and go backwards. It’s not a “getting through” to the next stage and seeking to complete steps so that I can move on to the next. Grief is never complete. It does not arrive at acceptance.
The idea that I would accept what has happened seems offensive to me. It feels dishonoring to the person that I have lost. I don’t accept that Werner is gone and I don’t think I ever will.
How can this be?
I don’t mean to imply that denial, anger or depression are not part of my experience for I have felt all of these things to an extreme. It’s just that these emotions do not neatly progress through stages. They loop around and compete with each other and fade only to come back. There are days when I feel really angry and my thoughts always seem to find a target: Werner, God, acquaintances…. There are other days when I contemplate the meaninglessness of life and consider, what is the point of it all?
Other days, I still can’t believe that Werner is gone and I repeat my mantra, “How can this be?” Surprisingly, there are days where I don’t think about it much – instead absorbed in the tasks of life – only to have the pain come roaring back at the most unexpected moments. However, the fact that grief contains an intense increase of certain emotions is not the same as believing that grief progresses through stages to a point of acceptance.
It turns out that grief, is instead, a process of integration. I integrate this new reality (my massive loss) into my life, my worldview and my psyche. I am tasked with integrating my faith as well. Now, I wrestle with God’s place in it all. How does his Love and grace fit with my present and future reality? I am presented with the task of merging my life and my worldview around the unwanted reality that Werner is no longer present as he was.
My integration is in no way a straight line nor will it ever be complete. The level of integration sits in different phases of development and waxes and wanes. No matter what, life continues and grows around the gaping hole of Werner’s absence. Thankfully, there are moments when it feels less painful and there are days when I feel more hope about my new reality. On those days I know that I am loved and that grace will carry me through. But inevitably – and always unexpectedly – I revert back to resisting my new circumstances with all my might. Even as I acknowledge that I still have a future, I recognize that it is a revised future that is incomparable to the way that I envisioned it would be.
The redefining gradually happens in spite of great resistance to doing that very thing. Nothing in me wants this. Instead, I desperately yearn to go back to the way that things were but I have no choice…for life propels me forward.
I often feel an internal digging in of my heels. I envision planting my feet firmly on the floor and crossing my arms. “This is completely unacceptable”…. “No, this is not what I want.” Yet I am pushed forward by a figurative hand in my back. I have no choice. Sometimes, I internally clench my teeth and lean back even further. Something about moving forward too quickly moves me away from Werner and I am not ready. And other times I feel myself – ever so slightly – leaning forward because life is there, and I wonder what it might hold.
Why Framework Matters
You ask, “Why does a framework of grief matter?” It matters a lot to the grieving person. If you are critiquing my experience or measuring progress then you are only adding another layer of pressure to an already impossible experience. It matters because, in my grief, your subtle expectation of forward momentum increases that uncomfortable sensation of the hand in my back.
Grief is by nature, a solitary experience and I don’t see a way around that. The irony is that the presence of others walking alongside and demonstrating nonjudgmental compassion helps a lot. I’m not looking for help to move forward and I’m not looking for advice. Instead, I am comforted by compassionate witnesses who display curiosity rather then certainty about my experience. Knowing you care means so much to me. We don’t have to talk about our loss all the time. I welcome normal conversations; normal shared experiences and shared laughter. At the same time it helps to let Werner be a natural part of our shared experience, remembering what the gift of his life brought to us and letting this loss be acknowledged.
Integrating the loss of Werner into my current reality will be a lifelong process but instead of a hand in my back, it is the arm around my shoulder that is getting me through.
We appreciate Gabby immensely. Please leave her a comment at the bottom of this post. The best way to say thank you is to share this post with people you love going through fresh grief and on your social media platforms.
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