Illustration by @frizzkidart
The hot messy process of emotions during grief
In my last instalment I introduced you to my unwanted passenger, better known as grief. We are still hanging out daily and let me tell you, the whole thing is insanely uncomfortable. On any given day I am capable of experiencing myriad emotions. Like 10 to 15 emotions that leave me desperately wanting to get this whole grief thing over with. I want to be done with it and move on with my life. I don’t have the time, space or energy to deal with my “friend” and I am constantly looking for ways to ignore him. But here’s the thing: ignoring him just makes him sneaky and linger, drawing out this process even longer.
While the desire to overcome or conquer grief is strong in so many of us, we must pay attention to it and honour our feelings and process.
5 Stages of Dying
My first understanding of “overcoming” grief was studying Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages of dying from her book in 1969 On Death and Dying, where she describes a type of emotional journey among people who are terminally ill and facing death. The model irks me and so does the title. Why would she put the “death” before the “dying?” It seems in line with the idea that we are not paying attention to process and rather jumping to the end result, similar to what we are hoping for when we are sitting with grief and discomfort. My experience with patients is that the actual death is uneventful and does not go according to the best laid plans, because of a lack of focus and education on the progression for the individual and family members (more on that another time).
7 Stages of Grief
Kübler-Ross eventually extrapolated the model to develop the 7 stages of grief and loss by adding shock and depression (hard to believe they were initially omitted!):
Her stages are outlined as the following:
- Shock or Disbelief
- Acceptance and Hope
The model was created as a fixed sequence of emotions, which would ultimately end with healing. What we know now is that this is not a road map for feeling like yourself again. In my opinion, the greatest value of this model is to emphasize that grief is not one-dimensional: It manifests in a myriad of intense and often confusing emotions. Dealing with grief is not a linear progression, but a process with chaotic twists and turns which often spits a version of yourself out that can be very different then the person you thought you were before.
We need to re-orient to the world around us.
This is a key point – most people think resolving grief is about reorienting to that person you were, but I actually think this is where people get stuck. When we experience a loss we are so emotionally disoriented that we actually need to re-orient to the world around us. I see this a lot with breast cancer patients post-treatment. This tends to be the hardest phase for most people because you have just been through a life-changing ordeal and finding the “new normal” is a similar process of re-orientation. If we are changed from our experience, then who are we now? How does that impact our relationships with others? How does it impact our careers? How we live our lives daily? How we see the world?
I think the emotional logic of grief is better understood if you think of it as a series of attempts to re-orient to the world after a big loss has left you emotionally off-balance (disoriented). It requires letting go of notions of who you once were, who you should be, and being open to the possibilities of who you might be now. There is a lot of vulnerability and unsettling in the not-knowing so it can be a scary process.
It also requires our attention and that is hard to do when we live busy lives. I am figuring out that there are no quick fixes or an accelerated ways to do this. Instead, we need the right tools at the right time and the right people in place to support our transformational process (more on this in part three.) I know I am excited to meet my 5.0 self down the road – I think she will be wiser, more compassionate, honest and joyful.