Death is a rough time for all of us. When a loved one dies there is a lot we go through. Elizabeth Kubler Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist who, after spending hundreds of hours with dying people, discovered five universal stages of the grieving process. These stages are fluid. They may seem linear but they can often be overlapping, revisited more than once, or gone through simultaneously.
Each succeeding stage of grief becomes more dominant over time as we move through the grieving process. The stages miss Ross detailed in her book, On Death and Dying are:
Denial: Denial can take different forms. We can deny our loved one has a terminal illness and cling to the notion that they will get better in the face of obvious deterioration. Alternatively, once someone has passed, we can go numb and be in denial that the death actually happened. Denial acts as a kind of shock absorber to our nervous system. It allows us to approach grief slowly, without becoming disabled by it.
Anger: Anger is also experienced in a multitude of ways. You may be angry with the doctors, God, the addiction that lead to death, even the person who died. Anger allows us to take a step closer to the loss.
Bargaining: If the person hasn’t died yet we may make bargains with God that we will change, donate money, change places, or otherwise sacrifice to ward off death. After someone has passed bargaining involves obsessing on the details of the death. This could include what lead up to the loss, how it could have happened, what we could have done differently. This is our mind’s attempt to undo the unacceptable. Once we realize we cannot undo the death, we move into the next stage of grieving.
Depression: This is where we finally experience the full weight of the loss and realize we cannot change it. This is not neurotic, clinical depression, but a healthy way of processing the loss. If we do not allow the depression it can become stuck in our psyche and experienced as ongoing, clinical depression.
Acceptance: Acceptance of death happens after we have fully grieved, cried, yelled, and done whatever we need to fully experience the loss. Acceptance is the last stage of grieving and is the place we learn to live the “new normal” without our loved one. We may still feel pain when we think of the person, but we will not be disabled by it. We will have grown stronger and wiser for having gone through the loss.
We can become stuck in unresolved grief if we don't get the help we need. This takes place when we resist the loss or lack the tools to process our pain. We may drink, refuse to cry, refuse to talk about it, hold in our anger, act out in an addiction, sink into clinical depression—even become suicidal.
Rituals are essential ways of getting help grieving deep loss. Rituals are things such as: going to the funeral or wake, gathering with others who knew the loved one, honoring the loved one’s memory with story telling, writing letters to them, joining a grief support group, seeking a therapist. All of these rituals and more can serve to help support us through the grief process.
Rituals can also help us process the loss of pets. A church in Los Angeles has a “Pet Support Group” for members who have lost an animal family member.
When helping someone else through grief it is important to be with them and not try to “fix” their feelings. A priest I heard speak on death noted that he was shocked, when after losing his wife, his friends were consoling him with the same kinds of words he had used for years to help families going through the grieving process. His shock was that the words of comfort his friends offered, while attempting to be consoling, were experienced by him as attempts to shut down his feelings, not support him in going through them. They were statements like, “It was her time,” “She’s with God now,” “She’s in a better place,” “She’s out of pain,” or, “This is a blessing in disguise.” These kinds of statements, while well meaning, don’t create space for the grieving person to experience the loss. They can be heard as uncomfortable efforts to avoid facing the loss full on.
It could be better to offer statements that allow space for grief such as, “I’m here if you need to talk”, “This must be so hard”, “It’s so hard to lose her” or, “Can I do anything or do you just want me to sit with you?” It can also be helpful to simply cry with the person, hold them, or share in the pain in whatever way they ask you to.
Below “Counseling Carl” details the five stages of grief. Take a look: