by Russell Floyd, Psy.D.
Throughout our lives, it is inevitable we will experience loss in some way that will lead to us going through a grieving process. The common misconception is that grief is only experienced in the face of extreme, life-altering losses, i.e., the death of a loved one or a traumatic experience, but this is not the case. We can experience grief in a number of situations or circumstances—the loss of independence caused by an injury, the loss of sense of security due to robbery, loss associated with disillusionment, loss experienced in ending a relationship, loss of care and comfort upon starting at a new school, college, or university, etc.
Regardless the circumstances surrounding one’s experience of grief and loss, a number of stages exist to help normalize and understand this process. The stages are meant to be more of a guide to the grieving process, therefore they are not comprehensive of what one might experience. These stages are also not universal, meaning you may not experience all of them throughout your own grieving process, and they are not sequential or linear, so you can skip a stage or move backwards at any point.
A Swiss Psychologist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, developed the following model for understanding grief.
This first stage helps us cope with and/or manage our experience by minimizing the potentially overwhelming pain of the loss. As a result of the loss, you may feel confused, panicked, shocked, fearful, or even happy, and it might be too much to experience or feel all at once. As a result, we deny, or fail to accept our circumstances to pace or slow down our experience of grief.
It is common to feel anger and frustration in the event of a loss, because we are experiencing a number of intense and possibly confusing emotions, and our anger allows for emotional expression without vulnerability. It is normal to feel alone and/or isolated as a result of loss, leading to questioning our circumstances in search of an explanation, and our anger toward someone or something keeps us connected and grounded to reality.
In coping with a loss, you may feel an intense desire to do anything to avoid the pain you are currently feeling and/or the pain you anticipate feeling. For this reason, this stage serves as a false sense of hope, as we negotiate and explore a number of “what if” scenarios that could have potentially prevented us from our current circumstances. This stage is also often associated with feelings of guilt, responsibility, and regret, as we imagine various ways we could have behaved or acted differently, prior to our loss.
As we are dealing with loss and the associated grief, we begin to look at the reality of our present situation, we can no longer deny or bargain for different circumstances, and we eventually face what is happening. You may begin to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of your sadness, and can withdraw from others and the world around you.
*While this stage is called depression, it is not to be confused with a clinical diagnosis of major depressive disorder, as it is viewed as a normal and natural response to loss.
The acceptance of this stage does not mean we do not feel pain associated with our loss, it means we are no longer resisting the reality of what has happened, and we may begin to feel as though we will be okay despite our loss. The loss will still be painful and we will have to adjust to whatever changes may have taken place, but it feels possible to do so.
In comforting or aiding someone going through a grieving process, it might be helpful to avoid “helping” or rescuing the person by distracting them from their emotions or forcing them to move forward/on. While intentions in these situations are often positive and aimed at helping, they can be invalidating of the person’s experience. It is best to simply make yourself available by offering a space where one can speak to and feel the emotions associated with their loss.
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