Losing someone that you love is not something that can be easily be described in words to another person. Whether it was expected or unexpected – in a single moment life changes. Never to return to what it was. The person that you loved, lived, laughed and fought with, is suddenly just gone. Reduced to photographs, “can-you still-remembers-?”, and a few personal belongings.
As I was driving home yesterday afternoon, I listened to the lyrics of Sir Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”…. “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did…” and a sadness swooped over me, feeling the pain of loss. I think it is only the pain of real loss that you can feel like an actual stab in your chest.
But all of us are different and therefore every person’s grieve journey is unique; with probably just one similarity: it is always devastatingly painful. That one we cannot escape.
I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, probably the world’s most renowned writer and teacher about death and dying. She said herself that there is no correct time or way to grieve. It is a deeply personal, but painful process. It is only when you have been there that you will be able to grasp that.
In the forward of Kubler-Ross & Kessler’s book, Grief and Grieving (2004), Maria Shriver says: “The truth is that grief can make you feel like you’re going crazy. Grief can make a liar out of you. You say you’re doing fine, when your heart is shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. But everyone wants you to say you’re okay, so you do.” We live in a society that wants us to get back to normal as soon as possible. We’re expected to go back to work immediately, keep moving, to get on with our lives.
But it doesn’t work that way. One of the most significant things that I have learned from working with people grieving and grieving myself, is that grief does not allow you to hide from your feelings. You can keep pain of that magnitude contained inside of you for only so long, until it will erupt – whether it is through anger outbursts, severe depression, alcohol or substance abuse, broken relationships, total isolation, physical illness… the list continues. It just does not work. We were not made to keep pain hidden. To stay strong. You have to let your pain out. Acknowledge your loss. Step into it. Move through the pain of the loss. Learn how to live with it. Let it out. It takes time.
“We come from a culture where we think people have to be strong. I’m a big believer in being vulnerable, open to grief. That is strength. You can’t know joy unless you know profound sadness. They don’t exist without each other.” (Kubler-Ross & Kessler, 2004)
“Grief is like living two lives. One is where you pretend that everything is alright, and the other is where your heart silently screams out in pain.”
I think if we understand what is happening to us, it is somehow easier to live with ourselves. It brings a certain kind of ‘normality’ into the ‘abnormality’ of everything that we are experiencing.
If you, a friend or a loved one are going through a grieving process right now, please don’t stop reading, if you already know about the 5 stages of grief. Read again. Take it in and understand again with a fresh perspective.
The Kubler-Ross model is the most well-known and widely accepted model explaining the stages of grief. Kubler-Ross In 1969, identified five linear stages of grief:
- Shock and Denial
“People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each stage linearly. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one.”
1. Shock and denial
This is usually the first stage and the grieving person might experience a wide range of emotions varying from numbness, to fear, anxiety, blame, avoidance of others and isolation.
Everyone who has been there knows and will never forget the very first moment they heard the news. It becomes ingrained into your being. Somehow it contains all the emotions in one – shock, fear, denial, anxiety, numbness, anger, hysteria, pain, pain, pain. The world stops for a moment or longer.
And then slowly reality sets in and the stages plays themselves out and at times you can return to this phase during your grief journey to pause and feel again.
Anger is a real and necessary part of the grieving process and reveals itself in many different ways. The grieving person might experience anger at some of the other stage in the grieving process for various reasons:
– They might feel that their beloved didn’t take good enough care of themselves and could have prevented the death;
– They might experience anger towards God (“How could He allow this to happen at this stage or for that matter at any stage?”). Some people stay away from church for months or even years, whilst trying to figure out how a loving God could allow this to happen to them;
– They might experience anger towards themselves and regret or hold themselves responsible for what had happened;
– They might hold someone else responsible for what happened to their loved one. The current situation in our country leaves thousands of indirect victims feeling helplessly and painfully angry at a perpetrator who might have murdered, mutilated and raped a family member or spouse. If not treated, spoken about, dealt with the person left behind ‘living’, ‘dies’ as well.
Kubler-Ross (2004) is correct when she says: “Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger.” It is for this very reason that society (friends/family etc.) at times finds it hard to deal with the grieving person in this stage; they do not know how to respond for example to a person’s anger towards God. However, anger is a natural reaction to loss and pain and an essential part of healing.
“I sat with my anger for long enough until she told me her real name was grief.”
Kubler-Ross and Kessler (2004) explains bargaining so spot on that a quote from their book seems appropriate:
“Before a loss, it seems you will do anything if only your loved one may be spared. “Please, God,” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then can I wake up and realise this has all been a bad dream?”
Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if only’s” cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
Most of us who have lost a dear person can identify with this bargaining technique: “Please, God, let me fall asleep and wake up realising this was all a dream. I will do anything to have him back.”
And who, who have not lost a dearest and at the first light of the morning, when you open your eyes for the briefest moment have forgotten about ‘the death’, to be brutally stricken with the reality “He is gone”. It is real. There is no pain like the pain of loss.
During the grieving process, enters depression. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters the lives of the grieving person on a deeper level, deeper than can ever be imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. This is when the grieving person goes through an intense dark phase. In other words, it is normal considering the circumstances.
As caring friends or family, we often feel it our responsibility to get you out of your “depression.” We want to see you happy again and even start making remaking silly remarks of starting to date again, the possibility of a new family, another baby, etc. Get-togethers are arranged with the best of intentions. Or we stop talking altogether about ‘the death’, hoping that it will make you move on.
The heavy, dark feelings of depression that come with grief are normal; depression is a way for nature to keep us protected, by shutting down the nervous system so that we can adapt to something we feel we cannot handle (Kubler-Ross and Kessler 2004). I always stand in awe of how God made us so complete…
But there are times when the depression can get so deep and dark that suicidal tendencies might be very real. So for you reading this as the one grieving you will know the deepness of the darkness… is it just flashes; are you planning ‘it’; have you lost hope? Are you suicidal?
There is hope – you can survive this. Millions before you are proof of this. Just observing others surviving, can give us hope. But sometimes the depth of the depression is just such that you have to reach out for help… very similar to someone drowning and having to grab on to the life saver’s hand to take him to safety. You might need the help of a team of skilled caring professionals to get you through this stage; to drag you out onto the sand where you can start to breathe again on your own and in time feel the sun on your skin. The cool wind in your hair. Don’t give up.
None of us are too special or important to escape the possibility of this real crisis.
If I could survive from drowning so can you.
“She is holding on,
Gripping whatever she can do
Keep it together for another day.
She doesn’t think about next week
Or next month, just today.
That’s what she tells herself.
That’s how she’s gone this long.
Just keep it together,
This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognising that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually, we learn to accept it. We learn to live with it. It becomes softer. The scar is there. But you can now look at it, touch it, and even smile with a tear, or laugh out loud when you have a memory of your darling loved one. Sometimes you will want to cover it up still, other times you will wear it open for all to see. The scar might even make you brave.
You will know that you are making progress in your grief when you…
– start having more good than bad days,
– when your energy and motivation increases,
– you start to feel just a little more ‘normal’.
– You’re able to focus on your personal health and well-being,
– You feel ready to date again, have more children, and/or make new friends,
– Your relationships feel more functional and healthy,
– You feel as though you are ‘re-joining the human race’,
– You experience an increase in desire for emotional and physical intimacy.
….but what if I am not getting better?
The grieving process can become complicated and dominates a person’s life, interfering with their daily functioning. It is called complicated grief and refers to a persistent form of bereavement without any form of improvement after an extended period.
Prolonged symptoms may include:
- Intense sadness and emotional pain that does not subside;
- Feelings of emptiness and hopelessness;
- A continuous yearning to be reunited with the deceased;
- Preoccupation with the deceased or with the circumstances of the death;
- Difficulty engaging in happy memories of the lost person;
- Avoidance of reminders of the deceased;
- A reduced sense of identity;
- Detachment and isolation from surviving friends and family;
- Lack of desire to pursue personal interests or plans.
“If you or a loved one is struggling with complicated grief, you have to understand that now is the time that professional help is urgently required.”
The reality is however that some things cannot be changed, they can only be carried. And as friends, family, loved ones and therapists it is our role to help the person who is hurting so deeply, carry that painful load better. How to take rests… how to look after him/herself with this heavy load, how to be there for him or her.
If it is you mourning… be brave and start telling people what you need and what you don’t. They are just trying because they love you…. And sometimes it’s not what you need…. You need to say it.
Today we know that journaling about our loss is one of the best ways to work through our feelings. Ernest Hemingway said it so well: “Write hard and clear about what hurts”. Go buy that book. Write hard and clear about your feelings. Don’t allow them to fester in the darkest corners of your heart.
“Grief, I have learnt, is really
It is all the love you want to give
But cannot. All of that unspent love
Gathers in the corners of your eyes,
The lump in your throat, and
The hallow part of your chest.
Grief is just love
With no place to go.”
A last thought: Allow your heart to cry, but never to break. In time joy and beauty will visit again.
If you need help – please reach out. We have counsellors in Pretoria and Pietermaritzburg.