One hundred and fifty two days ago my beloved husband transitioned into death. In that time I have learned that the reality of death and grief is something that cannot be understood unless you are in it. I thought I knew something of it, having experienced other loved ones passing.
I was wrong.
The photo above is a great visual for my life since Dan passed. Nothing is clear. Everything is foggy.
The Five Stages of Grief
I am exploring the land of grief in order to find my way through it. Today I am using the lens of the Five Stages of Grief, proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a renown psychiatrist, who explains her intention below:
The five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live without the one we lost. ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.
Kubler-Ross’s words about “learning to live without the one we lost” has been at the heart of all I have experienced so far, and will probably be at the heart of my journey through grief for some time.
Providing a bit of clarity on the purpose of these stages, Kubler-Ross’s colleague, David Kessler, offers these distinctions:
The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance . . . are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief’s terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. At times, people in grief will often report more stages. Just remember your grief is as unique as you are. ~ David Kessler
For more info: https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/
To dive in deep, I will explore how the five stages have, or have not, shown up in my life since Dan’s death.
Denial is a function of the human brain that helps to protect the psyche from being overloaded with more than it can handle. When Dan signed on for at-home hospice, the doctor estimated that he had just six months to live. At the time, that did not seem like reality. He immediately responded to the hospice care, gaining all the medical tools he needed; oxygen, pain-relief, available medical staff, etc, and got better. He was doing well—yet he died four months after getting on hospice.
Dan and I were both experiencing denial when our children began organizing a 24-hour schedule of care for him. I recall us saying to each other, “Do you really think this is necessary?” Eventually, the complications of illness broke through our denial. It was beyond necessary; it was critical.
One of the characteristics of denial is “going numb.” Kessler says that denial helps us to “pace” our grief, which seems logical and is something I remember being a daily occurrence in the first days and weeks. Apparently, as the denial begins to fade, our true feelings come forward in full view.
Right before Dan went on hospice, I remember being so angry that the medical clinic made it so difficult for us to get the support we needed. After hanging out in the clinic, trying to get a prescription for oxygen, an entire day’s effort was a complete failure and I went home empty handed.
Anger is hard for me. It comes with self-judgment, guilt, and fear, so I try to stay away from the passion of anger. They say the more you feel the anger, the more it dissipates and the more you move toward healing. This reminds me that I have work to do in the area of anger for my personal growth and healing.
Bargaining is prayer’s last name….at least one version of prayer. Prayers of petition are often connected with bargaining. “If you heal my husband, I will (fill in the blank).”
Over the past thirty years I have relied on prayers of petition more times than I can remember. Walking the basement hall in the cath lab; waiting in hospital rooms; responding to emergencies; driving back and forth to the hospital; but I do not recall bargaining. Although I recognize it as a stage, it is not one I experienced.
Now here is one I relate to—depression. For me, depression is listlessness, or escaping life by sleeping. That’s how depression shows up for me. A sense of doom and gloom surround me. Depression is always somewhere near me, especially when life is difficult. Depression was present before, during, and after Dan’s passing. There was so much happening that I felt overwhelmed constantly.
Kessler describes “empty feelings” which resonates strongly in me. A feeling that seems like it will never go away. I relate to that.
One hundred and fifty two days later, I still have moments, or days, of feeling depressed. Remembering that it is normal, I try to go easy on myself by adapting my day in ways that allows me to just chill out until the depression passes. Talking about it with a trusted person helps, too.
Deep within me, while caring for Dan, while watching him fade, while living without certainty of how or when he would pass, a deep acceptance sat like an anchor at the center of my being.
Perhaps being a mom of seven, grandmother of fourteen, and a wife of 50+ years normalizes the only thing in life that is predictable: shit happens. Life happens and life does not ask our permission.
Acceptance for me is grace. It is a gift. After years of working through traumas, disappointments, and failures, acceptance is my default when I push the reset button.
It is my safe place.
I hate the idea of acceptance seeming like a graduation. Like you’ve arrived. Graduating implies that you made acceptance happen. Acceptance, like all the stages, is a visiting place—for a time.
When we practice acceptance as a state of being, it becomes more available to us when we need it most.
The stages of grief as proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross have been somewhat helpful in my grief journey. However, Kate O’Neill’s version of “Other Stages of Grief” actually resonates with me more.
With a spirit of curiosity, I invite you to explore the stages in your grief journey as I did here. Perhaps write them in your journal and see which ones resonate and which ones don’t.
Next week I’ll return here with Kate O’Neill’s “Other Stages of Grief” to expand our resources.
Until then, be well!