Many of us are attending more funerals and memorial services these days. I have been greatly saddened by the loss of two friends this past fall. The services were good places to remember, honor, respect and grieve these people.
Our society doesn’t invite grief and suffering out in the open. Death has become distanced from everyday life. We don’t observe it directly as in the past when whole families gathered at the bedside of the one dying. We have discomfort speaking about it, using euphemisms such as “passing on.”
Often, we get so caught up with the busyness of death (services, funeral home, will, etc.) that we avoid the depth of our own loss. “Later, not now.” We worry that we’re trying the patience of our friends and family with our maudlin repetitiveness and self-pity.
With our instant, technological world, we’ve lost the importance of time as a therapeutic option to grieve, time to process. Our grief is expected to last only a finite time, and then we’re supposed to get back out there or something’s wrong.
There seem to be many ways in which we are intended to grieve, but there are no rules or timetables on how to do it. The Elisabeth Kübler-Ross theory, in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, explains these steps:
1. Denial – Reacting with numbed disbelief, denying the reality of the loss to avoid the pain, a sort of emotional protection.
2. Anger – Needing to lay blame for the loss; a time to release bottled up emotion.
3. Bargaining – Trying to deal with the powers that be to find a way out of despair.
4. Depression – A long period of sad reflection. We realize the true magnitude of the loss and may isolate ourselves to reflect and make sense – a most important stage.
5. Acceptance – Lifting of the darkness, some calm, physical symptoms lessen, we learn to deal with the reality of our situation and start planning things for the future.
The steps are not linear on a timeline of grief, nor are they necessarily in this order. My friend has lost six close people in the past year, and she told me she grieved each one differently, depending on how they died (peacefully or not) and her relationship to them. Cheryl Strayed hiked 1,100 miles to work through her grief. There are many variables in how each of us does this.
The deepest sorrow may include intense physical suffering, even guilt and shame. It can look like overwhelming sadness, frustration or disappointment. But grief is natural; even animals grieve. There are many cultural differences in how we grieve, but all have ways that are vital in healthy coping of the death of a loved one.
Reading the literature about grief, I repeatedly find how important it is to do the slow work of moving through it. I think we can’t really know exactly how to grieve and offer clear steps to follow. However, to deny this process is to rob ourselves of the wisdom and compassion we find at the end. Experiencing deep grieving opens us up to a vulnerability that leads to the depth and humility we need to connect us back into the world. It cannot be transformed by someone else telling us how to do it, but we may need encouragement and support in a like-minded group to pull us through.
Touching in to grief and sorrow can link us with the greater world of grief and the universal compassion and sensitivity toward everyone who’s ever lost a loved one.
Joan Halifax in her book Being with Dying, says:
“Grief teaches us tenderness and patience with ourselves and reminds us lovingly not to hold on too tightly. Impermanence is inescapable, we learn; no one and nothing escapes her touch.”
Peace to all who wander on this path.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.