Comprehending Grief; Five Lessons for ‘Passing Through’

This month we are exploring loss and grief in a series of four journal articles and four follow-ups.  This piece refers back to ‘Grief and Loss Unbundled’, digging a bit beneath the surface of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work.

The experience of grief is universal yet often misunderstood.  Comprehending significant losses seems to be almost impossible.  Why do such horrible things happen?  How could a loving God allow them?  These are the questions I posed to Kübler-Ross in 1991.  Our mutual friend and patient, Michael, was dying slowly with his body deteriorating from a form of MS complicated by HIV and alcohol dependence.  It all seemed like such a tragic waste to me.

Michael, a spiritual guide for many people who suffered from substance abuse disorders.

Michael had become a spiritual guide for many people who suffered from substance abuse disorders.  They were lost and broken.  And despite his own death sentence, or perhaps because of it, he was a touchstone of healing.  Elisabeth’s response to me was short and sweet.  She told me that Michael was one of the “beautiful people” and that his defeat, struggle and suffering allowed him to shine through like a stained glass window filling others with compassion and understanding.  She said that “the physical body is designed to die and we have a limited time on earth…we will all be allowed to graduate and no longer be prisoners of these bodies.”  Somehow, I had expected more from this iconic expert, but what she gave me began to resonate as time went by.  We are all on the same life journey taking different paths to arrive at the very same destination.  She would call regularly to check up on how Michael was doing.  When he died in 1993, I called to let her know and to share his last words to me.  Michael said; “You are loved.  This is the only information you need BJ.”  Elisabeth listened and replied after a brief silence saying:  “Yes! He gets it!”

Comprehending grief and loss may not be as complicated as it seems.  Dr. Kübler-Ross certainly believed that to be the case.  It is our rejection and denial of the certainty which holds us back from accepting and even embracing it. Bad things do not just happen to bad people. It is almost pointless to wonder why ‘bad things seem to happen to good people’.  At some point bad and good occupy a similar grey area.  Things happen.  God is not sitting on a throne with lightning bolt consequences to punish us for sins.  God is with us to comfort us as we are battered by the windstorms and droughts of life.  We each are empowered to choose the way we deal with them.

Five Ways of Comprehending loss and grief based on the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

  1. We are responsible for our lives and free to choose love over fear.  Fear of death and other losses can consume us or imprison us.  We must learn to live while we are alive.
  2. Release yourself from negativity and blame.  Healing will come if you allow love and keep on loving.
  3. Guilt is the most powerful companion of death.  It can only be relieved if we are fully present when our loved ones are alive.  Sit with them, listen and just be there.
  4. Dying is an integral part of life and our true beauty has a chance to shine unless we fail to celebrate it at the end,  Remember that what we have accumulated and achieved become a zero-sum.  How well we are remembered and celebrated are the hallmarks of our lives.
  5. Finally, in Elisabeth’s own words; Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon.  It is no different from taking off a suit of clothes one no longer needs.  It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh and to be able to grow.

Grief and Loss Unbundled; Revisiting the Five Stages

I was at the bedside of a dear friend who tried to commit suicide.  Under the influence of sedation, he kept repeating the phrase “Lose, Lose, Lose”.  I understood what he meant.  

My own losses were significant, and I had been in his place not so many years before.  The weight of sadness from family suicides, divorce, estrangement from my children and financial ruin had crushed me.  Denial, alcohol and drugs could no longer relieve the pain I suffered.  Ultimately, I found my way to Talbott Recovery Campus where the grief work really began.  My friend trudged on with help from professionals and family support.  He and I are the fortunate ones.  Current rates of substance abuse, major depressive disorder and suicide on the rise tell a tale of grief and loss in epidemic proportions.No one among us will escape the dark anguish of grief.  You just can’t get out of life without painful loss.  

Some of us will endure more and some will have a lesser share.  But grief is certain and impossible to measure or compare with that experienced by another. With that in mind, and with the nationwide crisis which we face, it is important that we develop a good understanding of grief and loss.  After finding that basic understanding, the next thing is discovering an effective way of dealing with them and living with them.

Over the next four weeks, we are going to explore loss and grief together.  What better way to start it off than by revisiting the five stages developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969.

I had the privilege of working with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross during the early 1990s.  Her life work with terminally ill patients, death, dying, and loss helped her to uncover five stages of grief which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

Though sometimes misunderstood, these stages have provided a road map for hospice as well as for most grief counseling and grief work done for fifty years. 

Elisabeth was delightful  She was also plucky, impatient, grouchy, playful, funny, controversial and unsinkable. Beyond her scientific research, Kubler-Ross had her fair share of loss as well. 

In 1994, her farm retreat and training center at Headwaters, Virginia was burned down.  All of her work was destroyed by arsonists who had lobbied to get her out of the community for years.  They were frightened that children and adults with AIDS who came there would start a spread of the disease.  They mistrusted the outsiders and “new age loonies” who studied and visited there.  She suffered strokes and subsequent disability which sidelined her for several years.  But she carried on.  What I learned from her guided my work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse and with people who suffer with substance abuse disorders.

  1. Denial: When we are first faced with a terrible loss, a kind of shock and numbness set in.  These are protective survival responses to an overwhelming situation.  There is no way to fully grasp what has just happened. As a result, the brain and psyche work together so that things can be processed.  Denial fades as we can handle things, a little at a time.  It is the beginning of the healing process.
  2. Anger: The rage against loss is experienced when the unfairness of it all becomes apparent.  It can manifest in what feels like a judgment from God who seems to have allowed this tragedy to occur.  It can show up as resentment at people who failed to be by your side.   Anger is just another coping device.  What had seemed to be weakness and vulnerability now comes as a kind of strength.  Anger will allow us to find the will carry on. An important thing to remember is that, like denial, it will diminish and disappear.
  3. Bargaining: The guilt, self-blaming, and emptiness of loss result in lots of ‘What ifs” and ‘If onlys’. “If only I had been a better boy/girl/family member/friend they might not have died”.  “What if I spend every day living the way my loved one had wanted then life will take on a meaning that will be a memorial to them”. Bargaining is about trying to make a deal with God or the Universe so that the loss and grief will loosen its grip.  We want so desperately for life to go back to normal that we might promise anything to end the pain.
  4. Depression: This stage is the most enduring of the previous ones.  The depth of loss sinks in.  Bargaining seems ridiculous.  Life will not be the same as it was.  Everything is forever altered.  This is a normal feeling and should not be confused with clinical major depression.  These feelings will lighten.  People will want for us to move through the sadness and try to pull us out of our feelings.  But there is no time limit to how we process grief and loss.  Being gentle with ourselves as it progresses is the best medicine.
  5. Acceptance: This stage is about ‘finding a new normal’.  It is not about getting over the tragedy we have experienced.  Because getting over it would be as if the loss never happened or that our loved one never existed.  Acceptance is about re-aligning, re-awakening, and re-establishing.  It is embracing the present while honoring the past.  Acceptance comes gradually in gentle waves.  Life will be worth living fully once again.

These five stages are not linear. One doesn’t necessarily follow the other in order. Some stages may be experienced simultaneously. Nothing about them is absolute and every person will feel them differently. They are as unique as the individual. What they teach us is that moving through loss and grief is a process that can be comprehended and even tolerated.