We’ve talked about how to sit shiva with someone else’s pain, but with everything going on right now, I wanted to talk about how to handle our own grief well.
First, I want to talk about the Kübler-Ross model of grief. It’s a model you are probably familiar with, because it has been widely discussed since Elizebeth Kübler-Ross published it in 1969. The model posits that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kübler-Ross did this study on terminally ill patients, and did not focus on the people surviving them. Also, whether she intended it to not, people have come to see her model as describing a linear path where one experiences denial and then moves on to anger. Since her original research was published she came to realize we experience those stages in a wide variety of ways and might often return to one stage repeatedly and skip others entirely.
In his book Good Grief, Lutheran pastor Granger E. Westberg offered his own model. His stages are:
Shock. We might experience a temporary distancing from the emotional weight of the loss.
Emotional release. This might include tears or anger.
Depression and loneliness. This often feels as if it will last forever.
Distress and panic about the future and how to live without the loved one.
Guilt. Many, many people experience some form of guilt when a loved one dies. People who were abused by their parents might feel guilty they didn’t try harder, people might think they should have pushed for more experimental treatments, or people might feel guilty they didn’t spend more time with the loved one. There are any number of reasons one might feel guilt over the loss of a loved one, and it is a very normal part of grief.
Hostility or resentment at other caregivers, physicians, nurses, or family members can arise. Anger at the Divine is also a normal, and healthy, reaction to loss. It is important to not shy away from our anger, even anger at the Ground of All Being. Anger at God is quite biblical (Lamentations 5:20, Psalm 13:1-2, and more), so express that anger.
Restless activity. When we are grieving and trying to return to tasks we used to enjoy with a loved one who is no longer with us, we might find ourselves suddenly uninterested. Or we might find ourselves moving from task to task without ever completing anything.
Hope. Hope begins to return, eventually. The painful memories start to have strands of happiness in them. Peace is starting to return.
Struggle to affirm reality. When we have gone through a substantial grieving process, we will come out a different person. Figuring out who we are after the experience of grief causes some amount of pain both for us and for others in our lives. Finding our “new normal” can mean letting go of who we used to be.
An important part of grieving well is having patience for ourselves as we struggle through the process. Grief and healing takes time. We can’t hurry things up any more than we can make a broken bone mend faster. Also, this model is written about the loss of loved ones but grief over the loss of an important relationship or a job may also trigger these same responses.
Ultimately, models aside, what are we to do when we are grieving? Here is a summary of five grief tasks Anne Province, a spiritual director and teacher in the FIND program gave me.
Our first task is to accept the reality of our loss. Not just the primary loss of the loved one or relationship, but the secondary losses of companionship, income, a sexual partner, or parenting partner. There are many ways we related to a loved one, and each of those ways brings with it another aspect of loss. We have to work to accept these losses are real and permanent.
Our second task is to feel the pain of those losses. This is difficult, and we are often tempted to ignore our pain, bury it under drugs, alcohol, or work, or avoid it in some other way, but our task here is to feel the loss and to feel it deeply. We need to sit with our own pain, and know that it, too, is temporary.
Our third task is allow inner changes to take place. If we are grieving the end of a relationship or the loss of a loved one, their physical presence is no longer with us. We must now accept our relationship is based on memories of past experiences. We have a tendency to idealize people in our memories, but we want these images to become balanced and realistic. If our memories stay too idealized, we will be stuck longing for a perfect relationship that, in truth, we never had.
Our fourth task is to adjust to the real world in which our loved one is no longer present. This might mean taking on new roles in the house or in the family. This might mean a change of holiday traditions. Or this might mean we have more free time, if we were the primary caregiver of the person who is now gone. Accept that this can be a stressful task as we adapt to this new reality. New emotions of anger or guilt might come up during this process, and we need to accept them as part of the healing journey.
Our fifth task is to establish our new identity. We have to find a way to affirm and enjoy life again. This can go from saying “we” to “I” when talking about your household. This might mean new behaviors, new relationships, or a new place to live. Coming out of grief, we might be a completely different person, and our task is to identify who that person is and accept them.
All of these tasks require us being present to our pain. This can be difficult if we are also caregivers for others while we are grieving, and there is a temptation to say we are too busy to grieve right now. But if we avoid dealing with our grief we will not care for others or work as well in the long run. Also, if children are around, it is our responsibility to teach them how to grieve well by modeling these tasks and being patient with ourselves.
Truly, I hope none of us have need to think back to this post over the coming months or years, but the reality is we will all suffer great loss at some point. What I pray for each of us is that we handle that loss with loving kindness toward ourselves.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently in year three of Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.