Accepting Grief and Loss as a Human Experience
Each human being on this planet will experience grief and loss in his or her lifetime. Loss can range from the death of a loved one or pet to a parting of ways with a friend or lover. Even losing a job can result in deep feelings of loss and grief. These feelings are a normal part of the human experience, but the grief process can unexpectedly knock even the strongest among us to our knees.
No, you can’t just “move on”
Unfortunately for many people, well-meaning friends or family may encourage the bereaved to “move on” or “try to be happy.” Others may try to offer comfort with words like “he/she is in a better place” or “you’ll be better off after the divorce,” but these words can feel like a slap in the face to someone who is grieving a loss.
As uncomfortable as the pain of loss may be, the feelings can’t be boxed up and shelved for another day – or for the comfort of those around you. It’s just not that simple. In order to process feelings and to continue to live our lives after loss, we must experience the grief process.
Respected grief expert, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, wrote in a recent blog post:
“It’s time for our culture to grow up about emotions, to stop treating normal human emotions, especially grief, as aberrant, pathological and wrong. We can begin, as a collective culture, by accepting our own authentically painful emotions, and then we can move toward treating others’ emotions with tenderness.”
If we each will experience loss and grief at some point or another, why are we so quick to ignore or hush each other’s expressions of pain? As a culture, when did tears and honest emotion become so taboo?
In therapy, I have witnessed so much healing in people once they learn to let out their emotion. More than that, they learn to accept both positive and negative feelings as part of the human experience.
While the effects of each type of loss may vary, all loss results in a similar set of grief stages.
Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first presented these stages in her book, “On Death and Dying” in 1969, and they have become the accepted model throughout the field of psychology. They are:
- Denial. Loss comes as a shock, and the initial denial phase is your brain’s defense mechanism that allows you to survive and begin to deal with the loss.
- Anger. As the denial wears off, many people begin to feel anger about the loss. Your anger might be directed at other people, society, a higher power, the universe or yourself.
- Bargaining. As your brain tries to make sense of the loss, you often hold onto false hope or guilt as a way of avoiding the pain of grief. Some people make deals with themselves or with a higher power as a way to deflect the pain. All of these reactions are known as bargaining.
- Depression. As the reality of loss sets in, many people experience phases of hopelessness, listlessness and sadness. The length of the depression grief stage varies greatly by individual.
- Acceptance. The final grief stage in the Kübler-Ross model is acceptance. In this stage, you learn to accept your new, post-loss reality and get back to day-to-day life. You will likely still have bad days, or feel sadness at the loss, but your outlook improves as acceptance grows.
As with any emotional response, it’s important to note that these steps aren’t linear or set in stone. Some people skip certain steps entirely, and it’s always possible to take one step forward and one step back while grieving.
Another noted grief expert, David Kessler, maintains a website dedicated to grief topics. There, he addresses some common myths about grief, including:
- Myth 1: The five stages are linear. As we mentioned above, the stages do not necessarily occur in the same order.
- Myth 2: Everyone goes through all five stages. Each person’s grief process is unique and some never experience one or more of the five stages.
- Myth 3: The process happens once. Grief is far too complicated to assume it’s a “one and done” deal. When emotions resurface, you may very well find yourself processing one of the five grief stages.
- Myth 4: The five stages are a checklist to follow. Kübler-Ross outlined the stages after observing people’s common responses to grief. It is not a checklist, but rather an explanation of the process.
- Myth 5: There are only five emotions in the five stages. The labels Kübler-Ross used for the five stages use emotional words, but they encompass a wide range of human emotions.
Kessler’s website is a wonderful resource for coping with grief and for supporting a friend or family member who is grieving. Read more here.
If you have experienced a loss and find yourself struggling as you try to reach acceptance, therapy can help. Contact me to learn more about my approach to grief therapy and individual therapy. My practice serves individuals, couples and families in the central Denver area. The first 50-minute consultation is always free.