Dealing with the states of grief
by Natasha Josefowitz, Ph.D.
Published - 04/26/13 - 11:14 AM | 3287 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote of the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

She attributed these to people dealing with their own imminent deaths. The popular media seized on these stages and attributed them to people grieving the death of a loved one. This is not what she had intended.

Eventually, the stages were debunked as not necessarily uniformly, nor sequentially, felt by most people. After my husband’s son died, we went to one of her workshops when she lived in Escondido. It was helpful in as much as we were surrounded by others who were equally grieving the loss of a loved one. These were children having lost a parent, parents having lost a child, spouses mourning the loss of a mate and even someone bereft after the loss of a dog who had been a constant companion. Neither my husband nor I went through these so-called stages, although some people felt helped by being able to put a name to their feelings.

Three years ago, I lost my husband and again went from unbearable pain to eventual peace without the interim stages, and now another death propels me to rethink whether there are, indeed, stages to go through. I just lost my son after a long illness and in trying to understand the processes I am going through, I came up with the following. This may or may not help others, I did no research to find out whether these are also familiar to other mourners.

Since these are not necessarily sequential, I call them “emotional states,” rather that “stages.”

The first I call the “zombie” state. It was days of numbness, of feeling nothing, of living in some kind of fog, going through the motions like an automaton. Nothing seemed real. From there, I went on to “free-floating anxiety,” a kind of pervasive feeling that something awful was about to happen (when in fact it had already happened), an anxiousness not related to anything in particular, just this unpleasant feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Next was “the meltdown,” when tears were hovering just below the eyelids, ready to spill at any trigger or at nothing in particular. Crying made me feel drained. It did not help. Where I am now is “get out of your own head by doing something for someone else.” I had to give a speech I had committed to some months ago, and even though I considered canceling, I went. It was not one of my best addresses, but I got through it, and it turned out to be therapeutic.

One should expect the recurrences of the fluctuating emotional states in bits and pieces. So, today, I am a bit of a zombie while still functioning more-or-less normally. Tomorrow, I may feel anxious when I wake up or shed a tear during breakfast, but whatever happens, naming the states somehow makes me feel like I have, if not some control, at least some understanding and I will not get caught off-guard by the reaction.

“Oh,” I will say to myself as a sob starts somewhere in my throat, “I am in my meltdown state, and it too will pass.”

I really don’t know whether this is helpful to anyone else. Everyone grieves differently. There are no rules, no better or worse ways of dealing with death. We all experience losses, some more damaging than others. Loss of a job can be devastating. The loss of a pet, loss of a home, even the loss of a beloved object can trigger sadness. But, of course, loss of a person who was part of one’s life is the hardest to come to terms with. The literature speaks of “complicated grieving.” This term refers to obsessive grieving beyond one year, at which point it is suggested that one should seek help.

One grieves differently if a loved one dies suddenly or after a long illness. One grieves differently depending on the relationship. One grieves differently for a parent, spouse, child or best friend. Everyone grieves differently with some of these emotional states lasting weeks, others lasting hours, some never felt and others I can’t imagine. We need to have compassion and tolerance toward ourselves as we go through unpredictable emotional states. Healing begins when the loved person is less constantly in your head and starts resting more peacefully in your heart.

I like the Buddhist saying:

When someone you love dies,

the main difference is

that he is no longer

outside of you,

he is inside

— Natasha Josefowitz taught the first course in the U.S. on women in management and is the author of 19 books. She lives at White Sands La Jolla.
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