the problem with grief III

In this part I will be addressing some of the myths I have encountered surrounding the actual stages of the grief cycle. As before I will not be discussing all of the myths or all the possible myths, but will be addressing the more common ones I have seen in my work as a psychologist.

Oh and I apologize in advance but this part is a bit longer than the other two.

In a general sense the most common myth of the various stages of the grief cycle I have seen is that the stage titles are literal when in actuality they are more like symbols of how one behaves in that particular stage. I also see denial in particular acting more of a construct of several myths rather than any one individual myth, but more on that in a minute.

For example the first stage, denial, does not, as so many of my patients have said in session, mean you do not believe your loved one has actually died. Denial can and does come in many different forms but the one I see most often is something along the lines of, this doesn’t bother me.

The error of this sort of thinking lays in the instigator of the cycle to begin with. For example if someone you love has died, how could that fact not bother you? In fact how could it not shock you down to your very foundation? I have found that even in cases of illness, even when death is seen over the horizon for prolonged periods of time, when death does actually come for your loved one, it is a shock.

Other forms of denial I have seen would be in the form of, I’m over it or I was sad before but I have moved on. Let me be blunt with this one–no you haven’t gotten over it. Period. End of story. This myth, I believe, comes along with believing the myth of the cycle being a linear process I outlined in Part I. That not being the case, that the cycle is linear, this is not the case, that you are or even can be over it.

To be a bit more compassionate, you are in a cycle or better put a process. The goal is not to move from one stage to another but to cycle through the emotional reaction you are having to the loss and process those emotions. Process means feel. You need to feel these emotions to get through them and you are only going to be able to get through them. There is no such thing as getting “over” emotions or emotional experiences, especially big emotional experiences.

The truth is when you think of the loved one you lost, or of the loss itself, be it tomorrow or a thousands years from tomorrow it will hurt. And it will hurt in much the same way it does right now. The difference is that in time, little by little, the hurting will get easier. As you process the complex and often devastating emotions tied to the grief cycle you will begin to feel better and the processing part will get easier. That is what is meant, at least in part, by acceptance.

The anger stage is the one most people have the easiest time expressing, if not experiencing. I’m not sure about other countries but the reason for this in the good ol’ US of A is because anger is one of the two emotions which are actually accepted in our culture. As such people by and large have a lot of experience with anger, not just feeling it but expressing it and seeing it. This also means that people tend to understand anger, why it’s here and what it’s for, so when others see you getting angry after the funeral, they tend to accept your anger. Other’s accepting your emotions is not a requirement for the processing them (the opposite is actually true; the more you process your emotions the less you require others to accept them when you are expressing them) but in the early stages of processing it sure can help.

The other accepted emotion, if you were wondering, is happiness.

Bargaining is one that made be scratch my head a bit when I first learned about the grief cycle, but that is probably because I believed the myth of literalness about this stage. I imagined a child (perhaps an inner child) attempting to bargain with a higher power to get a lost parent or pet back, “you can have all my toys,” or “I’ll be good forever,” or some other such thing.

Of course that is not what this stage is actually talking about but the ironic part is this stage can play out just like this and was so wonderfully demonstrated by Sir Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Massoud Bahrani in the movie, The House of Sand and Fog. I won’t bore you with the entire plot, but I highly recommend the move for the archetypal imagery alone (it is a really good movie too). In one scene Sir Ben’s character’s son has been shot and is in surgery. In a case of foreshadowing the grief process to come as well as to demonstrate the grief cycle he is currently in he is praying/begging for his god to spare his son’s life and saying things like in exchange for this favor he will “buy a 100 kilos of the finest tea and throw it to the wind,” and, “I will walk naked into the nearest park and let the birds peck out my eyes, please, I only want my son.” It is a truly gut wrenching scene to watch and as the kids say, those who know the truth of the emotions portrayed in the scene, know.

Bargaining plays out more of a self-loathing, beating yourself up kind of thing and often comes in the form of unending statements and unanswerable questions. Statements such as “but I just saw him/her” or “how could this be possible/or happen?” are how this stage manifests. The content of the statements and the questions change but the process is basically the same.

I have seen people in the pain of the bargaining stage suddenly find religion or other spirituality (drug and alcohol use and abuse are actually a form of denial) or find projects in their lives or in their communities which suddenly demand immediate attention in their efforts to end their suffering. All of these behaviors have the same purpose, if you will, to ease their suffering, but they are in fact a form of attempting to limit or end your pain by focusing on some other thing. As if to say “this will make me feel better” some folks will even jump into a project or a belief system but in the end it is only what its is, a way of distracting one’s attention away from their pain.

Don’t get me wrong some real good has come out of the bargaining stage of the cycle, along with the respite it can represent to the person suffering. In 1980 when Candice Lightner lost her daughter in an accident caused by a drunk driver sh founded an organization which rapidly spread across the USA, Canada and is now in Brazil as well. This organization has had a real impact on changing the way drunk driving is seen and handled legally in the United States. That organization is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Depression, for those who missed it in Part II, is not an emotion, it is a construct. At the risk of being overly repetitive, a construct is a thing that is made up of other things, like a cake is a thing made up of many other things, and the things that depression is made of, again like a cake, can be vastly different. There is a huge difference between a devil’s food cake (chocolate) and a cheesecake, or I suppose I could have said angel food cake, but they are in fact all cakes.

By the same token the experience you have which is classified as depression can be vastly different for the experience another person has and is also classified as depression. Depression often includes sadness but not always. Many of my patients, who have come to see me for the treatment of their “depression” are surprised when they learn they are not actually experiencing sadness but anger. In fact one definition of depression is anger which has been turned inward against the self. A good deal more of these patients are frustrated or disappointed or even guilt.

When it comes to the grief cycle guilt is often big part of the experience of depression, especially in the case of a loved one lost to death by suicide. Guilt is so very unnecessary when it comes to the grief cycle (even in the case of suicide it was the other person’s decision not yours) but since when do humans only do what is necessary? I have yet to meet a person wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to beat themselves up about something which is not actually their fault at all.

The myth at work with depression, to be clear, is that one it is an emotion and two it is sadness. Yes, sadness will likely be an emotion you feel as part of your grief cycle, but unless you have sadness mixed with anger and frustration, perhaps disappointment and maybe some guilt, all at the same time, you are not in fact experiencing depression.

That being said, with all the varying and different emotional possibilities with the grief cycle the experience of true depression is a real possibility.

Finally we arrive at acceptance. There are many myths about this stage but the big ones would be that you will not actually reach this stage for a while, if at all, and this stage is when you can finally acknowledge the death or loss. Neither of those make much sense but I can understand how they are perpetuated.

One of the reasons these remain a part of the mythology of grief is that research has shown, overwhelmingly, that people believe activities what look difficult are in fact difficult. So the idea of ever not being sad or distraught about your loved one dying, for example, sounds impossible therefore it must be impossible.

This is likely one of the reasons people are so reluctant to try new things, but maybe more on that in another post.

Processing your emotions is hard, especially when you refuse to face them and to actually feel them, but you are processing them even though you don’t feel like you are. The unconscious isn’t going to stop working on something just because you don’t want to deal with it or refuse to believe it is happening. It just takes longer when you don’t allow yourself to experience them. Your psyche has ways of getting your attention should you stay a while too long in avoidance or denial of your emotional experience of grief (for more on that see some of my other posts, projection for example).

Another way this myth can manifest is in the denial of you being in a state of acceptance. More time than I can count I have had a patient in a grief cycle tell me something along the lines of how they feel better today, “but this is not acceptance because I refuse to accept” the loss.

At the risk of being insulting, to believe that you will never actually be able to get through this process of grief and settle into the warm embrace of acceptance is really selling yourself short. If you think about it, you have already been through a lot of things you didn’t think you could or would get through, didn’t you? In fact one could say, you have already overcome every obstacle which you have ever faced. You have a 100% success rate. Why should this process, or challenge if you will, be any different?

You don’t deserve that negative or departing talk from anyone, certainly not from you. I know it is hard and will likely seem impossible to get through at times, but you will. Little by little, day by day you will get through this.

Now that we know what the acceptance stage is not about, what is it about? Acceptance is the stage where a person realizes the connection between them and their lost loved one never goes away. This connection never reduces or diminishes in any real way. The love you have, the connection you share with your loved one will aways be and when you figure out a way to live with the loss, sometimes in spite of the loss, you will find that your life not only still has that beautiful connection in it, but often it has a new and powerful meaning to it as well.

The connection hasn’t actually ended it has only changed and change, as I said in Part I, is the way of the universe.

If it is a habit you are grieving the loss of, acceptance is when you realize you not only are better off without it, but you are better off for having had it in the first place. One of the primary tenants of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is to learn to neither punish yourself for your past or wish to forget about it. You learned things and had experiences out there with your habit you would never have had had you not picked it up and let it goes as far as it did. That information is absolutely valuable in the rebuilding and reorganizing of your life. That kind of experience may even be helpful to someone else someday.

The ultimate reality, and the real beauty of the five stages of grief is that you will move through them not just when you can but when you need too. If you are overwhelmed with sadness or anger, settling into denial or acceptance for a bit can be like handing the baton to a trusted partner to carry for a while.

Staying in denial, for example, can be a relief from the pain of the grieving process. Returning to denial after any length of time in sadness or anger can be a sweet relief.

Bargaining can give you the same sweet relief but also allow you to plan a funeral, finalize an estate, or even water houseplants or feed children you never expected to be responsible for.

The stages of the grief cycle exist not just because we are emotional creatures dealing with emotional situations but because to linger too long in any single powerful emotion can quite literally lead to insanity. We need the different stages of grief so that we can process different aspects of our experience in turn and without becoming, or maybe remaining, overwhelmed for too long. It could be said that the grief cycle evolved out of, or perhaps because of, our need to process the powerful emotions which accompany loss.

Which means in the end, as hard as it is to hear or maybe believe, the grief cycle with all its stages and pain, is a good thing.

While I acknowledge this is not a complete or in any way exhaustive list of the myths surrounding the grief cycle, I think it is all I have to say for now on the subject.

Please know that I understand how hard the grief cycle can be and I, and many others are available for you if you should ever need a hand or a guiding light navigating your own grief or should you find yourself lost in the darkness of your emotional experience.

Above all remember you can and will get through this and find peace again.

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