Mental Health

The Process of Grief

“To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness” Erich Fromm

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Grief is an experience, and while it differs from person to person, one thing is certain: there isn’t a predetermined end time for grieving. It is, in and of itself, a process.

We often hear this process of grief described in stages:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

This grief cycle, which is often referred to as DABDA, was described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her famous book On Death and Dying, written in 1969. She did not, describe this cycle as a rigid depiction of grief, but rather as the framework with which to view and work with the process of grieving.  It’s also important to note that this isn’t a linear process. In fact, everyone who’s experienced loss may not experience each of these factors; if/when they do, they certainly won’t experience them in any particular order. In fact, if you are grieving, you may notice that you transition between these emotive states from moment to moment, much like the ebb and flow of the tides.

Adolescents process grief differently than adults. While they may be feeling a wide array of emotions, they may not exhibit them outwardly. For teens in particular, the vulnerability brought about by the onslaught of emotions associated with death and dying is sometimes too much. Developmentally, they are in the process of discovering their autonomy and independence, so cleaving to family in times of loss may seem “uncool” to a teen, regardless of need. That said, teens tend to do particularly well in peer support groups, which provide an ideal environment where kids help each other as they stand on common ground.

This doesn’t mean that adults can’t help their teen during this time. As Dr. J. Earl Rogers writes in his book The Art of Grief, “Most teens will respond to adults who choose to be companions on the grief journey rather than direct it.” This, then, requires a role change, one that may prove difficult for some parents, who are accustomed to presiding over most situations. Still, what is paramount, regardless of our role as parent or peer is to actively and deeply listen. Summarize what you hear, and repeat it back; Listen deeply, without judgment; Retain a regular schedule and routine. Remember, there is great comfort in regularity, something that death defies in its very nature.

We know that death can be sudden or expected. A sudden death can be described as an accident, homicide, suicide, drug overdose. The feelings associated with this type of loss are varied and often intense. You may experience:

  • The shock and disbelief last longer;
  • Sudden death can be more confusing, bringing up many feelings to process all at once;
  • There is not time to say goodbye;
  • You may have strong feelings of guilt because:
    • Of something you have or have not said about the person that died
    • Of something you thought or felt or wished about the person you died
    • You think you  could have prevented their death
    • You survived and your loved one didn’t
    • Wanting to feel normal again
    • This may seem unfair, especially if the person is young;
    • You may experience reoccurring thoughts, dreams, or flashbacks. These are normal and should decrease. If they don’t, ask for help.
    • You may feel the need for more information about the incident to gain a better understanding of how the person died. Be sure you can handle this. (It’s my experience that what we think we can handle and what we can actually handle are two different things.)
    • You may feel vulnerable or jumpy and nervous.

Someone dealing with expected loss, as in a death of  someone who’s been fighting cancer or another terminal illness may find themselves:

  • Grieving little losses along the way (not being able to do the same things or go to the same places with your loved one)
  • Experiencing symptoms of grief even before a loved one has died;
  • Having strong feelings of guilt because
    • Of something you said or didn’t say about the person who died
    • Of something you thought or felt or wished about the person that died
    • You think you could have prevented the death
    • You survived and your loved one did not
    • You want to feel normal again.

In the case of an expected death, you may also have had time to prepare and honor the wishes of your loved one. You also may have been able to say goodbye, which would give you a sense of closure.
So, as we begin to sit with the discomfort of death and loss, hopefully, we can also take the opportunity to recognize its transformative nature. Instead of regretting the past, perhaps we can remember the footprints of those who have left our sides, allowing them to blossom in our own hearts as we continue to forge our own paths.

Remember to be kind to YOU in this process.

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