Denial is a usual part of grief. It’s a way of coping with the shock of a loss, particularly a sudden unexpected one. It is more symbolic than literal. We know our loved one is dead. We may have seen them so or had it reported by the police. But part of us struggles to accept it, we still expect to see them walking round the corner, perhaps apologising for the cruel joke.
In this stage the world becomes empty and overpowering. Life no longer has any meaning. Our condition is one of rejection and disbelief, letting in only as much as we can deal with at the time.
As it fades the finality of the passing starts to kick in and other emotions begin to surface. We begin to ask questions about the death. Yet even as we go through the stages and come to terms with the loss, feelings of denial may return.
Can it be true that I’ll never see that person again? Can it be that they no longer exist (at least as we knew them)?
Often denial can give way to anger.
This can be anger at everything and everything.
For your loved one for leaving you. For yourself at things you said and did. Or for the police, authorities, your neighbours, friends, God, and the world. This anger can come in many forms. It can be a quiet seething one, or a raging expressive one.
Its arrival is a sign that you are healing, that you no longer need to keep yourself in denial.
Society often makes us feel that anger is unhealthy, an emotion that needs constraining.
Excessive anger, all the time, can be a bad thing, a sign of unresolved issues in a person’s mind.
Applied to grief, anger is an essential part of getting better. You must give voice to your rage. You must live it, breath it, experience it, even though at times it might seem never ending. Only through feeling it, will you come to accept it and you will come to heal. You may think it all-consuming, but you can manage it and not let it overcome you.
You will alienate grievers if you tell them to get over their anger. Nobody likes rejection for being themselves. When we are grieving we like it even less. Anger is something that can give a person stability, a driving force. Something that helps them with the meaningless of loss.
Because of societies general attitude, we may be better at bottling anger up.
It is important to let it out. To talk to friends and family or a counsellor about it, to scream into a pillow, walk, swim, or garden. Any activity that allows you externalise your anger. Explore anger, it is an expression love.
Anger is the most immediate emotion, but as you deal with it, you will find other feelings hidden.
Mostly you will find the pain of loss.
Following a death, bargaining gives us a passing respite.
We punish ourselves. Asking ‘if only’ questions? And we think about what we could, or now should, have done.
Because we wish so much that things be different, we think we could have done something to make it so. In this way bargaining can be an important reprieve from the pain that occupies one’s grief.
It can occupy many forms: bargaining over the past, as you relive all the things that could have been different. Bargaining over the present, as you try to decide if you are happy now. Bargaining with God and the future, about when we may see our loved one again.
As the stage develops the mind will come to the only conclusion… the truth is this person is gone.
This is when we can begin to feel depressed.
Foul moods appear, hollow in their nature. And we may experience grief at a more intense level, more profound than we imagined it could be. This depression, or period of low mood, is an essential and proper reaction to a loss. It’s normal to question the meaning of life. It’s normal to find your daily activities meaningless and empty and pointless.
Too often depression is considered unnatural. A condition in need of change, a state to recover from. Of course clinical depression, untreated can lead to a worsening of one’s mental state. But in grief, depression is our body’s natural defence from feelings so intense we cannot not deal with them all at once.
The nervous system shuts down and you are numbed to the pain
In its depth you explore a loss. The sadness and the emptiness it brings can help you. By allowing yourself to feel depressed you allow your body and mind to heal. It has a purpose and will leave when the time is right. It might return once in a while, that is grief’s nature.
People often confuse acceptance with the idea of being okay with a loss. It is not this way. People never usually get over their loss completely. Acceptance is recognising the truth that that a person is gone, at least physically.
It is accepting that this new world is not temporary.
Never will we move past this, never will it be okay, but we have to come to terms with it. We have to learn to accept it. Now it is the reality that we live with. This is the place for our ultimate healing, where change can occur. Notwithstanding the sense that getting here looks and feels like an impossibility.
Our time of grief
Finding acceptance can just be experiencing less bad days. We can’t substitute old lives and relationships, but we can make new ones. Instead of refuting our feelings, we need to experience them. This is not betrayal.
It is required in order to move, grow, develop and change. So that we can start to mingle with others again, to reach out to them, to get involved with their day to day being.
We can renew our friendships or begin new ones. We can start fresh ones with ourselves. Living, breathing and enjoying life again.
All this comes with time. That is our time of grief.
This essay draws on the work of Elizabeth-Kubler Ross in her ground breaking book On Grief and Grieving. A must read for anyone who want to learn more about love, grief, and human nature. Click here to learn more.