If there is one thing I know, it’s that grief is a part of life. We can’t make our way through life without seeing or experiencing loss in some way. Loss is painful, and our natural inclination is to step aside it. Acknowledging loss on only a surface level, while helpful at the moment, holds us back from living a full life.

When we grieve, we acknowledge that there is a change that we did not initiate, we have no control over and is permanent.

Grieving Is Not Easy

Grieving is hard work because it is so painful. When we grieve, we acknowledge that there is a change that we did not initiate, we have no control over and is permanent. It is jarring and uncomfortable. We have to learn to navigate in a new reality, often without the support we previously had.

When we grieve, we experience painful emotions. We may feel sad, angry, frustrated, confused, or overwhelmed – and most commonly, a mixture of all those. Memories change shape. A story that once made us laugh now is tinged with bitterness or sadness.

When we grieve, we integrate this new truth and circumstances into our sense of reality, and sometimes even into our identity. These are difficult changes to make, and having compassion for ourselves is especially even more so in these moments.

The temptation to ignore the extent of the change is strong and difficult to fight. When we lose a loved one, we may prefer to look at it as though that person is simply on an extended vacation (not that I would ever do that, of course). In this way, we minimize the pain of the loss and ignore the utterly life-changing impact our loss has on our life.

Grieving Is Not Simple

Oh, how I wish grieving were simple! Life would be much easier if we could lay out a simple and straight-forward grieving checklist, and simply walk our way down it. “Today, I will acknowledge that a change has happened. Life is different now. I will cry.” Tomorrow’s list might then look like, “Today, I will journal about my feelings. When I am done, I will have a new level of acceptance.” We could simply run down this imaginary checklist until we completed all the steps, receiving a little certificate of “Good Grieving” when we completed the work.

In reality, grief is messy. While there are clear stages and steps, we bounce between and among them. When my sister died, I went through several periods of anger and acceptance. I felt betrayed by her for dying (no one said that we feel in these moments is rational), and then I let go as reality reminded me that there was no way to bring her back to life again. The roller coaster effect of jumping between stages was challenging and difficult—and necessary.

While I might prefer a linear, simple grieving process, the reality is that moving between stages is necessary for us to progress through various levels of pain and experience. Each time we enter a stage, we confront and address a new layer of our grief. Like peeling an onion, we work our way from the surface feelings and our initial reactions to getting to a place of acceptance…until a new trigger jolts us back into the grieving process all over again.

Each time we enter a stage, we confront and address a new layer of our grief.

While grieving is not a linear process, it does have some clear start-and-end points, namely shock and acceptance.

Phases of Grief

Most of us have heard of the “five steps of grief” (originated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book) which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and anger. Since that initial definition was released, we’ve learned a lot about grief. In particular, we’ve learned that these stages are inaccurate.

A more commonly accepted framework of grief is that there are stages that we bounce between as we work our way into acceptance. Each of these phases is important to helping us process our experience, and each of them has pitfalls that we need to watch out for. While grieving is not a linear process, it does have some clear start-and-end points, namely shock and acceptance.

        Shock: Universally, our first reaction to a loss is Shock. Shock helps us function as we start to integrate the loss into our new reality.

        Benefit:  Our buffer against reality, shock allows us to take steps to address the immediate needs of the situation. If we’ve lost a parent unexpectedly, shock allows us to meet with the funeral home and start to make arrangements for burial or cremation. It’s a buffer that temporarily protects us against the worst of our emotions so that we can get through the initial moments.

        Caution: Shock can turn into denial, pulling us into a “fix-it” or controlling mentality that allows us to truly face the situation and address the pain we feel. When we live in denial, we either do our best to live in denial or to make our way through the experience as quickly as possible. I’ll confess that I took this approach when it came to dealing with my rape: I left therapy after only two months, in which we only talked about the experience in high-level terms, and not often. As confident as I was that I was “done” with the experience, my therapist at the time warned me that I was simply operating in denial and would have to address the experience at some point in my life. It took 20 years, but he was right.

        Emotional Responses: As the shock wears off, the reality of the situation confronts us. It’s a process of acknowledging that the loss is real, validating the pain caused and experiencing the hurt. For me, this often looks like a period of incubation, in which I pull back into a warm and loving environment (sometimes quite literally by laying on a bed under a warm blanket) and let the emotions and the hurt simply rip through my body and my heart.

        Benefit: In validating the disruption caused by our loss, we learn to adapt to our new reality. We may not achieve full acceptance at this point, but it’s an important stop along the way of integrating our new reality into our life.

        Caution: No one forces us to face our pain and emotions. Instead of processing the emotions and validating our pain, we may choose to isolate ourselves and suppress our emotions. It is impossible to fully suppress our emotions, however, and they will escape our best efforts to contain them. Clever escape artists, they don’t look like the sadness or hurt that they really are; instead, they masquerade as anger or cause us to lash out and become argumentative or even vengeful. Ultimately, we resort to poor coping mechanisms, including addiction in more extreme situations.

        Judgment: In the aftermath of a loss, we examine the situation from many angles to sort out the truth. Therapists call this determining “if the story fits the facts.” Often, our experience of a situation is colored by prior experiences and expectations. When this happens, we naturally draw a set of conclusions that may not fit the core facts of the situation. When we grieve, there are underlying components that alter our perception of the experience.

        Benefit: As we sift out the core facts of a situation and examine them in different lights, we can process our deeper pain and resolve conflicting emotions we may have about the situation. We resolve doubt and self-criticism, finding the truths that give us true comfort and hope.

        Caution: Grief and emotions inherently distort our perceptions, and so we can fool ourselves into thinking we know the “truth” of a situation when we are stuck on one interpretation of it. When we fall into the trap of believing a single version of a story, it becomes easy to assign blame and guilt or to wallow in shame. Our behavior reflects our emotions and our beliefs, and we may erect barriers to others and even damage relationships based on these faulty beliefs.

        Acceptance: In the Acceptance phase, we achieve a level of peace and acknowledgment of our new reality. We understand that we cannot change the situation; we know that we chart our path forward, and we do so. We engage fully in living our life in its new shape, finding joy and experiencing community. We re-engage with living out our purpose.

        Benefit: We feel the full spectrum of human emotion and engagement. Our sense of empathy and compassion is strengthened, and we are in a stronger position to reach out to others.

        Caution: We desire to achieve this phase so strongly that we do everything in our power to jump right to this phase. The reality is that we cannot achieve any level of acceptance until we’ve processed our pain, our emotions, and sorted out the truth. It is also easy to believe that once we have entered the Acceptance phase, we are completely done with the grieving process, causing us to ignore signals that we are moving to a different phase and need to respond differently.

Acceptance Is Listed Last, But Don’t Fool Yourself

Acceptance is the most seductive of the phases of grief. When we achieve Acceptance, it feels like a weight is off our shoulders and we are strong again, ready to fully re-enter our lives. We are done grieving.

In reality, however, Acceptance is simply another phase, just like Judgment and Emotional Responses. It may be something small that jars us out of our sense of acceptance, and back into shock. It may be something bigger.

I remember one story from my sister’s death. We’d held the funeral in our local church, the one we’d attended my entire life. After her mid-week funeral, it was a bit like a fog lifted off my family, and another sister commented that she felt like she was coming to terms with our loss—acceptance.  We attended church on Sunday, and she was in shock all over again. She had flashbacks throughout the service, seeing the coffin up at the front of the church. Shock helped her function through the rest of the service, and then she had to work on integrating reality all over again.

Acceptance is simply another phase,

Grieving is an inherently human and healthy process

Final Thoughts

Grieving is an inherently human and healthy process. However, when we ignore the reality of the grieving experience, we prolong our pain and cause damage to ourselves.

As much as we want grieving to be a linear, check-the-boxes exercise, it simply is not. We bounce between and among phases of the grieving experience as we continue to process our loss on various levels.  It is natural to get frustrated with grieving (“Why is this taking so long? I just want to be done with it already!”), even when we understand it.

When we grieve, we integrate a new reality into our lives, and it is important that we have compassion for and with ourselves as we heal.

How do these stages of grief compare to your own experiences? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

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