Let’s rethink grief

I have been thinking a lot about grief lately, especially as I approach the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s passing on December 23. Grief is such a tricky emotion. It may seem as though we have moved through grief, only for it to resurface at the holidays, birthdays and other occasions. I am reminded that we do not get over a loss, we get through it.

The tricky question is “How?”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross many years ago introduced us to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Only recently did David Kessler introduce us to a sixth stage, and that is making meaning. I wonder, though, if we should rethink the stages of grief altogether, as well as grief itself. So many of us think of grief primarily when it pertains to the loss of a loved one. Yet, there are so many other things we may find ourselves grieving during the course of our lives.

First, let’s address the stages of grief. Kubler-Ross likely did not mean to imply that the stages are meant to be linear. We do not go through denial and then anger and then bargaining and so on. We may, in fact, find ourselves moving amongst the stages of grief, We may find that we think we have moved past denial only to find ourselves days, weeks, months even years later back in denial. We may find ourselves experiencing two or more stages of grief at one time. We may find that we simultaneously are in depression and anger. We may find ourselves in both anger and bargaining. All of that is okay. We grieve in our own way and in our own time. No one has the right to look at their watch or the calendar on the wall and tell you that it is time for you to be over your loss. You do not get over a loss, you get through it. That may take years, even decades.

We also may find ourselves grieving more than the loss of a loved one. With regards to losing a loved one, you may be grieving the loss of a relationship that never was, particularly if the relationship you had with a loved one was challenging or somehow disappointing. You may find yourself grieving the loss of a pet, which can hurt as badly as losing a human. You may find yourself grieving the loss of a friendship or the hope of what that friendship could have been. You may find yourself grieving the loss of a job, even one you did not particularly like or find fulfilling.

Grief comes in many forms. You may find yourself in grief should you experience a health concern that leaves you unable to function at previous levels. You may find yourself grieving your youth. You may find yourself in grief as you notice your children becoming adults, grieving the loss of their childhood innocence.

We all experience grief in different ways. Kubler-Ross was not saying that we all experience the five stages of grief in the same way, only that these are things we may experience as we move through grief. I like Kessler’s idea of that sixth stage, making meaning, though that may take years if not decades to discover.

One thing we can remember about grief is that it shows us that we cared and loved deeply. Grief, if we allow it, can be a teacher of sorts, showing us who and what is important to us. Grief allows us to think more carefully about our present relationships and the things in our lives that matter most to us. Grief can remind us to show those who remain in our lives how much they mean to us. Grief can remind us to take better care of our physical and mental health. Grief can be a sort of friend, if we allow it.

The holidays can be a challenging time for people under even the best circumstances but can be even more so for those who find themselves in grief. Remember that if you are in grief, it may be helpful to practice healthy coping skills, practice good self-care or to reach out to those people you feel safe with. And, give yourself permission, to move through grief in your own time and in your own way.

~ Karri Christiansen, MSW, LSW, CADC, CCTP

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