Losing A Loved One: Grief Stages And Adaptations

 

JOHN J. STATHAS, Ph.D., LMFT

Many of you have lost someone special to you. The following addresses the grieving process and, hopefully, helps soothe such pain.

The death of a loved one probably is the most painful experience that a person can have. To lose a person close to you such as a spouse, child, parent, or other person that has found a place in your heart is a challenging transition. Many people find it helpful to know the different phases that a person who has suffered such a loss goes through.

In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book entitled ON DEATH AND DYING. Her description of a person’s responses to terminal illness has been the most utilized paradigm in addressing such a catastrophic event in a person’s life.  Her five phases of grieving are DENIAL, ANGER, BARGAINING, DEPRESSION, and ACCEPTANCE. They are worth understanding by those faced with such a situation.

I came across another perspective in an article written by Paula Spencer.  She quotes Professor Robert Neimeyer who states, “It is more accurate to think about phases of adaptation rather than stages of grief. And they overlap rather than fall in sequence. ” Ms. Spencer adds, “What all survivors share: Death presents challenges from processing the loss and coping with grief symptoms through reformulating a relationship with the loved one –tasks that can take months and years to work through. Such tasks, according to Ms. Spencer include:

  1. ACKNOWLEDGING THE REALITY: The finality of death is always a shock, even after a known terminal illness. Accepting that the death is real and absorbing the truth of what has happened can be difficult. This can be tied in with Kubler-Ross stage of Denial.
  2. WEATHERING THE STRESS OF SEPARATION: Mourning brings many physical and emotional hallmarks: crying, unable to cry, sleeplessness, not eating, numbness, feeling forlorn, withdrawing socially, anger, and so on. This phase and its idiosyncratic expression varies from person to person, but experienced by all.
  3. ADJUSTING TO ABSENCE: Getting on with “everyday life” can be very challenging. Often there is intense yearning for the person who has died, along with stress and depression. Unresolved issues that may have been present get magnified.  Some feel alone and isolated.
  4. REVISING YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO THE DECEASED: The relationship with the deceased does not end, it changes. The goal of grieving is not to let go but to find a way to hold on with less pain. Reframing is a method used to do that. How can the deceased be held in memory, rituals, and conversation that is manageable, even comforting, rather than painful.
  5. REWRITING THE STORYLINE OF ONE’S LIFE:  “Grief is more than an emotion; it’s a process of reconstructing a world of meaning that’s been challenged by loss” says Neimeyer.  An important part of grieving is to gain a perspective on the meaning of the loss and to reconstruct a world in which you can live effectively afterward.

It is important to understand that whether you experience and process grief through the five  stages of Kubler-Ross and/or the five phases presented here, grief is a transition that will never be completed.  The experience will vary according to the grieving person and the particular relationship with the deceased. If you loved a person, you will always grieve them. It just changes over time.

Professor Niemeyer says that this adaptation process of grieving can be positive: “Being able to revisit earlier losses and their implications for us can enrich our lives and make our narrative more coherent about who we are and how we got to be who we are.” What has been the affect on us of that loved one and the consequent loss?

A final thought on this subject from Kahlil Gibran in the PROPHET:  “Your capacity for joy will be determined by the space that pain has hollowed out.”

(On a personal note, I have counseled people through their grieving process for many years, both as a priest and as a therapist. It has been a privilege to offer that service.  I have been blessed and enriched in that interaction)

“The unexamined life is not worth living”       Socrates

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