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“I will not say ‘do not weep’, for not all tears are an evil”
- J.R.R. Tolkien (born 3rd January 1892, died 2nd September 1973)
The stages of mourning are universal and are experienced by everyone. It occurs in response to an individual’s sense of loss, such as the death of a valued being, human or animal, or even an individual’s own impending death. There are five stages of normal grief. They were first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying”, published in 1969. The five stages do not occur in order and everyone spends a different amount of time working through each step, sometimes moving back and forth until the final stage of acceptance. Throughout each stage, a common thread of hope emerges.
The key to understanding the stages is not to feel that you must go through each and every one of them in precise order. Instead, it is more helpful to look at them as guides in the grieving process.
1. Denial and Isolation
The first reaction to learning of terminal illness or death of a cherished loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalise overwhelming emotions. It is a defence mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to fade, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed as anger instead. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We then feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry.
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is another defence to protect us from the painful reality.
Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful co-operation and a few kind words. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. Sometimes all we really need is a hug.
Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Death may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. It is not necessarily a mark of bravery to resist the inevitable and to deny ourselves the opportunity to make our peace. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression.
Coping with loss is a ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience, nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing
“The pain passes, but the beauty remains” - Pierre Auguste Renoir (born 25th February 1841, died 3rd December 1919)