The 5 Chairs of Grief

“Should you shield the valleys from the windstorms, you would never see the beauty of their canyons.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

No matter where you live, how old you are, what color your skin is, or your career choice, you will experience loss and grief at some point in your life. It is universal. Maybe it will be from the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, or a life-altering change. In hopes that I can help someone out there, I wish to share what one of my friends is experiencing in relation to the stages of grief.

A dear friend of hers recently passed away. She was young; she had a husband who adored her, an active one year-old daughter, a lively dog, a new apartment, a flourishing photography business, and an entire life ahead of her. Though she had experienced some fairly serious health issues during her short time on earth, no one thought the common cold would be what would ultimately take her while she slept. Her death shook the community, her family, friends, and many loved ones. She is deeply, deeply missed. In dealing with her loss, my friend has had to confront the five stages of grief in a very real, very personal way. 

The five stages of grief was introduced by a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She did research with terminally ill patients, and published a well-known book called On Death and Dying. Through her work, she identified five common stages of grief her patients all experienced–denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance: 

  1. Denial and isolation: This can’t be happening… Denial is a common defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss, and numbs your emotions. You hide from the facts. Denial is the brain’s way of making sure you do not get too high a dose of grief before you are ready. 
  2. Anger: Where is God in this…? Reality and its pain emerge. You likely do not feel ready. The intense emotions are deflected from your vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family, or even yourself.
  3. Bargaining: If only we had gotten medical attention sooner… This is the need to regain control through a series of “If only” statements. Guilt often accompanies bargaining. You start to believe there was something you could have done differently to have helped save your loved one. You spend time reviewing how different scenarios would have played out, but it does not change your reality.
  4. Depression: She won’t even get the chance to see her kids grow up…Once bargaining no longer feels like an option, you face reality and are hit squarely with an intense sadness. You withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering if there is any point in going on. When loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your entire life will be different is understandably depressing.
  5. Acceptance: This is my new reality and I need to learn to live with it… Reaching this stage of grieving is a gift not afforded to everyone. Although most people never stop missing their departed loved ones, the painful emotions they feel shortly after the death nearly always soften with time. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. It does not mean you are okay with the loss or that everything is “alright”; this stage is about accepting your new reality without your loved one. You learn to live with it. You accept that life has been forever changed and that you must readjust. You reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on yourself. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. 


The only issue with these stages–what my friend has had to re-learn and what I witness in clients–is that we perceive them to be linear steps. First, you deny it. Then you feel anger. After that you bargain, and so on and so forth until we magically “accept” the loss and all is well in the world. But what happens when you find that you seemed to have digressed back to the first so-called “step” and am in denial again? In her grieving process, she found that she was not progressing neatly from one step to the other. This has helped her see and remember, in a very personal way, that these steps are more like symptoms–they come and go, worsen and lessen with time. And that is okay! 

I like to think of these stages of grief as five chairs. Shortly after loss, you may sit for a solid hour in the denial chair. Then you may get up and move in any direction and sit for any amount of time. Maybe you move from the “denial” chair to sit in “acceptance,” but then you might go back to the denial one for a minute–or anger, or any of the other chairs.  You might feel like you have worked through the anger of losing someone or something valuable, and feel surprised to be feeling anger again. You might think, Wait, I thought I worked through anger. Why is it back all this time later? It is okay. You simply moved chairs. That is normal and you are healing just the way your soul needs to. In your bereavement, you will spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage with different levels of intensity. Contrary to popular belief, the five stages of loss do not necessarily occur in any specific order. You will likely play musical chairs and move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death. 

If you are experiencing grief, be gentle with yourself. Remember, grief is not a simple process with clean steps that you will complete before moving towards acceptance; rather it is often messy and tangled, with setbacks and delays. People who are grieving do not go through the stages in the same order and may not even experience all of them. So take your time; sit in whatever chair you need to as you work through your loss and know that it is just what you need. As always, please do not hesitate to contact me and schedule a session should you need additional assistance while coping with loss. 

Note: Kubler-Ross herself said that grief does not proceed in a linear and predictable fashion. She regretted that her stages had been misunderstood as steps. The five stages of grief were originally developed to explain what patients go through as they come to terms with their own terminal illnesses; only later were they applied to individuals grieving the loss of someone or something else.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Making Room for Grief During the Holidays

This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life“Grief is two parts: The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” -Anne Roiphe

Last month I wrote about what I referred to as the “trauma of surviving”–or learning to live life after losing someone dear to you. Such loss may be due to divorce, a move, death, or any other change that results in a separation from loved ones. This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life.

A friend of mine recently told me about a movie on Netflix called the Babadook. A widowed mother is plagued by the death of her husband and simultaneously battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Although this is supposed to be a scary movie, the ending is applicable and relatable to the topic at hand. As the mother in the film avoids facing the reality of her husband’s death, the presence of the monster grows, and the complications in her life amount. In the end we see the mother well put-together and clearly in a different, more positive state as she takes food down to the “monster” that has been banished to live in the basement.  She is feeding or acknowledging the monster–or her grief–and by so doing, it is appeased. It stops tormenting her. Its malevolent presence diminishes and she is able to figure out how to live a balanced, happy life even after the loss of her husband. She lets grief have a place in her life.

While I have not personally seen this movie, I love the parallels that can be made between the monster and grief. Avoiding grief and acting like it is not there can wreak havoc on our life. It can and will weaken us and our important relationships. We must first, acknowledge it and second, work through it.

Acknowledge it.

The “monster” in the Babadook terrorizes the mother right up until the end of the film. She struggles sleeping, maintaining friendships, holding a job, and even keeping the basic elements of her life together. In the same way, grief can eat away at you if it is given the chance. A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the following emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, numbness, bitterness, detachment, preoccupation with loss, and inability to show or experience joy. While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Grief is unavoidable after loss; the only way to overcome it is to give it place in your life–face it. Popular blogger Emily Meyers, a young mother of five, lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote a beautiful post about grief, and I have found great truth in these words:

“There is no ‘other side’ of grief. It’s never going to pass. You don’t ever ‘move on’ from it. You just learn to live with it. You absorb it. It becomes part of you. You simply adjust and change. You slowly but surely find how to navigate through your new normal with it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. I’ll say that again: It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. You stop waiting for the storm to pass, and instead, learn to dance in the rain.”

I have some clients who, like the mother in Babadook, try to simply ignore their grief and “move on” without facing it. But again, just as the mother in Babadook, this does not and cannot work. As Emily Meyers said, you cannot simply move on. You must learn to live with your grief.  You must acknowledge it. Do not expect to move on from a life-altering loss without allowing yourself to bereave or grieve. Yes, I am telling you to be sad–it is okay!

Work through it.

The loss of anything important to you–a relationship, a job, an opportunity, a loved one– can cause feelings of profound grief. Sadness around the holidays–or any time of year–is okay. It is perfectly understandable and 100% normal to feel like you are not “over” your loss. What is important is what you do with your sadness. Acknowledging it is the first step, and once you have done this, you will need to work through your grief and process your emotions. For some, this may mean crying, writing in a journal, participating in a therapeutic hobby or activity (like exercise), talking with a friend, or counseling with an experienced, licensed therapist. The most important thing is that you take the time to work through your difficult emotions because they do not go away on their own. In my experience, I have seen that simply burying or ignoring grief only exacerbates the problem when it actually does surface. And it is sure to!

If the holidays highlight your loneliness or the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. My heart aches for those who are grieving this year. I advise you to take my counsel to heart and acknowledge, then work through your grief. I know that by so doing you will find a place for your grief and will then be able to find a healthy balance of grieving and living life to the fullest. And, as always, if you need help facing or working through your grief, please do not hesitate to contact me today or schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

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Facing the Holidays Alone

Facing the Holidays Alone - Cluff Counseling - Denton Therapist“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”…unless you are experiencing the absence of a loved one this Christmas. Grief and loneliness come in waves and sometimes these feelings are felt more intense than other times, which can make the holiday season a difficult time. This post is written to those who are lonely and grieving this holiday season.

Earlier this year, I read a moving post on a popular blog. You may have heard of Emily Meyers, the author of the blog “The Freckled Fox.” She is young mother of five who recently lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote beautifully about grief, and I was reflecting on her blog post while thinking of how the holidays mean something different to everyone. Some look toward the holidays with excitement, while others look toward this time of year with anxiety and trepidation.

Whether holidays seem to highlight your singleness, or highlight the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. I have been there and my heart aches for those who are grieving this year. In our society, we have the tendency to believe that we have to get over things, to move on and forget. We tell others, “It gets easier with time,” and to find something else to replace the void in their lives after loss. While there is some truth in that advice, I want to echo the words of Emily Meyers, from her blog, “The Freckled Fox”:

“There is no timeline for grief, so don’t you ever ever let anyone tell you there is….There are no rules to grief. YOU make the decisions about how you handle your grief, about how and when you move forward, because you are the only one who feels the way you do, who has experienced exactly what you have, and who has to keep on living long after everyone else has forgotten. You don’t base your feelings and choices about how others think you should feel or choose. You absolutely can’t.”

Sometimes people unknowingly assume that holidays and birth- and death-days are the anniversaries that trigger grief, but it is not that simple. There are milestones and memories attached to everyday things like music, food, locations, and smells that might remind an individual of their lost loved one. Or for those who may be spending the holidays alone, simply seeing couples holding hands in public, sitting together in a theater or watching a Hallmark movie can be a searing reminder of his/her solitude. As The Freckled Fox said, “Everything around me is full of memories and moments that hurt.”

Grief is ongoing, it never stops. It never goes away. And that is okay. We need to stop waiting for our own grief to pass. Embrace your situation this Christmas season. Find a way to honor or celebrate the memories you do have, create new traditions, do something kind for others, ask for help, and surround yourself with people you care about. Do not push grief away or ignore it; instead, let it have a healthy place in your life. Stop waiting for the storm of your grief to pass… learn to dance in the rain.

If you are lonely this holiday season, I invite you to be brave and go out of your comfort zone. Seek company with close friends and family members. Engage in meaningful conversation. Initiate activities. Communicate your feelings to someone you can trust. Be vulnerable, open up, and let people in. Practice self-care; you will be amazed how much that can help improve your feelings of self-worth and self-esteem! Limit and possibly avoid social media; seeing photos of groups or couples when you feel lonely often only increases feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Marjorie Hinckley once said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We never know who around us is dealing with loss or grief–or any other difficulty in life. This Christmas season is a great time to give your pain an outlet by relating to, empathizing with, and serving others who are also suffering. Tune in next week for my post on the power of serving others–especially during this holiday season.  If you or someone you know is finding it difficult to bear their grief at this time of year, please contact me today or schedule a session to receive guidance on how to build a healthy relationship with grief and loneliness.

(Click here if you are interested in reading The Freckled Fox’s post entitled, “Learning to Dance in the Rain”.)

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

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