The 10 years between 2004 and 2014 were a time of adversity that eclipsed all the difficulties of the former years of my life. To survive it all I had to learn how to grieve well. As long as we live we will experience many sorrows (as well as joys!) and therefore we must learn to grieve well.
Taking my cues from a description of the Messiah in Isaiah 53:3, I began to understand something. It is this: the key to healing well from all the sorrows and loss we experience is to become well acquainted with the full grief process and to master it. As I agreed to commit myself to understanding the stages of grief and practicing them with each and every sorrow and loss, I have truly been able to heal without getting stuck forever in incomplete grief. There are several valid models for grieving, the most well-known is the Kubler-Ross model. In that paradigm there are 5 stages of grief: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These are all necessary stages we must go through, and we help ourselves if we commit ourselves to cooperating with the process. When we finish, we are free to move on in life.
I personally believe that there is one more stage at the end that needs to be added to complete the process, that is “engaging a new reality”. There is a necessary disengagement from the past reality because it is either lost to us (no longer exists) or it is detrimental to us to reengage that reality. So, I believe that engaging a new and healthy reality is essential to completing the grief process so we can fully heal. Until the other 5 steps have been completed, though, it doesn’t work to try to jump straight to this one or to jump to it too early.
These are the pitfalls of getting stuck in the grief cycle, as I see them, as well as the victories possible when you refuse to get stuck:
1. Shock/denial. If you get stuck here, you simply stuff the grief in a closet and hope it goes away. Sometimes this happens at such a young age that we are not equipped to handle it. So our soul puts it in a closet to deal with later, hopefully when we can comprehend how to let it out and how to heal it. In any case, you may deny the power of it, minimize it, rationalize it, then close the door on it and tell yourself it’s not really there any more. If and when you take it out of the closet, letting yourself come out of denial/shock, then you free yourself to feel the pain. Shock/denial has a numbing effect, therefore when it is removed, you inevitably feel pain, then anger.
2.) Anger. When you finally wake up to the pain of what has happened to you, as you snap out of shock and denial, then you are angry. It’s a natural response to the pain of injustice and loss that we all will experience regularly in life. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel it fully and “exhale” it, it can smolder inside us and become bitterness. Bitterness happens when we decide to be the judge and jury and take the job of penalizing the perceived (or real) offender(s) ourselves rather than forgiving and leaving all that to the Supreme Judge. I think of it as “exhaling” – letting it out appropriately without injuring anyone and without putting yourself in the judge’s seat. I talk it out with God, my husband, and a few close friends who are mature enough to handle it and who will remind me to make the right choice. It’s like crossing a rushing river, when you are in it it can sometimes be furious, threatening to take you down. If you resolutely cross to the other side and step out of the current, you are free to move unhindered by the pull of that current. Usually you need more people than just yourself to get all the way to the riverbank on the other side.
3.) Bargaining. When you are through most of the anger, maybe dipping in and out of it a bit, the bargaining begins. It seems to be the first attempt to begin resolving the issue(s). It can include blaming others or self, negotiating deals with God or others (“if you’ll do this I’ll do that”), thoughts of “if only” or “what if”. The symbol used for the judicial system is an old-fashioned scales with 2 pans, one on either side of center. In an attempt to arrive at some sense of justice, we add and subtract weights from one side or the other to balance things out. Some things we may be able to resolve, others, maybe not. If you get stuck here, you will forever be looking for a way to resolve the situation on your own, to rectify every injustice, to recover every loss, never able to just let it go. A famous quote from pastor Reinhold Neibuhr speaks to this issue: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” When you have done what you can to change the situation, accepted what you can’t change and are at peace with the results of that struggle, you are free to just “let go”, or more accurately, “let down”.
4.)Depression – When our efforts at seeking to resolve the injustice/painful situation have been exhausted, we are forced to realize that, in fact, no more avenues of recourse are available to us. That is disappointing and requires the acknowledgement of the pain of loss – a real “let down”. It requires feeling the pain of the loss and letting it hurt, letting it “take it’s course”, somehow finding the courage to “let it bleed”. “You have to feel it to heal it” is a sentence that comes to mind. You may be in a low place for a time as you embrace the reality of the loss and “own it”. If you don’t allow yourself to go through this valley, you are forever stuck on the embankment of it, or in the middle of it, unable to move on to acceptance. The “let down” of loss and disappointment is like a desert that you must cross to reach a place of flourishing. On the other side of the desert there is a fruitful, green, life-giving place for you. There will be oases in the middle of the desert to keep you going, but don’t give up – there is a fruitful land waiting for you on the other side of it.
Once you have “owned it” and let the pain take its’ course, you come up out of that valley of depression into acceptance. The loss is now incorporated into your story and it can become an asset to you in the next part of your journey. “What is” can now become a springboard and part of “what will be”. Now life can begin again. If you stop here with mere acceptance, however, you may never move forward into a new reality. This kind of acceptance is not a “resignation” to an inferior quality of life, it is an acceptance of what has been with a hopeful expectation of better things to come if we choose to engage a new reality.
6). Engaging a new reality – I believe this is the final destination of the grief process,the place of overcoming and “moving on” – the key words here are, “moving on” and “engaging”. When you arrive here and really do this, you have completed the cycle of grief, you are free to live from a heart unburdened from grief. Becoming a person who knows these paths well and can navigate them skillfully makes you a more mature, hopeful and resilient person. You can smile at the future, no matter what it brings because you know that everything you experience can, in the end, become an asset to you and many others. Instead of being disabled, you are enabled to be more powerful and unsinkable, more the person you were intended to be all along.
I’ve found within myself an innate resistance to the grief process, probably because I want a quicker fix, am in denial of my need for it, or am reluctant to let myself feel the full impact of loss. Courage is required to agree to becoming “a man/woman of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” If we will muster up the courage to go the distance with the grief process, we can end up with a new and enduring peace, empowerment and greater compassion towards others as they, too, find themselves in need of walking down this road.