Getting Through the Grief Process
Stages of Grief
No one is prepared for grief. The rush of feelings, the thoughts, anxieties, and heartache can take us by surprise and drive us to our knees. Yet, when we choose to harness that power for self-growth, amazing things can happen. Good can come from pain.
Some refer to the stages of grief as the emotions you feel. We, on the other hand, look at the stages of grief as the steps you should take to make you feel better or recover from grief.
Sigmund Freud first brought up the concept of grief work in 1917, and today the idea that bereavement is purpose-driven continues.
Dr. James Worden chose to see the work of bereavement as task-oriented:
Stages of Grief
Your current job is to focus your attention on achieving each of those goals. It will not occur in any logical order; each of us is different and the path we walk in the bereavement journey is not a straight one.
Dealing with grief is hard work. It takes both courage and hard work to successfully adapt to the loss of a significant person in your life.
The First Step of the Grief Process: Finding Acceptance
Acceptance is the very first task in your bereavement. Dr. James Worden writes that we must "come full face with the reality that the person is dead, that the person is gone and will not return."
This is where a funeral can be very important. Traditionally, the casketed body of the deceased is at the front of the room and guests are invited to step up to personally say their goodbyes. Part of stepping up means seeing with our own eyes that death has actually occurred and that actualizing is an essential part of coming to accept the death. Yet, the tradition of viewing has eroded over time with many families today choosing cremation and opting to hold a memorial service after the cremation has taken place. The focal point of the ceremony becomes the cremation urn, holding the cremated remains or ashes out-of-sight and making the reality of the death less evident and the road to acceptance less clearly marked.
Acceptance May Seem Out-of-Reach
For many, acceptance means agreeing to reality. Most of us, when we lose someone dear to us, simply don't want to agree to it; we actually have an aversion to agreeing and accepting. So, let's use a different word - try adjustment, or integration. Both words focus on the purposeful release of disbelief. Someone who has integrated the death of a loved one into their life has cleared the path to creating a new life; a pro-active life where a loved one's memory is held dear, perhaps as a motivating force for change.
It does take time. In Coping with the Loss of a Loved One, the American Cancer Society cautions readers that "acceptance does not happen overnight. It’s common for it to take a year or longer to resolve the emotional and life changes that come with the death of a loved one. The pain may become less intense, but it’s normal to feel emotionally involved with the deceased for many years after their death. In time, the person should be able to reclaim the emotional energy that was invested in the relationship with the deceased, and use it in other relationships."
Whatever you call it, this essential part of mourning is what allows us to live fully again. It allows us to step out of the darkness of mere existence and back into the sunshine where life is sweet again. Of course, it's a very different life than the one you had before your loved one died.
Six Signposts Along Your Grief Recovery
Dr. Stephen Joseph identifies what he calls six signposts to facilitate posttraumatic growth. The signposts are essentially steps or tips you should take at given moments during the grief process. He reminds readers too that "posttraumatic growth does not imply the absence of emotional distress and difficulties in living. It does imply that it is possible through the struggle to come out on the other side, stronger and more philosophical about life."
Before identifying these six signposts, Dr. Joseph reminds his readers of three very important things:
You are not on your own
Trauma is a normal and natural process
Growth is a journey
He also provides a fundamental rule: don't do anything you might not be able to handle now. "If you experience intense emotions, become physically upset, or begin to panic...stop." He gently reminds readers that "having a sense of personal control over your recovery is important. There might be some things you do not feel ready to handle now, but in time, as you discover new strength and develop new coping skills, this will likely change."
"By focusing on these six signposts," writes Dr. Joseph, "you will find that your posttraumatic growth is beginning to take root."
American Cancer Society. (2012). Coping with the Loss of a Loved One.
Freud, S. (1953). On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works.
Joseph, S. (2011) What Doesn't Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth.
Worden, J. (2008). Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner.