What next? Preparing for Challenge — Understanding grief as a process
Have you ever had that experience of planning to do something a particular way then it just didn’t turn out that way?
This newsletter was that kind of something for me. I was writing on the topic of meaning. But something else kept intruding on my thoughts as I wrote about meaning, getting stronger as I sought out additional reading to clarify my thoughts and add as references. Along the way I found some great resources … and realised that I had to write about the process of grief before writing about meaning.
The title of this topic – understanding grief as a process – may seem challenging and confronting. If this is triggering for you, please stop reading now and seek help.
Early in the pandemic there were a number of articles about grief, as a natural response to loss. They aimed to help people put a name to what they were feeling, understand the various types of loss people were experiencing and increase their confidence in dealing with the pandemic by connecting with their previous experiences.
Doing a quick review of a selection of the articles, aside from this interview with David Kessler in the Harvard Business Review, most of the articles in the popular press didn’t explain that grief is a process. This is perhaps understandable given a fairly common hope in those early days of the pandemic that it would be over in a few months.
Now we are over a year into the pandemic I think it’s helpful to revisit grief as a topic, in particular unpacking it as a process.
It’s a process that appears not only at the times we might first call to mind – around loss of a loved one. Now there is greater awareness and discussion of how it can arise with other loss. Some of these other losses are more concrete, such as activities we enjoy, a relationship, or a job, and others more abstract such as certainty, opportunities, or even a sense of confidence in our own health. We can even experience grief if we have a significant conflict with someone who is important to us.
Understanding grief as a process is also useful in preparing for challenge, since challenges quite often involve loss of some kind.
Knowing that grief is a process – that it has movement and its own rhythm – has been incredibly helpful to me, providing a sense of hope that I would move through loss and challenge, even if I didn’t know when or how. I was fortunate to have the grief process explained to me after my brother-in-law’s terminal cancer diagnosis, by a community member who’d been supported through it while nursing her husband through terminal cancer. It has helped me to deal with the challenges of a family member’s serious chronic health condition over many years, and my cancer.
Those experiences have taught me that grief over a longer term can be a spiral process. We can come to a level of acceptance, then be thrown back to the early stages of a new cycle by a complication or new information before gradually arriving at a different level of acceptance. And multiple cycles can overlap. I suspect this has been a common experience during the pandemic.
The five stage ‘Kübler-Ross’ grief process below is a model developed by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross after she spent many years with terminally-ill patients. She first published it in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, and later refined it in two books (2001, 2005) with her colleague David Kessler. The Kübler-Ross process has also been adapted for use in organisational change processes to help organisations support employees’ emotional responses and movement through change.
It’s important to remember that the stages of grief in the model are not prescriptive, and that it is a model – a representation of the world. All models are simplifications. We may not experience all of the stages, or in the same order as the model, or may have other emotional responses. We may go backwards and forwards through the stages, even within a few minutes, or through them in a kind of spiral process. Each person’s experience of grief is different, and each person’s grief process is different. Nonetheless, in my experience the model is a practically useful structure around which to build an understanding of grief as a process.
The stages of the Kübler-Ross five-stage grief model are well described at grief.com, hosted by David Kessler, and are:
Denial. This is where we are numb, in shock. Life can become meaningless and we may feel overwhelmed. Grief.com says denial is “nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle”. As we gradually take in the reality of the situation, we may move into other stages. Signs of denial include feelings of meaninglessness, overwhelm and shock but can also be seen in avoidance behaviours such as dismissive answers or changing topics.
Anger. Although it may be uncomfortable, it is important to truly feel our anger rather than suppressing it. This does not mean taking out our anger on others, although noticing ourselves thinking or behaving angrily towards others can signal that we are experiencing this stage of grief. We can make space to be with our anger, or ask for support. Anger can be productive – helping us to take action, to stand for something, or to be open to deeper emotions.
Bargaining. This is where we try to offer actions, such as changes of behaviour, to avoid the loss, or after loss think ‘if only’ or ‘what if’ we had done something differently. During the pandemic, especially in the early stages, this showed up as thoughts of ‘if we all just lockdown for a few weeks, this will all be over’.
Depression. In this stage we really feel our loss. We feel empty, we’ve lost structure, we have a gap in our lives where who or what we’ve lost used to be.
Acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean that ‘everything is ok’. Acceptance means we have come to accept and recognise that our life has changed and we learn to live with it.
While many people may have experienced loss and moved through it, they may not have a conscious understanding of it as a process.
Being aware of the different stages we may experience in grief can help us recognise them in ourselves and others and make accommodation. We might notice we’re snapping at people, and recognise that we are experiencing anger around the loss. We can then support ourselves or seek help, rather than continuing to snap at people and feel regret or sadness at hurting them. Seeing the stages in others can help us to respond more compassionately and generously, reducing stress and building trust in the relationship.
Getting started is mainly a matter of becoming aware. The grief.com website has clear explanations of the stages, and the HBR paper discusses the grief cycle specifically in terms of the pandemic. (It is also a segue to the next newsletter, which will be about meaning). The practices in the previous newsletter series can then support your awareness of yourself in relation to the stages.
Please note: Many people have suffered from mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, including people who have never experienced issues before. This newsletter series is not a substitute for professional mental health support specific to your circumstances. If you have mental health issues, please access professional mental health services before attempting any of the practices in this newsletter series. Links to some Australian organisations and their online resources are below: