Kirsten Schlorff (Redefining the Stages of Grief)
12 October 2015
Redefining the Stages of Grief
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, grief is classically defined as a kind of hardship or suffering, a negative expression that one possesses. Grief is a wide-ranging topic though, covering various types of loss including breakups, divorce, and death, as well as an infinite array of emotions. Frequently, people judge others who take longer to progress through the stages of grief, labeling them as weak. Grief is also believed to be destructive to an individual’s health when it reaches a certain point. However, if that point is immeasurable, varying from person to person, does it truly exist?
In their famous hit song “Six Degrees of Separation,” The Script categorizes the grief of heartbreak after a failed relationship into a specific numerical sequence. “First, you think the worst is a broken heart. What’s gonna kill you is the second part, and the third is when your world splits down the middle. And fourth, you’re gonna think that you fixed yourself. Fifth, you see them out with someone else, and the sixth is when you admit you may have messed up a little.” Because of songs like “Six Degrees of Separation” that attempt to define the breakup process, we tend to think there is an ideal way of coping with and grieving over a breakup. Many people also believe that the grieving process adheres to an organized pattern throughout its different stages. This is fair to assume, especially when the media is constantly distorting the public conception of grief. However, this argument that grief follows a set organization fails to consider that just as all relationships are unique, all grief is also individual.
Because grief differs between individuals, the grieving process cannot be taught nor judged. There is no correct way of expressing grief. We are all human, healing in our own time and respective ways. Grief is not a static process starting at denial and resulting with acceptance, but rather a fluid process in which a person can both progress and regress toward a goal of acceptance.
When grieving the loss of a person, grief becomes more than just an emotion, involving the various stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler describe these stages in further detail within their book, On Grief and Grieving. According to the book, denial is the first stage of grieving and helps us to cope, to survive, and to pace our feelings. Anger, the second stage, can provide strength and structure as a normal reaction to the inequality of death. The third stage of bargaining can reprieve a person from pain, while hiding the underlying suffering as well. Bargaining is followed by the stage of depression, which allows us to slow down, rebuild ourselves, and actually comprehend the loss. The grieving process concludes with the final stage of acceptance, focusing on acknowledging the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that the new reality is permanent. After introducing each of the five stages in order within the first chapter, Kübler-Ross surprises readers by saying, “These steps are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order” (Kübler-Ross 7-28). This quote illustrates that every person experiences the grieving process in their own unique way. Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief aren’t instructions defining how a person should grieve, but rather a personalized roadmap providing a sense of control over emotions that may seem uncontrollable.
For the victims of divorce, grief is an interminable cycle without a cure. Divorce rates are climbing to new heights in today’s society, ending almost fifty percent of marriages in the United States alone. My parents divorced when I was only a year old, but I was too young at that time to understand the long-term effects it would later impose on my life. Despite the fact that I had no control over my parents’ divorce, I have never experienced or understood the true concept of a cohesive family. Instead of living under one roof with two parents who loved each other, I spent every other weekend living out of a suitcase while I visited my dad at his house. Growing up in a divorced family caused me to experience grief that shifted stages numerous times throughout my life. When I was younger and did not understand the reason for my parents’ divorce, I was depressed more than anything, because my parents were never together like all of my friends’ parents were. I felt as if I was missing out; my friends had something I would never have. As I grew older and began to realize why my parents divorced, I became angry with my dad for having an affair and leaving my mom to take care of twin babies all by herself. Clearly, the grief of divorce can be far different than the loss of a loved one.
Age is an important factor that influences the way a person experiences grief. Young children do not understand the concept of grief or losing someone. When death occurs, children cannot wrap their minds around its permanence, because they only see it as a temporary vacation. Even at 11 years old, I was unable to come to terms with the death of my Grandpa, stuck in the depression stage for multiple months. My dad, on the other hand, was able to accept the loss of his father fairly quickly, comfortably speaking at my Grandpa’s memorial service less than a month after his death. A child may not experience the same stages of grief that an adult does. In most cases, it takes longer for a child to accept the loss of a loved one than it does an adult, because an adult has developed a better understanding of coping with grief and death.
Russell Friedman, an online author representing The Grief Recovery Institute, describes grief as the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior. Regardless of whether grief results from the death of a loved one or parting ways from a significant other, both signify an adaptation to a new, unwanted reality. My first heartbreak following a relationship that had lasted almost two complete years caused me to experience grief in an entirely new manner. At first, I was left in shock and disbelief that Cullen, the guy who said he would love me forever and marry me one day, was now leaving me. After the reality of the breakup set in, I became depressed and refused to leave my room or talk to anyone. The depression was eventually replaced with feelings of anger and revenge, because all I wanted was for him to regret his decision to leave me. In this situation, I ended my grieving process with the second stage of anger. Therefore, I did not grieve following the exact order of the five stages.
The initial shock of grief is like a heart attack. It leaves you feeling as if the weight of the world is crushing down, pain radiating throughout your body. Shock can be synonymous with denial and disbelief. During his sophomore year of high school, my friend Ty Yonkin, was tragically killed in a target shooting accident. In denial that her son was actually gone, Ty’s mom posted on his Facebook wall for weeks following his death. Even now, two years after his death, she still writes posts weekly about the heartache she feels after losing her child. This past May, around the time Ty would have graduated from high school, she posted, “Time is not always the great healer, and sometimes you just can’t pick yourself up off the floor and go on for others. Sometimes you just aren’t able.” A few months later in August, she also posted, “It never, not once, crossed my mind that I would lose my child. That my heart would continue to beat. That the world would continue to turn. It never crossed my mind.” In some instances, people never recover from the death of a loved one. As Ty’s mom mentioned in her post, “Time is not always the great healer,” because the reality of losing her son is just as painful now as it was the day he died. It is often thought that time can heal anything and everything. Even though time provides healing for most people during the grieving process, there are still people, such as Ty’s mom, who are never healed regardless of the time that passes.
The stage of anger in the grieving process may last an entire lifetime, depending on the circumstances of the loss. My mom has been divorced from my dad for eighteen years, and still battles feelings of anger towards him. She explains:
Losing your partner through separation and divorce is worse than death, because of the betrayal component. When someone dies you can still have positive and loving feelings for that person. However, when someone divorces and separates from you, all of the positive feelings you have for them disintegrate in a gradual or, occasionally, abrupt process. You feel as if you no longer know the person, and begin questioning whether your relationship with them was ever truly real. If there is children involved, it feels as if your dream of a happy, intact family and future is blown up by a bomb. Feelings of regret and revenge feed your anger.
A person may still experience feelings of anger, even after they have reached the goal of acceptance during the grieving process. Although my mom has accepted her divorce from my dad, she still remains angry towards him for ruining her ideal future.
With maturity comes a developed understanding of how to cope with grief. At the beginning of this year, my Gram passed away at the age of 89. When I first found out about her death, I was never in denial because I knew she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, an incurable disease. I was aware that after living a long life, my Gram would reach a point where the disease had consumed her mind. Despite the fact that her death was inevitable while her health conditions progressively declined, I was very depressed when she passed away. She was the last living grandparent I had, and had taught me so much growing up as a child. As a young adult, I was able to cope with her death and appreciate her influence on my life in a mature manner.
After reaching the goal of acceptance, people are able to channel their grief in a variety of positive ways. I was not able to fully accept the death of my Gram until I decided to get a tattoo in memory of her on my hip. The tattoo consisted of a music note heart with a horizon sun inside the heart, followed by the quote, “You Are My Sunshine.” As a child, my Gram always sang that song to my sisters and me. Although the pain of the tattoo was agonizing, it felt rewarding when it was finally complete. Getting this tattoo allowed me to feel closer to my Gram, and I will forever carry her legacy with me. Even though she is not physically with me anymore, I can now fully accept her death in a mature and positive way, as many others do.
Grieving in a disorganized manner provides a person with the freedom to heal naturally in their own time and express their personal emotions, without feeling pressured by society to simply “get over” the loss they are suffering. Of course, people typically associate grief as being a sign of weakness, especially when a victim cannot surmount the stage of depression. Nevertheless, reaching acceptance in the grieving process requires a tremendous amount of emotional strength, hitting rock bottom while somehow managing to find the power to persevere. Time is often considered the ultimate healer of grief because most people tend to get better as time progresses, but the amount of time fluctuates depending on the individual. However, in some instances, like Ty Yonkin’s mom who is still stuck in denial even after two years, no amount of time can provide healing. Acceptance ultimately delivers the light at the end of the tunnel for those who are grieving.
Friedman, Russell. “The Best Grief Definition You Will Find.” – The Grief Recovery Method. The Grief Recovery Institute, 6 June 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
“grief.” OED Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 27 September 2015.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. “The Five Stages of Grief.” On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York: Scribner, 2005. 7-28. Print.
Schlorff, Rhonda B. “Divorce Is Worse than Death.” Telephone interview. 30 Sept. 2015.
The Script. “Six Degrees of Separation.” #3. Mp3. Phonogenic Records. 2012. AZ Lyrics, 28 Sept. 2015.
Yonkin, Tammy. “It Never, Not Once, Crossed My Mind That I Would Lose My Child. That My Heart Would Continue to Beat. That the World Would Continue to Turn. It Never Crossed My Mind.” Facebook. 8 August 2015. Web. 30 September 2015.
Yonkin, Tammy. “Time Is Not Always the Great Healer, and Sometimes You Just Can’t Pick Yourself up off the Floor and Go on for Others. Sometimes You Just Aren’t Able.” Facebook. 19 May 2015. Web. 30 September 2015.