For many, this is the time of year when we pause, reflect, and express our gratitude. But this year, we are experiencing significant loss and grief. For some, this grief is complicated.
According to the Mayo Clinic, complicated grief is “an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing.” Stressors, including social isolation, financial hardships, and myths about the grieving process increase our risk for complicated grief.
And, it’s not necessarily a response to the loss of a loved one. Loss of income, status, or identity; loss of what we considered normalcy; unmet expectations; any significant change or loss can trigger a grief response.
Getting stuck in grief is a very real problem. It can affect you physically, mentally, socially, and professionally. Fortunately, it can be corrected, and even prevented. We need a better understanding about the process of grief, techniques to manage our experience, and the time required for healing.
A Brief Review of Grief
In the late 1960’s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the stages of dying which she published in On Death and Dying. In 2005, David Kessler expanded on her hypothesis in their collaborative work, On Grief and Grieving, identifying five stages of grief:
- Denial: shock and disbelief that the loss has occurred
- Anger: that someone we love is no longer here
- Bargaining: all the what-ifs and regrets
- Depression: sadness from the loss
- Acceptance: acknowledging the reality of the loss
According to Kessler, the stages “were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.” In other words, these five stages “don’t prescribe, they describe.” Have you found this to be true for you?
Although we grieve in our own unique way, we may experience these responses in the process. None of the stages are easy, including the acceptance stage, and we may move through each one more than once throughout our grieving process.
In his newest book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief (Scribner, 2019), Kessler points to a crucial sixth stage to the healing process: meaning. This is the stage that allows us to transform our grief and find a path forward. Although the grief may never end, it does lessen, and through meaning we can make sense of our grief. We can stay hopeful, strong, resilient, and resistant.
A New Model for Loss and Grief
At some point in our life, we will experience a process of grieving. It may be individual, collective, or even anticipatory. Our grief may lead us to ask, “What’s it really all about, anyway?” Debunking the myths of grief can help us manage the process, for ourselves, and others.
Critics argue that there is no sound scientific basis for Kübler-Ross’s stage theory. Placing expectations on yourself or others about needing to experience stages of grief can be harmful. Grieving is not a sequential, orderly, predictable process across time. It is not a set pattern of specific reactions. Most bereaved people adjust to their loss in their own manner (i.e. not through stages) over the course of time, while others experience some of the described stages.
One thing we do know with certainty is that while there are different patterns of “normal” grieving, experiencing loss can involve complex, fluctuating, emotions. Researchers have found that patterns vary greatly in terms of specific reactions, time-related changes, and duration of acute grieving period.
The Course of Grieving
The aim of theoretical models is to understand (and try to explain) the grieving process, not to be prescriptive about what people have to go through.
There are alternative scientific perspectives that better represent the course of grief and grieving. Chronologically, these include:
- Trajectories approach (Bonanno, 2004)
- Cognitive stress theory (Folkman, 2001)
- Meaning making approach (Neimeyer, 2001)
- Dual process model (Schut & Stroebe, 1999)
- New model of grief (Walter, 1996)
- Task model (Worden, 1982)
- Two-track model (Rubin, 1981)
- Psychosocial transition model (Parkes, 1971)
The search for meaning (meaning making approach) is a common response when we encounter loss, face challenges, and work through our grief. For many, it is the best model to understand their grief.
Acceptance: Where the Power Lies
“Grief is extremely powerful…there is even more power in acceptance.” – David Kessler
2020 has been a year of change. Sure, we know that life is about impermanence. But the changes many of us have experienced this year have been a real loss, and we are truly grieving. How do we keep moving forward?
While there is no one-size-fits all prescription for the grieving process, we know it takes energy, time, and reflection. Finding meaning in the process fuels our focus, direction, passion and perseverance. Meaning becomes more powerful as it moves from being negative to positive, external to intrinsic, and from self to others. How?
In a Harvard Business Review article (March 2020), Kessler offered four practical tips:
- Find balance in the things you’re thinking. Recognize catastrophizing, rumination, denial, anesthetizing, etc.
- Come into the present. If you haven’t already, practice mindfulness and/or meditation. State a feeling, identify an object, but don’t attach yourself to either. For example, rather than say, “I am angry”, say, “there is anger.”
- Let go of what you can’t control. Focus on what you can.
- Stock up on compassion. If you find yourself judging the behavior of someone else, add the word “yet” to the story you are telling yourself about their behavior. For example, “They are taking a huge risk by ___. I have never ___, yet.”
Ask for help when you need it. You’ll know you’ve moved into a state of acceptance when you can acknowledge what has/is happening and take steps to move forward.
Regenerate Your Power
Only you can make meaning for yourself. When you are ready:
- Practice compassion for self and others: your loss is not a test/lesson, or a gift/blessing, rather, it is a loss. Making meaning is your response to a loss.
- Allow your meaning to be personal and relative to your unique experience; understanding “why” is not necessary.
- Give yourself plenty of time to make meaning: months, or even years.
- Understand that making meaning is not the same as obtaining justice; there will still be loss after meaning is found. But meaningful connections can heal painful memories.