Gifts from Grief: Finding Meaning & Insights from Loss
“Should you shield the canyon from the windstorms, you would never see the beauty of their carvings.”Elizabeth Kübler-Ross
In 2006 my father was diagnosed with cancer. A few weeks after receiving this news, he came home from work one day to find the house full of water because a pipe burst while no one was home. Then, just a few weeks after that, one of the neighbors began to complain that they did not like how the backyard fence looked and petitioned the city to have my parents remove the fence.
My mother had a saying when we were growing up that she would recite over and over again when something bad happened. After “thing #1” occurred, she would say, “Watch out, things come in threes!” What is even more bizarre about this is that almost all of the time, two more bad things actually occurred! Was my mother channeling some dark magic? Was it all just a coincidence? Why three? So many questions used to flood my mind back then.
Although I would not call my mother an optimist, she was not a pessimist either. She was doing what all of us do when we experience some kind of loss…finding a way to deal with the emotions she was feeling and protect herself from the unknown.
When any loss is experienced, grief follows. Grief can be defined as a response to loss in all of its totality, which includes the physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and social experiences connected to the loss (Smit, 2015). What my mother experienced when she recites her “things come in threes” incantation is known as anticipatory grief. In our minds, “anticipatory grief is the beginning of the end,” which I expand to include the fear of the unknown, and fear of the pain we may experience in the near future.
Lately, we have all been experiencing a bit of anticipatory grief. We have suffered many losses through COVID-19 and the recent brutal death of George Floyd: loss of people, loss of a job, loss of freedom, loss of a routine, loss of money, loss of face to face socializing, loss of travel plans, loss of the ability to go where we want when we want, loss of health, loss of our safety and security…but loss does not always have to signify something bad.
We not only experience grief when we lose someone to death, we experience grief when we lose anything in our lives, good or bad.
My younger daughter just recently moved to Florida from Arizona. Even though she is in her mid-twenties, this move signified her first time living away from her family. The last time I spoke with her, she told me how she is missing the familiarity of having the people she knows around, knowing where her favorite stores are, and going to her old place of employment. Even though she chose this move, she is experiencing a loss. She is grieving the loss of familiarity in her life. Then there is the loss we are all experiencing from the death of George Floyd. George Floyd sacrificed his life for a great cause…he was a martyr, who unknowingly championed the way to a loss of epic proportions and one long overdue…the loss of injustice against our black brothers and sisters.
Regardless of the circumstances around the loss, we can expect to have our own unique emotional and behavioral responses. Experiencing loss is a form of growth. Growth is usually uncomfortable. But it is in that discomfort where we grow the most. To move our lives forward, we must become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The 5 stages of grief, coined by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, are all emotions and behaviors we are familiar with to some degree: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We usually relate these stages to a process someone goes through when they lose a loved one to death. In reality, these stages happen all of the time whenever we experience any kind of loss in our lives. They just tend to show up a bit differently…
The Current Faces of the 5 Stages of Grief
The 5 stages of grief are tools to help us identify what we may be feeling as we move through a loss or change in our life. We do not linearly go through the 5 stages, nor do we always experience each one in the same way. Some people may even get stuck in one of the stages, and others may skip certain stages altogether. How we grieve is as individual as our DNA. Add a pandemic and racial injustice to the situation, and we have ourselves a unique grieving process.
This year started fresh. I had successfully launched a new part of my career, had several research projects underway, and had plans to live overseas for 4 months in Asia at the end of the year. In March, when the news hit about COVID-19, I sat in front of my computer in disbelief. It was as if my life flashed before my eyes. What now?
Denial presents itself initially as shock and numbness. For a moment, you might think it is a dream. You say things such as, “This COVID thing can’t be as bad as they are saying it is. I am sure it is just some version of the flu.” We find ourselves talking about what happened often, telling the story and our thoughts surrounding it over and over again.
The purpose of denial is to help us unconsciously manage feelings our psyche is unable to process at the moment. It is our psyche’s protective mechanism, much like my mother’s incantation of things coming in threes. As Elizabeth Kübler-Ross states, “Denial is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.”
Denial has shown itself in many forms during these trying times. To say the very least, we have all become quite overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situations occurring. Once the reality of the situation at hand is accepted, we usually begin to ask ourselves questions such as, How long will this last?, Will I be able to find food (and toilet paper!)?, Why do I need to wear a mask?, Will my loved ones be OK?
Asking questions is a good sign. When we start to ask ourselves questions, that means the healing process has begun. Think for a moment about what questions you are asking yourself right now? How have your questions changed over the last few months?
As this phase fizzles out, a door opens, and all of the feelings we denied, such as anger, surface.
Coming from someone who was a master at suppressing her anger for years, trust me when I tell you that this emotion is meant to be expressed and not buried down deep in the bowels of your soul. My Greek/Albanian up-bringing (lots of loud “discussions”) conditioned me to believe that not only was anger bad, but expressing your anger made you a bad person. I wasn’t necessarily formally taught this idea, of course, but from a child’s viewpoint, that is how I ended up interpreting what I saw around me.
Anger has a bit of a bad rap in our society. We have all observed anger in its raw, unfiltered form. The witnessing of the expression of anger in unhealthy ways has caused us to fear anger, which makes it hard for people to feel as if they can safely express their anger without being judged. Let’s face it; we know more about suppressing our anger than we do about actually feeling it, and as my friend, Kim says, “we don’t hold a laugh in, why would we hold anger in?”
What is underneath all anger is pain.
The key is to know how to express your anger in a healthy way that does not harm you or another person. We have this belief that anger needs to be logical and valid and that there are only a few acceptable ways to express anger, if at all. Anger can be a good thing. The anger around George Floyd’s death has sparked a new level of awareness that is the impetus of much-needed change in our society.
When you get to the point where you feel angry about a loss in your life, your subconscious is aware of two things: one, you are progressing in the healing process, and two, you feel safe enough to know that you will probably survive whatever is ahead. This is good news!
Anger is a necessary part of the healing process.
When anger shows itself, we now know things will not be the way they used to be. You can no longer just walk into a grocery store to pick up a few items. Now, you have to stand in line, wear a mask, follow the arrows on the floor to go up and down each aisle, and remember to stand 6-feet away from another human at all times. So much for a “quick” trip to the store! My anger also peaks out its little head when I see the behaviors of others in public, when I watch the news, and when I look in the mirror at my gray roots (that is more anger at my aging process than the pandemic). Our anger gives us a glimpse into those places where we are feeling the most stress and where the most change needs to occur.
Dig deep and ask yourself the following:
- What is my anger really about?
- What is the source of my pain?
- What beliefs am I holding onto that may be causing my pain and anger?
- How can I express my anger in a healthy way?
It is important not to judge others who are expressing this emotion, although we may be tempted. With that said, there are healthy ways of expressing your anger that do not harm yourselves or other people. Scream into a pillow, talk to a friend, exercise, get some fresh air, or do what I do and throw a bag of Nerf balls against the nearest wall while screaming. (Other than an occasional knock on my door from the neighbors during this outburst, this seems to work well.) Be willing to feel your anger. It is OK.
Remember, you have to feel it to heal it.
I liken bargaining to a day at the spa. It is our brief reprieve from reality. During bargaining, our imagination takes hold, and we begin to daydream about what it would be like if we had not lost what we did, and everything was back to “normal.” It is our way of pretending the loss did not occur, and things did not change. Our minds create scenarios of our long lost past or how we wish things to be in the future. We not only daydream about these things, we try and make deals with higher powers for them to come true.
We even bargain with ourselves by making deals on what we will accomplish (usually unrealistic goals) during our down-time. I’ll write 4 books, lose 20 pounds, bake cookies every day, and finally catch up on some sleep! Sound familiar? We will even bargain with our own beliefs. One day we are sure the world is going to end, and the next day we have convinced ourselves it is all a conspiracy theory. Our mind will even alter past events, so our perception of what happened changes. In the end, bargaining is our way of avoiding dealing with our new reality. It is a temporary reprieve into our own little fantasy land. Our brains will negotiate any way they can to avoid the pain of the loss or change.
If you find yourself in this phase, simply be aware of when you are doing it. Write down what you are thinking and take note of the patterns. Once you are aware of a thought, you then have the power to change it. Know it is natural to fantasize about how you wish a situation to be different. After all, that is how dreams become a reality. Once this phase has run its course, the realization that what is happening IS all real eventually sinks in.
As reality starts to sink in, we slowly move into the present time. We realize this is how it is, and often it seems as if there is no end in sight. If you have experienced either denial, anger, or bargaining (or all three) up to this point, you are exhausted. Burnout likes to show itself in this phase because you have been in a battle between ‘what is’ and ‘what was.’
Depression has a stigma of its own in our society. People view it as unnatural, and that is far from the truth. Yes, there are some who experience clinical depression, and that is a very real condition that requires medical attention. But, we all go through phases of depression many times during our lives. When a major change or loss occurs, let’s face it, that is depressing. The upside of depression is that it slows us down just enough to take stock of our situation and dig deep into a place in our soul that we may not normally visit. Your nervous system shuts down as a way to protect you from the feelings you cannot handle in the present moment. In essence, this phase slows you down so you can heal.
Pandemic depression may show itself a bit more mysteriously. Take note of some of your current habits and compare them to your pre-pandemic behaviors. Are you doing less and feeling more tired? Are you eating more or less? Are you showering daily? Are you socially interacting (virtually, of course) with people more or less? How do you feel about your work? Are your moods fluctuating more than normal? A shift in these behaviors is a normal part of depression. It is when we get stuck in unhealthy behaviors for a long period of time and don’t see a way out that help may be needed.
Empathy is the key when dealing with depression, both for yourself and others. Our natural inclination is to try to cheer ourselves or the other person up. Instead, just be with them. Just be with yourself. In her book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss ( 2005), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross says to see depression as a visitor, “…perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest and invite depression to pull up a chair and sit with it.”
When we allow ourselves the experience of depression and really let ourselves feel it, it eventually finds its way out.
From a pandemic point of view, no, we are not at acceptance quite yet. This is mainly due to the magnitude of decisions that need to be made in so many areas of life regarding what our world will look like post-COVID-19. However, this does not mean we cannot experience this stage on our own. Acceptance is the realization that this is your new reality, and the old one is now permanently gone. We learn to live with a new way of being.
The tricky part of acceptance is the more your identity was connected to your old way of being and what you perceive you lost, the harder this stage will be for you. What was lost may never be able to be replaced or changed, but always remember that perception is reality. We may not be able to change the event, but we do have the power to change our perception of it. The human psyche learns best through contrast and challenges. When was the last time you actually learned something when things were going smoothly? One of my favorite quotes from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross is: “When all is said and done, we get to choose how we come out of the tumbler of life. Do we come out crushed, or polished and sparkling like a diamond? In the end, it is up to you.”
When acceptance takes hold, initially, this may simply look like having more good days than bad. Things will certainly not feel as they did before, but you will slowly begin to get used to your new reality. Your energy will return, and you slowly start to live your life once again, although it may look and feel different than before. What matters is, you are moving forward.
Whatever phase of grief you identify with at the moment, be kind to yourself and keep the following in mind:
- Allow yourself to grieve in your own way and be patient with the process. Comparing how you are grieving (or dealing with a loss or change) with someone else will not do you any good. It will only frustrate you and keep you feeling as if you are moving in circles.
- Feel the emotions that come up, as uncomfortable as that may be. Remember, you need to feel it to heal it. If the emotions are too overwhelming, seek guidance and help from a counselor or professional.
- Don’t get caught up in the story of your past. Change is a good thing, and one of the only constants in our life. Keep your focus on the positive future you want to see materialize. What you think about, you bring about.
- Take one day at a time and stay in the present moment. Even if you have to remind yourself a thousand times a day to stay present, do it. Keep a sticky note on your computer if you have to.
- Balance is knowing your priorities and ensuring that your daily efforts match those priorities. Our priorities change, so revisit these often. When you do not know your priorities, everything becomes a priority. This keeps us stuck in a circle of confusion.
- Make time for yourself. I know that sounds almost cliche nowadays since all we have had lately is time for ourselves. Ensure that where you are spending your time and energy are on the things YOU want, not the things you feel you “should” be doing. Never should on yourself.
- Fear is simply False Evidence Appearing Real. We have many fears that show their faces during uncertain times. Fear of the unknown being one of the big ones. When you are aware, you are in fear, breathe, and refocus your energy on a thought that feels better. Don’t give your power away to fear.
- Be aware of the images you hold in your mind. Our minds think in pictures. These conceptions we create are what we tend to believe more so than what we are told. Make sure these images are in alignment with the future you wish to create.
We can allow in new experiences without being afraid. Life is dominated by what we perceive as randomness, but the soul always makes a perfect choice for the lesson it needs to learn. Trust the process of life. Be open to the curves life throws at you. I have learned to respond to the unexpected in my life by saying “interesting?” out loud. This keeps me in a sense of wonderment and excitement about what I am about to learn rather than living in fear of the unknown. Trust yourself that you’ve got this! Use your past experiences as anchors for the present by remembering that you made it and came out OK.
At the end of the day, fear and faith ask the same thing of us…to believe in something that we cannot see.
Choose to have faith.
By Dr. Christine Sopa, Industrial Organizational Psychologist, speaker, consultant, and researcher.
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Kübler-Ross, E. & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. London: Simon & Shuster.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1997). The wheel of life: A memoir of living and dying. New York: Touchstone.
SMIT, C. (2015). Theories and Models of Grief: Applications to Professional Practice. Whitireia Nursing & Health Journal, 22, 33–37.