On Grief and Grieving
Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Love
By Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler
Reviewed by Betty Ann Dean
Perhaps the middle of summer seems like an odd time to talk about grief and loss. After all, the trees are green and lush, gardens are producing all kinds of goodness, and flowers are at their peak. The truth is, however, that grief knows no season. Many of my clients have struggled with grief in the last few months, which prompted me to revisit this book.
I confess that I’ve always had a fascination with the dying process–stories of those who “came back” from the other side after finding themselves in a tunnel of bright white light were always intriguing to me. The work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was groundbreaking at the time I was attending nursing school and I was always drawn to her writings.
Our fascination with the dying process often begins in childhood. “In childhood we realize at some point that we will die, and not only will we die but those around us will die someday too. That is our beginning of anticipatory grief: fear of the unknown, the pain we will someday experience. It is present in most of our childhood stories and movies as if they are archetypally preparing us.”
Many of us are familiar with the five stages of grief as described by Kubler-Ross. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages…The five stages are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.”
The meaning of these stages has evolved over the years. The first, denial, might be described more as disbelief than what we think of as denial. “This does not mean that you literally don’t know your loved one has died. It means you come home and you can’t believe that your wife isn’t going to walk in the door at any minute or that your husband isn’t just away on a business trip. You simply can’t fathom that he will never walk through that door again…Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.” As a person begins to cope with the reality of the loss, denial fades but the feelings begin to surface.
Anger, the next stage, takes different forms. One might find themselves angry at the deceased person because he didn’t take good care of himself, or angry at themselves because they didn’t see the death coming. Perhaps that anger is directed at the medical personnel–couldn’t they have done more? “It is important to remember that the anger surfaces once you are feeling safe enough to know you will probably survive whatever comes. At first, the fact that you lived through the loss is surprising to you. Then more feelings hit, and anger is usually at the front of the line as feelings of sadness, panic, hurt, and loneliness also appear, stronger than ever…Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.”
Bargaining, the next stage, is often accompanied by guilt. “The ‘if onlys’ cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we ‘think’ we could have done differently. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt…Bargaining may fill the gaps that our strong emotions generally dominate, which often keep suffering at a distance.”
As we realize that our loved one is truly gone, we move into the next stage, depression. “It is important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is an appropriate response to a great loss.” Many times our friends and family see this stage as unnatural and try to encourage our friends to “snap out of it”. The loss of a loved one IS depressing, and this response is absolutely appropriate. “When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will leave as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.” As difficult as it is to experience, depression can help us rebuild ourselves. “It takes us to a place in our soul that we would not normally explore.”
Finally, acceptance. Many think that reaching this stage means that everything is all right and that we are okay with what has occurred. In truth, we might never feel that all is okay or right after the loss of a loved one. “We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually we accept it. This is where our final healing and adjustment can take a firm hold, despite the fact that healing often looks and feels like an unattainable state.” As we begin to live with the fact that our loved one is gone, we begin to put our lives back together and integrate new connections into our lives.
As well as covering the emotional aspects of grief, this is a comprehensive book that covers losses related to suicide, loss of children, unexpected tragedies, losing several loved ones at a time, and also the process of losing a loved one to a slower disease process, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a chronic illness. Practical details are included such as how to handle all of the details that need to be taken care of after a death, how to maneuver holidays, what to do with the deceased person’s possessions, and how to manage finances.
The message that comes through loud and clear in the book is that there is no one right way to grieve a loved one, no timeframe for grief and that each person’s situation is unique to them. “Grief is not just a series of events, stages, or timelines. The loss happens in time, in fact in a moment, but its aftermath lasts a lifetime.”
“Grief is real because loss is real. Each grief has its own imprint, as distinctive and as unique as the person we lost. The pain of loss is so intense, so heartbreaking because in loving we deeply connect with another human being, and grief is the reflection of the connection that has been lost.”
Both authors have experienced much loss in the nature of their work. Kessler describes the loss of his parents, and Kubler-Ross narrates the story of the death of her beloved husband. Ultimately, both arrive at the point of being able to see the gifts of grief.
“We may still be in the beginning of our grief and yet, it winds its way from the feelings of anticipating a loss to the beginnings of reinvolvement. It completes an intense cycle of emotional upheaval. It doesn’t mean that we forget; it doesn’t mean we are not revisited by the pain of loss. It does mean we have experienced life to its fullest, complete with the cycle of birth and death. We have survived loss. We are allowing the power of grief and grieving to help us to heal and to live with the one we lost.
That is the Grace of Grief.
That is the Miracle of Grief.
That is the Gift of Grief.”
I highly recommend this book for anyone who finds themselves adjusting to a loss, for those who have experienced this process. It is for all of us really, as we experience our own losses along the way and help our friends and families manage to live without their loved ones. In grief, there are so many messages for the living. There is a richness for us all to experience as we navigate the realms of life and death.
Betty Ann Dean, R.N., B.S.N., has worked in various settings as a registered nurse. In 2008 she began to explore energy medicine as taught by Donna Eden as a way of healing the body in addition to traditional medicine. She is certified as a practitioner of Bowenwork, a hands-on healing therapy, and brings a rich background of corrective exercise to her healing modalities as a result of her ten years of experience as a personal trainer. In 2020, Betty Ann was certified at the Masters level as a medical intuitive. She continues to mentor with her teacher, Tina Zion, and is a recommended practitioner on Tina’s website.
Her practice, Vibrant Bodyworks, is located in Liberty, MO, and Parkville, MO.