This is an excerpt from The 4 Facets of Grief: Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World, and Find New Pathways To Joy, which is available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B073ZMKKH2.
I used to think life was a series of beginnings. Birth is a beginning; starting school is a beginning. So is learning to drive; new love; a new home. All these firsts take us toward presumably better and more fulfilling experiences. Beginnings are filled with hope, promise, and expectation. Sometimes they’re exhilarating and scary in the most positive way. But I honestly didn’t consider the possibility that they also may follow endings. At least, not until I became intimately acquainted with loss.
I eventually realized that endings must precede new beginnings. In every instance I could think of, new adventures signaled the end of something that was there before. The birth of a baby is the end of pregnancy, for instance. Many times we’re thrilled for a situation to be ending; we’re ready to move on. Then there are other moments of painful loss when the ending just feels impossibly wrong.
This is unwelcome change. It’s human nature to seek the familiar, and whether we realize it or not, we all have this tendency. It’s comforting to be in familiar territory – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Navigating any change can be challenging, but being thrust into unwelcome change is moving into a bleak unknown.
Becoming a Bereaved Mother
My son’s death has been such an unwelcome change for me. The ending of his life was the beginning of mine as a bereaved mother. And even though I had already experienced the deaths of many people close to me, this was unmistakably different. It felt as if I was in a nightmarish club no one would ever want to join, and I couldn’t get out. It felt impossible.
I was heartbroken, scared, and totally unsure how to proceed. In fact, I could not even imagine proceeding at all. I was also angry, sad, and thinking life was completely unfair; longing to return to a time before the accident happened. I imagined life was simpler then, and I wanted that back. I actually fantasized about time going backward so I could have a “do-over” with a different outcome. But since that wasn’t possible, I was left to somehow cope with circumstances I never imagined for myself. I definitely did not sign up for this.
Recollections of Loss
“Are you Ruth Field?” asked one of the three grim-faced officers who appeared at my door that Sunday night.
“Are you the mother of David Field?” he clarified.
“Yes,” came my robot-like answer as time slowed and reality splintered crazily. The officer took my trembling hand in his and pronounced a script I will never forget.
“This evening, David was involved in a very serious accident, and his injuries were so severe that he was not able to survive. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
This was my ending – of life as I knew it. Somehow, I had to understand that my handsome, smart, successful, beloved 26-year-old son had stopped living in the last few hours. I remember screaming “NO!” and losing the ability to stand. All I could do at that moment was say no to everything as my world seemed to collapse around me.
Agony, agony. I was in shock and disbelief; I couldn’t wrap my mind around any information. I could not understand simple sentences or know what to do next. Functioning in any kind of reasonable way was impossible. Looking at my surroundings produced wild distortions like mirrors in a carnival fun-house.
Time slowed, and I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and had the wind knocked out of me. Everything felt surreal and distant in those early days of shock, which delayed the beginning of active grieving in an important and necessary way.
A Different Approach
Inhabiting reality; stepping into the pain. Letting it wash over you, pounding and wounding … this is the challenge of grief. It’s learning to tolerate discomfort, to look heartbreak in the eye and still breathe.
Over 30 years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously detailed five stages that have come to be known as the Five Stages of Grief. (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 45-60.)
They include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. My research indicates she was actually noting what people go through in the process of accepting their own terminal illness and impending death; not necessarily the death of a loved one. However, her framework came to be accepted as the process by which we navigate all grief.
When it comes to mourning the death of loved ones, here is what I’ve learned. I don’t believe our emotions are so predictable and linear that they will fall into any neat structure. Nor do I think anyone ever completes an aspect of grieving with a sense of accomplishment and readiness to tackle the next one.
I don’t even believe we are ever finished with the grief process, much to our friends’ and Families’ frustration. Grieving does change and evolve, as do we with time. We weave new truths and understandings into the fabric of our reality, and ultimately, see the entire tapestry as a necessary, meaningful product of those changes. Our losses are thus bound into the backdrop of our lives.
Grieving is not meant to help us get over what happened; it allows us to incorporate the loss into the rest of our lives. The experience of grief is as individual as we are, with overlapping and recurring waves. I believe our job is to ride the waves and learn to rest in the calm between them.
Loss is unavoidable. Because we are all human, everyone eventually dies. Sooner or later, we will experience the death of someone we love; it’s impossible to get through a lifetime without that.
It’s much easier to cope with losing someone at the end of their natural lifetime from what seem to be natural causes. Of course, we’re sad and never really ready for them to go, but it makes sense in a world that should follow our expectations. As I’ve said, it’s shattering to cope with losing someone prematurely, suddenly, or through terrible suffering. None of these seems fair, and they’re not.
But there are also new beginnings that come out of those endings. We may be pushed toward them kicking and screaming all the way, and we still find ourselves having to figure out what to do and how to be in this new environment. It’s not an easy task, and I don’t think it comes instinctively.
There are no classes called Grief 101 and no instruction manuals distributed by hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, etc. Everyone acknowledges grieving is an individual pursuit and we may recognize common feelings, but there is no education telling us how to get from a painful ending to a peaceful new beginning.
The Four Facets of Grief
And so, I present in this book a new approach to coping with loss. Instead of trying to identify what stage of grief we’re in, always hoping to be “done” with the chore, I propose that there are facets of the experience that are useful in turning endings into beginnings, thereby, building grief resilience. These facets keep us moving forward in the early days of sadness, through years of incorporating it into our lives, and even into decades of memory.
The Four Facets of grief are purposely stated as verbs in the present continuous tense. Accepting, Adapting, Meaning-Making, and Replenishing all convey action that is current and ongoing. There is no point at which we are finished even though we can certainly be aware of progress. Likewise, there is no implied order. Feel free to read and implement the sections as your interest leads you. Because each of us is so individual, some sections may resonate more fully than others; some may grab you, threatening never to let go, while others may seem barely relevant. Trust your instincts; the sections are there to enhance your thought process. If something doesn’t seem important, you may have already started working through that facet or may not be ready yet to do so. Either one is okay.
Another important note is that the facets are not mutually exclusive. You don’t finish one before moving on to another. In fact, they overlap and co-occur all the time. You do, however, get to choose which facet you will explore at any given moment. The more you play around with them, the more you will begin to sense how they fit together for you.