Chances are, you’ve heard of the stages of grief Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” The stages are:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

It is a very nice idea that you can break grief down into defined segments that have a clear beginning and end. This way, you would know when you’re done with one stage and when to move onto the next in progression until you’ve accepted the death and come to peace with it. It would be nice…but reality isn’t so simple most of the time.

A common misconception about the stages of grief

For several months after my 4-year-old daughter’s sudden death in 2009, I saw a psychologist who specialized in end-of-life and grief counseling. When I asked about the stages of grief I had previously heard of, she said she had actually studied under Dr. Kübler-Ross when she was younger. She explained that one of the most common misunderstandings about the stages of grief is that Dr. Kübler-Ross was using them to describe the similar experiences of many terminally ill people facing their impending deaths – not of someone who had lost a loved one. However, since grief from losing a loved one shares very similar emotional responses, the stages of grief became widely assigned to both those who were dying and those they left behind.

Most explanations of the stages of grief now include the caveat that grief is a unique journey and many people don’t experience these stages in a prescribed order, and some may never experience all five of the stages. Instead of a roadmap, these “stages” might be more accurately described as “reactions” to grief, and should be used to help us understand some of the more common emotions experienced on the journey of grief.

Choosing a new vocabulary

The problem with words is that they may carry different meanings to different people based on personal experience. The five stages didn’t particularly resonate with me because my definition of those words didn’t seem to match what I was experiencing. In hindsight, and from my perspective of losing a 4-year-old child in a sudden accident, I would change these words so that they might better describe some of the common experiences shared by those who’ve lost a loved one.

1. Devastation instead of Denial

When someone hears that they are terminally ill, I can understand why they might deny the validity or reality of their diagnosis. After all, we continually hear feel-good stories of people who beat the odds, or were misdiagnosed, or found some alternative treatment that miraculously cured them. It would be expected that their instinctual survival mode would kick in and they would convince themselves that they will be one of the lucky ones…because the alternative is too scary to accept.

In the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, the pain is so overwhelming it is impossible to comprehend how you can survive it. You cannot wrap your mind around how you will go on living in a world that no longer includes your loved one. The word that best describes how I felt during this time was complete and utter devastation.

Just like the denial of a terminally ill person, in an attempt to avoid the pain, your mind can pretend the death didn’t really happen. You might continually expect them to walk through the door, or be on the other end of the phone when it rings. You might keep telling yourself that this has to be a nightmare that you’ll soon wake up from. While some people never experience these illusions, for others it can go on for months or even years. But unlike a terminally ill patient who is told of a future probability that hasn’t happened yet – and therefore is not absolute – you cannot change the fact that your loved one died. You are simply trying to avoid the devastating pain that comes with that reality.

2. Anger is still Anger, but also Avoidance

There is no denying that with any kind of loss, you are bound to experience some amount of anger. You may be angry if you feel your loved one’s death was avoidable – especially if it was at the hands of someone else. You might be angry at God. You may be angry at yourself. You can become angry at your family and friends for saying unhelpful (or even hurtful) things to you and not supporting you in the way you want them to. You may even be angry at your loved one for dying. Many people often become angry that the rest of the world continues to go on, not seeming to acknowledge or care that you just lost one of the most important people in your life and you can’t figure out how you’re going to live without them.

I’ve read before that sometimes anger is your mind’s way of deflecting other, more vulnerable emotions you don’t want to experience. These could include fear, shame, guilt, helplessness, or simply a pain so deep and intense, you have not yet developed the tools you need to deal with it. Anger, on the other hand, is familiar. It is a primal defense against external threats. Yet anger isn’t meant to be prolonged or a tool for avoidance. You shouldn’t deny your anger, yet you shouldn’t let it keep you from learning how to better understand and then deal with all of those scarier, more vulnerable emotions.

3. Bargaining is replaced by “What if…?”

I can understand how a terminally ill person would feel compelled to try to change the prognosis by trying to make a deal with God or the universe. But in the case where our loved one has already died, we no longer have any bargaining power. Instead, many people find themselves replaying the events that led up to their loved one’s death in their heads in a futile attempt to re-engineer how the outcome might have been altered. The bargaining of a terminally ill person is replaced by, “What if…?”

What if they had gone to the doctor sooner? What if they hadn’t gone on that fateful trip? What if we had understood the warning signs for what they were instead of brushing them aside? What if, what if, what if…? There are endless variations of decisions we could have made and actions we could have taken. Many of us go through this heart-wrenching exercise in a desperate attempt to regain the previously held illusion that we are in control over what happens to us in our lives. But try as we might, all of these “What if…?” scenarios only end in feelings of regret, helplessness, guilt, or misery. The sooner we decide to stop asking, “What if…,” the sooner we are able to begin the slow journey of tending to our broken hearts.

4. Overwhelmed replaces Depression

Read a list of the symptoms of depression when you’ve recently lost someone dear to you, and you’ll likely identify with most of them. However, I’ve heard some psychologists and grief counselors argue that instead of calling it clinical Depression, it is simply our natural response to such a significant loss. It includes feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness. It causes complete and utter exhaustion, sore muscles, loss of appetite or mindless eating. It can cause severe insomnia or feeling the urge to escape a painful reality with constant sleep. It can even bring feelings of wanting to end your life; thinking it is the only way you’ll ever escape the unrelenting pain. Regardless of whatever you or others want to call it, it is what it is: completely overwhelming.

When the overwhelming feelings and emotions interfere with your ability to go back to work or just go about your daily life, some people choose to take medication. Others oppose it. Regardless of what you decide is best for you, the important thing to remember is that what you are experiencing is a normal reaction to such a devastating loss. In my personal experience, it is important that you be patient with yourself and allow all of these feelings to wash over you in order to process them and eventually let them go. The more you try to repress them, the longer they will stay.

5. Acceptance becomes Healing

In the case of a terminally ill patient, I think the idea of acceptance is to stop fighting, and find a way to come to peace with the inevitable reality of impending death. I can imagine this is the most difficult step of all…and some may never reach it. Similarly, some who have lost a loved one – a child in particular – may never come to “accept” the death. To many, acceptance often implies agreement or approval. To others, acceptance may imply severing ties to a past we cannot let go of. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean any of this. In the case of losing a loved one, acceptance may simply mark the moment we are ready to begin our journey of healing.

Our loved one is dead; we can’t change that. Instead, we have two choices. First, we can choose to stay wrapped up in a security blanket of misery. Why? Some feel it is the strongest, most palpable connection we have left to our loved one. It may feel as though we would be betraying or diminishing our love for them if we were to ever be happy in a world without them. I have been there myself, and place no judgment on those who are not ready to leave that world.

When you are ready, you can choose to begin to find a new way forward in a world that may not include our loved one, but continues to acknowledge and incorporate the deep, profound love we still feel – and always will. We can choose to embrace the overwhelming pain and learn from it. We can learn what matters most to us, and then invite more of it into our lives. We can learn to allow joy and happiness back into our lives. We can choose to heal.

Those are my choices for new words to replace the traditional “stages” of grief. If those don’t resonate with you, then replace them with ones that do. Ultimately, the stages – or reactions – of grief are only there to let you know you’re not alone in this journey.

Wishing you peace.

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Maria Kubitz

Maria Kubitz lost her four year old daughter in a drowning accident in 2009. In her grief journey, Maria continually tries to find ways to learn from the pain, and maintain a loving, healthy environment for her four other children. She volunteers as newsletter editor at a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, and in 2012, Maria created – a blog about learning to live with grief.

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