Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance
The 5 Stages of Grieving have evolved since their introduction and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss or trauma that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, hurt and pain as there is no typical loss. Our pain, hurt, trauma and grief is as individual as our lives.
The 5 Stages of Grieving by Kubler Ross are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with what we lost; a person, a freedom, an innocence, a faith, a life and so on. These 5 stages are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief and trauma. Not everyone goes through all of them or in any prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of pains terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life, tragedy, trauma and loss.
This first stage of grieving helps us to survive the trauma. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day. Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of trauma. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. We use defence mechanisms to keep our hurts out of sight and out of mind as much as we can – denial, blaming, black and white thinking and so on.
As you accept the reality of the trauma and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface. This is where you must learn to let them go, hand them over to God as they are out of your control.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process of the 5 Stages of Grieving. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. Thus it is very, very common. We manipulate with anger, we lie, cheat steal, use substances and hurt other people on our anger, including ourselves – often without even realising it!! The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this?
Here is the important bit: Underneath anger is pain, your pain. This is why You need to let it go for YOU. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger. Anger is a type of strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. The absolute mindlessness of hurt, pain and trauma. At first trauma feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who caused trauma, or who allowed it to happen or who didn’t allow any kind of justice with the trauma to happen. Suddenly you have a structure – your anger toward them!! The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing. We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your losses in life, of your pain, sorrow and grief. Letting go of the anger is something you will need to do for yourself, not the other person(s). Sometimes that can never happen. But the letting go is essential to your peace.
Before a trauma, or a diagnosis of ‘cancer’ for example it seems like you will do anything if only you or your loved one would be spared. “Please God, ” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” This is often how we bargain in times of trauma through the 5 Stages of Grieving.
We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumour sooner, stop the sexual abuse, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the trauma and hurt from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. This is a trap! We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We will even self-medicate that pain, and loose more and more of ourselves to the trauma. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt, anywhere but in the present where the pain feels unnatural and unbearable. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one of Kubler Ross’s stages. Learn to let go of the what if’s and the if only’s.
After bargaining, our attention often moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss, or traumatic event in life. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of.
The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in today because of the trauma is actually depressing? You’ll often answer, of course it is. The loss of a loved one, being a victim to trauma, or losing something or a way of life you feel you had before is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience some depression, tension and anxiety after a life changing event would be unusual. When a life disturbance fully settles in your soul, the realization that things may have changed is understandably depressing. If sorrow is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. Instead of cutting off our feelings we must return to embrace them, even if we have to do some grieving. And we do grieving when the time is right. Grieving too, is a process. Begin again here and now, by allowing yourself to grieve loss, forgive yourself and then let go of as much of the trauma as you can by reminding yourself you are moving forward, growing, learning and expanding. You are, in a sense, becoming renewed each day. You are recovering!
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one, or a trauma or a history of abuse. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone, or accepting our scars and wounds and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality in many ways. This is acceptance. There is no magic wand – rather we are destined to accept that learning from what has happened for some reason will benefit self or another down the line of life. That somehow this reality can make a meaning from the meaninglessness. This acceptance is a major part of your forgiveness. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live and grow through.
When someone has died for example we must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing. In trauma we must learn to live as a person who ‘this or that once happened to.’ In continually resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust, we must grieve and accept. We must learn to reorganize our roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves. We must accept things have changed and that these experiences have unwittingly shaped us but certainly don’t define us!
Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved ones or our past. We may never entirely remove the trauma or replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new inter-dependencies. We can make meaning! Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We may even learn to help others. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again.
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