The Myth of the 5 Stages of Grief

Those 5 stages of grief most of us are familiar with came from Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross about 50 years ago. They were Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. What most people don’t know is that they were framed around the idea of a grief resulting from learning that one was dying, not that someone (or something) had died. The concept was then generically applied to all kinds of grieving, and somewhere, somehow, lost in the translation were other feelings and emotions that also occur during grief.  This list includes

  • shock
  • sadness
  • blame
  • forgetfulness
  • guilt
  • searching
  • isolation
  • disorganization
  • forgiveness
  • confusion
  • hope
  • exhaustion
  • recovery
  • adjustment.

These feelings don’t occur sequentially, and they aren’t all necessary for one to fully grieve. Some of them will ricochet and recur. It doesn’t matter if you are grieving the loss of a person close to you, or an idea or dream you had, or plans in the making. Or a presidential term.

Transition

I have been learning about grieving for the past two years since my husband died.  I also learned about the transition time that occurs after the grievable event.  First there must be a letting go of the past, the person, the dreams, a time when our feelings are right at the surface and seem uncontrollable. Then there is a neutral time when feeling are sorting themselves out, searching for answers, trying on new routines, and re-entering the world.  Finally, there is a new beginning. A time of new patterns that stick, new relationships, new ways of thinking, a new normal.  It is all quite subjective, dependent upon the person and the circumstances. Let’s use this model to consider our election yesterday.

Subjective to Objective: a PMI Lesson

One other valuable lesson I learned is how to move from that place where I was stuck in subjective thinking about Poor Me to being more objective re: my future.  I recalled an old method I used from teaching about how to expand my thinking and calm (if not remove) emotional reactions to the situation…eventually. Not everything is positive or negative, pro or con, good or bad, right or wrong.  A great many things just are. They are interesting, or just worth noticing, without labeling. It helped me be open-minded about my new future and changed my attitude, and it took me several months to get to this stage. It really was a turning point to be able to honor my feeling without being attached to them or justify them.  But I was able to finally move beyond wherever I was stuck to a new place or new way of thinking.  It was active, so I could finally really “let go” and anticipate my recovery.

The way a PMI works is that you take an event, and you make an effort to find the good points (Plus), the bad points (Minus) and the neutral (Interesting) points .. neither good nor bad but still there in the mix. When Kevin died, it was hard, but not impossible, to find any good or Plus points: no pain for him, no fear, no expensive medical heroics, no incapacitation.  The bad or Minus points were more obvious: he was gone, I had no companion for dinner or date for New Year’s Eve, he couldn’t see his grandchildren grow up or take them hunting and fishing, my financial outlook was gouged, dog care and home maintenance became new chores for me.  On the interesting side, a challenging task, I was single for the first time in my adult life, perhaps I took it for granted that marriage is best because I was used to it, or that working for an employer or having dual income sources was safer because I had always done it that way. Two steps forward, one step back …is still forward progress.

In terms of the presidential election, I’ll admit that neither candidate seemed all that worthy to me, but they were the choices we gave ourselves. This is important to remember, since in most grief, the choice of loss is never ours to begin with, and that feeling of loss of control or helplessness is often disabling and frustrating.  On the Plus side, we get to vote in this country, and many more people got involved in the election than in the past.  We saw our first serious woman candidate. And the campaigning is over for now. I haven’t tried too hard to find more on this side. On the Minus side, the campaigning brought out the worst in not only the candidates but in their supporters and opponents.  The billions of dollars spent could have been put to much better use for people in need.  The stock market has plunged already. And the list goes on.   But then there is the Interesting side.  It is interesting that the polls and predictions were so far off.  It is interesting that the president-elect’s own party did not stand behind him publicly, yet he won. It will be interesting to see if he can deliver on his campaign promises. It will be interesting to watch how Congress responds to him. It will be interesting to find out who he selects as advisors and cabinet members, or if his nominees will be approved. It will be interesting to see if there is a sustained engagement by the people at local levels. It will be interesting to see if he can win in 4 more years, or to see who the Democrats will support then.

What Next?

This isn’t over yet. I am glad there will be a time of formal transition in Washington. This is a time when the healing begins, when we watch with curiosity, with speculation, and regain our balance.  During this time we also must take care of ourselves, put away any blame for the way it is or how things got this way, and forgive the process if it didn’t give us what we thought we wanted.  We should try and find a way to help instead of hinder the growth that can come from this. It may feel unnatural to bypass our emotional reactions, but in the best interests of our collective future, we must try.

Finally, I have learned from my introspection during this sabbatical of mine that grief doesn’t have to last forever, and love doesn’t have to die…and I mean love for ideals and dreams as much as for people. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. Care as much tomorrow as you do today about what you say matters to you. If you want change, what are you willing to do to make that happen? If you want tolerance, practice tolerance. If you want a voice, act..with constructive energy. Don’t let this election drama be for naught.

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