June was a crazy month for me. It started with a celebration of my birth and culminated with the celebration of the life of my aunt. (Talk about peaks and valleys.) Grief is not my favorite topic, but it is something that everyone will experience at some point.
My aunt passed away somewhat unexpectedly two weeks ago, and I’m just really settling into the idea that she has really made the great transition. As the news began to travel among her closest kin and fondest admirers and the official hashtag was established, I longed to express what I felt and how I felt about her, but I couldn’t. My heart could not yet accept what my mind new was real. Even upon seeing her in her resting state, the reality did not sink in, but alas, a reality it was.
It has been many years since a loss impacted me this way, and as my dearest hearts grow further into the winters of their life, I understand that I will be visiting this juncture again in the future. However, this go-round, I have become more astutely aware of how I personally grieve and deal with loss.
When I got the call that a permanent transition might be the outcome for my aunt, I began a deep self-reflection. Had I not prayed enough? Was I not a good enough person for God to honor my request for her healing in the way I wanted? Selfish, I know, but at that moment, I felt that somehow, if I chose to be better, she would get better. Later in the day, I got the call that my aunt had passed away, and I experienced a wide range of emotions in a very short period of time. I felt a surreal numbness at first, followed by aimless frustration and madness, and sadness. Then there was a moment where all my good memories of her flooded my mind, and I existed in suspended reality as if this pivotal moment had not just occurred.
The Five Stages of Grief
In 1969 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross detailed a model of the emotional states of grief in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages described were Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Although these stages are often spoken of in a linear way, I realize now more than ever that each person experiences them uniquely.
Upon getting still and clear, I realized that not only was I grieving in familiar stages, I have also experienced these stages in my living relationships. Grief isn’t just for death. These grieving stages can apply to how we cope with difficult diagnoses, failed relationships, or even broken dreams. This past week, for the first time, I was cognizant of how I typically go through these stages and in what order.
“Lord, I promise to change my ways if you save my loved one.” “Lord, I will treat him/her better if you restore my relationship.” “What can I do to make this person love me?” These questions often come up when we realize an end is imminent. It is very good to stay positive and to have faith. By all means, don’t count God out! But don’t forsake yourself the ability to move forward. If there is guilt involved, repent and forgive yourself! Sometimes the death of a person or a situation opens the door for a more complete healing. Bargaining is a natural part of the grieving process, but know that it doesn’t stop the pain. It only delays it. *Sidenote: In a relationship, you cannot earn unconditional love. If you find yourself trying to do this, release yourself and invest that energy into a healthier cause – YOU.
“This can’t be happening.” You know the situation is not looking good, but you still hang on to the hope things will turn around. Maybe it’s all a bad dream or it’s the wrong person. Denial sounds bad, but it really slows down that Mack truck of hurt and helps us to ease into the grieving process. In dealing with death, there’s usually some representation of that finality, but in broken fellowship, not so much. I’d say in the loss of a living relationship, the denial stage can last indefinitely if you allow it. It is important to confront what is going on in your life and allow yourself the grace to experience all the accompanying emotions. Not for fear of embarrassment, but for your emotional health.
One of the most convenient means of coping with things we don’t understand is through anger. Anger especially sits next to us on the grief bus when a loss is tragic, unnecessary, or a result of wrongdoing toward you. And it’s okay to be angry. It’s real. But it’s also highly inefficient to sit in that anger and allow it fester into bitterness. That anger will eventually motivate you to take action, and quite often it’s not positive. It is important to have support systems and outlets in place to help you channel and release your anger. Start building that structure when you are doing well, so it’s there when you need it most.
A wise man once said, “When I die, I want you to be devastated, but not so much so that you cannot go on.” Sadness is a natural response to losing people and things you actually care about. It typically represents the reality of what is taking place and coming to terms with it. The length and the depth of this experience will be different for each person and circumstance. Don’t let anyone invalidate your feelings. However, depression is also the silent enemy that finds the hole in our hope and fills it with lies. It tells you your life is over and it can’t get any better. Depression tries to sell you a one-way ticket to rock bottom; don’t buy it! Remember that support system we just talked about? Lean on it. And by all means, IT’S OK TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING.
It’s wholly and utterly unfair to expect anyone to be okay or get over a loss that happened to them, especially if it was the loss of a positive source in their lives. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself either. But there comes a time when we must move forward. Acceptance is especially difficult when you don’t have closure or many unanswered questions remain, but is a necessary step in healing. Answers don’t always change the outcome. Moving forward may mean investing in yourself more than you did before or entertaining new relationships. It may mean re-learning who you are without who you lost. Do it in your own time. For me, this stage is typically very delayed. Understand that releasing a person or situation is not betrayal, and it doesn’t always mean giving up. It just makes more room for peace and faith that you will be okay.
Those who sow in tears shall reap in shouts of joy! – Psalms 126:5
Death is literally and figuratively a part of life, and thus, grief is too. No one wants to experience it, no one wants to talk about it, but the grieving process facilitates healing. Whether it be a loved one transitioning from their physical being or the end of a valued relationship, it’s healthy to allow ourselves the room to cycle through all the emotions. You may even go through some more than once! Just know that they all have a purpose toward peace.
Do you have words of encouragement for those who may be coping with grief? Drop some love in comments.