Not All Is Lost: How Grief Transforms Us

Red rose on gravestone in cemetery“Go into your grief, for there your soul will grow.” —Carl Jung

Grieving is a powerful and personal journey. It is an inevitable part of living. Eventually we all grieve something or someone. If you’ve lost a child or parent, or a friend, lover, or spouse, you know that grief has the power to transform.

We usually live within the illusion that we are in control. That is, we live a certain way until something happens to shatter our perception. The resulting dissolution—or you might say dis-illusion—that follows is actually the beginning of a remarkable process of being healed. It marks the first stage in the grief journey.

Stages of Grief

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss American psychiatrist, introduced the “five stages of grief.” Her work with people who had terminal cancer led her to define the five distinct phases a dying person goes through while coming to terms with their fate:

  • Denial: Disbelief, shock, and numbness after hearing the “bad” news.
  • Anger: When the numbness lifts, anger may be easier to feel than the intense pain associated with what is being lost. This free-flowing anger can be directed inward toward the self or outward toward doctors, nurses, friends, family, spiritual advisors, and/or God.
  • Bargaining: For some, bargaining can be a reaction to the vulnerability that occurs when feeling the sorrow of loss. It can be an attempt to feel more in control of a situation where control just isn’t possible. It is characterized by an attempt to seek the impossible; to find a way out.
  • Depression: The full impact of the unmasked impending loss of life finally hits, and feelings of sorrow, sadness, and depression follow.
  • Acceptance: Coming to terms with what is happening and finding a way forward.

While many have applied these stages to the process of grieving the death of another person, it was not Kübler-Ross’ intention that they be used this way when she created the model. There are other models that are more specific to grieving the loss of a loved one that are used by grief counselors and therapists. While the stages described by these models differ somewhat, like Kübler-Ross’ model they all chronicle a journey-type process that leads to acceptance and the eventual ability to once again move forward.

Acknowledging Brokenness; Being Present

When the shock of sudden loss subsides, the numbness that initially accompanies that shock wears off as well. A pain-filled state ensues when the harsh reality of loss is realized. This early phase of grief is about brokenness. When we experience a loss, the bond that once attached us to the other—whether the other is a person, place, or thing—is severed. When the bond that ties is severed, we feel as though we have been broken. It is a painful and searing state; a state that can’t be rushed.

What a grieving person in this stage needs most is to feel that those they are closest to can accept the pain they are experiencing. Unfortunately, many people are uncomfortable with their thoughts and ideas about endings and death. The feelings that arise with grief are just too much for them. Their attempts, aimed at getting a grieving person to feel better and leave the sorrow behind, only serve to prolong the grief process.

A kind touch and a shared quiet moment that honors the feelings of a grief-stricken friend can be the best offering of condolence. A willingness to simply be present, to witness and accept the raw emotions of grief, is the first step in a transformative and healing process for both the bereaved and those who surround them.

Support Groups

The feelings that come with grief are powerful. Grieving takes time, and often the family and friends of a grief-stricken person are ready to move on long before the grieving one can or wants to. Support groups are a viable option for those who find themselves alone in their grief. Being able to share the experience with others on the same path may be a relief. Since the grieving process is different for everyone, a support group can accommodate these differences. Some studies suggest that men and women grieve differently, with women needing to speak about and share their intense feelings with others while men often deal with their own intense emotions by taking action. In a support group setting, all experiences can be heard, shared, and validated.

Widows and widowers in the gay community often have difficulty finding the support needed while experiencing the grief of bereavement. Even finding a support group can be difficult. Blogger Dan Cano writes poignantly about his experience after finally finding a support group where he could speak freely and be understood:

“I started my lesbian and gay bereavement group a few weeks ago, and every Thursday night we gather to tell our stories. We share of our history with our partners, lovers, husbands and wives. We share the trauma of losing the most central person in our lives. We tell of our difficult goodbyes, and of the daily anguish that we must now endure. We talk about being left behind, of feeling lost, of struggling with a new identity. We talk of people’s well intended, but missing the mark, words. We cry, we laugh, we listen.”

What We Learn from Grief

When we sit in stillness and accept the waves of grief that wash over, eventually there will come a time when the urge to move will stir. It will be quiet, unassuming, and almost imperceptible. From intense feelings over what has been lost there will arise a feeling of gratitude for what is remaining. When experiencing the loss of a loved one, an inevitable gratitude for life and living unfolds. The gift of grief is ultimately a strengthening of the ability to truly appreciate and value the process of being alive.

References:

  1. Greenspan, Miriam. Healing Though the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear & Despair. Shambhala Publications Inc. Boston, Massachusetts, 2003.
  2. Hanson, Rick, Ph.D. (2007). Grief Recovery: Implication of Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. Retrieved from: http://www.wisebrain.org/KaraSlides.pdf on 21/06/2014.
  3. Cano, Daniel (2009). Gay Grief. Retrieved from http://daninrealtime.blogspot.ca/2009/11/gay-grief.html on 22/06/2014.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ellie

    Ellie

    July 2nd, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    I know that experiencing my own grief over the loss of my husband has taught me so many things about life that I never understaood before. I guess I had a small idea of how fleeting life could be but until I felt that loss so personally it was like understanding it ws out of my reach. There are things that you learn about yourself that you are not so grateful for and then other things that you learn that make you wonder why you didn’t know or understand this sooner. Yes there are things to be learned and not all of it is pleasant but all of it is a part of learning via the sadness and the heartbreak, which is at least one good thing that you can take from the loss.

  • Karen

    Karen

    September 7th, 2014 at 3:06 AM

    I’m interested in what you learnt. Can you be bothered, it’s ok if you can’t just interested

  • Graham

    Graham

    July 3rd, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    Support groups are an excellent lifeline that I honestly believe too few people make use of.
    I think that there are times that we could all benefit but we are ashamed of our personal emotions pr afraid of what others would say about us.
    These groups are formed as a tool and resource for support that is not otherwise available. There will be people there who can relate to what you are feeling and can give you some ideas and thoughts on how you will eventually make it to the other side of this grief.
    You can even go and say nothing, just take in what others are thinking and feeling and sometimes just this can be a huge help for you.

  • celia

    celia

    July 4th, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    Grief can also make you cold and hardened if you let it. There are those instances where you wonder why this happened, or what you may have done to prevent it but the thruth is that everything happens for a reason and even though we may not understand those reasons it is important for you to at least work through that grief or otherwise you will become someone that you aren’t even able to recognize anymore.

  • Vero

    Vero

    July 5th, 2014 at 8:49 PM

    Yes I have felt that. It is harder to connect with others at times and you become guarded.

  • Karen I

    Karen I

    August 13th, 2014 at 12:10 AM

    Opening our hearts, transforming our losses is helpful for those who experience loss (death or otherwise-divorce etc) from anothers addiction…

  • Cassie

    Cassie

    August 13th, 2014 at 7:18 AM

    It is my understanding that the Kubler-Ross model of grief has been replaced by a “task” model of grief. Brief summary here: hospiceslo.org/resource-library/wordens-4-tasks-grief

  • Deb

    Deb

    November 16th, 2014 at 7:35 PM

    Do we all go through these stages because I didn’t . Maybe it was because I was a Hospice nurse for 10 years ? Maybe because my Mom was older and she was ready to go ? Her death made me fear death and I had a crisis about dying and where do we go …. and that I’m next ! I know my mom is happier not being here on this earth .. She missed her husband terribly and didn’t like being old ! So …. is that weird ? It’s been 2 years and I am still freaked out about dying . I used to know exactly how I wanted to be disposed of … cremation . Now it freaks me out . Has anyone had this experience ?

  • Yvonne P.

    Yvonne P.

    November 17th, 2014 at 4:44 AM

    I have recently experienced the loss of my mum, she had passed away following a tragic accident at her home. I don’t think I cry every day but when I do its very painful, the loss is so profound I was not initially prepared for the loss I thought my mum would be here for much longer, I hope she knew we were there for her.Its a lonely road to travel down and I think it’s healthy to let people know how things are with you when they ask if it’s still raw then that’s how it is we shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling our pain our loss.

  • Chrissy

    Chrissy

    January 8th, 2015 at 4:51 PM

    I need help. My mom died four months ago after I had to take care of her for four years. I carry such guilt and sadness. Did I do the right thing having hospice come in? No feeding tube? My sisters live out of state and were little help. My children and husband were and are wonderful, but during the past year of my extreme stressed state, in an attempt to escape responsibilities of life, I made choices and did things that I’m not proud of, and still am doing. I contemplate suicide in my mind a hundred times a week, but don’t think I’d quite bring myself to hurt my family by ending my life. I want to. Life is so difficult for me. I take in everyone’s problems and am manipulated because of it by one of my alcoholic sisters. I don’t know how to handle the pressure of life and family and deal with the loss of my mom.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 8th, 2015 at 8:41 PM

    Please use this for comments where people are in crisis:

    Thank you for your comment, Chrissy. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Hope

    Hope

    March 11th, 2015 at 3:59 PM

    Dear Chrissy,
    My heart goes out to u. I to list my mother almost two years ago after taking care of her for over 18 years, with similar circumstance as u with having hospice come. My brother was 37 years old and had a son and committed suicide 8yrs ago and his death destroyed my family and myself in ways I never thought possible. It left me with a sister that was a severe drug addict, 5 children, none of which lived with her and the only other help I had was my two kids, my husband, a son in law and daughter in law to help with her and take shifts to watch her. My life completely revoked around my mother. She was my best friend as was my brother. On April 3,2013 I woke up to find my mom had passed away during the night and that absolutely killed me. Two months later my brother widow and the the greatest sister in law passed away and two moths after that a child hood best friend. Every since then my life had seemed meaningless, empty, and dark. I dont talk to people except my kids and husband and niece and one nephew. I don’t go out or visit anyone cause when I do I truly feel like I’m gonna die. People keep telling me I need to move on and I tell them until u have walked in my shoes don’t tell me to move on. I know how u feel. I go through similar things each and every day. But I will say plz don’t take ur life. My brothers suicide has destroyed what family I had left and has destroyed the person I once was. He never realized what taking his own life was gonna do to the ones that were left behind. I found him hanging in a tree behind his home while my mom was in icu not knowing if she was gonna make it or not, and a sister in the e.r for an overdose. Now my sin is doing things he shouldn’t and when he gets upset and my brothers son to the first thing they say is their gonna kill themselves. I’ve heard ooh it will get easier well that’s a lie it’s been 8 yrs since my brother, 1yr and 11 months on my mom and 1yr and 9 months on my sister in law, 1yr and 7 moths on my bff, and over ,25 on my dad all u can do I grieve in ur own way, and when and if u ever want to our feel like u can start getting help then do it. But just take one day at a time one got in front of another and ur kids and husband will b there for u when u need them.

  • Jayne

    Jayne

    April 27th, 2015 at 11:27 PM

    Hi chrissy
    You will hear loads of stories of loss and how people coped through their horrible time. I to lost both my parents within 2 years of each other and cared for both of them. I hit rock bottom when my mum died as I had to make the decision to put her in a hospice as I couldn’t cope. Needless to say neither of my big strong brothers coped either. The guilt I felt was choking and despair was horrendous My wonderful husband and children’s words of kindness and support is what got me through the dark days. They were scared and confused at the decline in me and rather than acting out they supported me enough for me to decide to pull myself together lean on your family , accept their advice and their fears. Embrace all they say it will get easier. Good luck in your future I hope this helps. All is not lost xx

  • Douglas

    Douglas

    January 8th, 2015 at 8:55 PM

    Chrissy,

    I’m sorry for the loss. Loss can be very confusing and difficult to understand. Caregiving is a tough role when someone you care about is in hospice. I can’t imagine how difficult your life must feel at this time, yet it will turn around for the better. This is a time to be very compassionate with yourself, exercise extreme self-care and take advantage of the resources the good therapy team has provided above. You are doing the right thing by seeking help.

    Sincerely,
    Douglas Mitchell

  • this has helped me some loosing my mom and being really sad!

    this has helped me some loosing my mom and being really sad!

    September 7th, 2015 at 7:00 PM

    This has helped me in the passing of my mom and loosing relationships!

  • this has helped me some loosing my mom and being really sad!

    this has helped me some loosing my mom and being really sad!

    September 7th, 2015 at 7:01 PM

    But it has been really hard!

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