The idea of there being stages of grief has been greatly popularized and accepted over the last few decades. It is an idea that gives us perspective on our grief, like the red dotted line going across a map in an old movie to show the itinerary of the protagonists.
However, among professionals, theses stages have been slowly phased out of use over the years for lack of evidence from both research and casual observation.
Now, the old saying that “If you have a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail” comes to mind. Our preconceptions predispose us to experience things a certain way. If we look at our thoughts, feelings, and actions during grief, surely some of it will fit into the five stages Kübler-Ross described: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This is because these are some of the reactions to loss. Yet these reactions do not tell the whole, or accurate, story of our grief experience.
Most people, according to recent research, do not arrive at acceptance last. Even when people express feeling shock and numbness, they have accepted their loss—they know that someone has died, or that they are divorced, or that they lost their jobs. Wishing something has not happened, or forgetting something that has happened, or feeling the surreal quality of what has occurred, is not the same as denying that it ever happened. To be truly in denial, we cannot consciously acknowledge what it is we deny, for the sake of our psychological well being. It is the very opposite of acceptance.
These days, new knowledge about how we grieve is beginning to filter through and influence how professionals provide grief counseling, and, it is hoped, how we support each other in grief as lay people. There is no longer any point in insisting that someone go through a stage he or she appears to be “skipping” or to feel that one is not “grieving right” if one does not experience certain stages of grief.
According to researchers Stroebe and Schut, we grieve by swinging between two main kinds of activities: loss and restoration.
Loss activities involve missing who or what was lost, crying, feeling sad, etc. This is what we usually associate with grief.
Restorative activities include feeling normal again, socializing with friends and family, enjoying good weather, remembering better times, etc. This is usually the unsung hero in grief, because it looks like what we think of as “normal” behavior, but in the context of grief, it is definitely a part of the experience of mourning and also what helps us to endure, and eventually integrate, our losses into our lives.
The back and forth of our thoughts, feelings, and actions between loss and restoration also give us a different road map for our grief. Rather than conceptualizing ourselves as “backsliding” or “getting worse when I thought I was getting better,” which happens with an idea like stages, using a model of grief that recognizes a natural and wavy progress helps us to know that we are moving forward, even when wistfulness strikes unexpectedly after some time basking in the sun.
It is natural to miss and yearn for someone, just as it is natural to feel better. We may not always want to feel better for fear of forgetting our loved ones or not showing how much we loved by how inconsolable we are, but it is part of our humanity that we can grieve and heal, lose and reconnect. Our pain helps us to remember, but let us not forget that our joy has the same capacity, too.
Stroebe, M., Henk S. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: rationale and description. Death Studies 23, 197-224.
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