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  • Writer's pictureDawn Ford

Stages in grief - is there really such a thing?

photo credit: Marek Studzinski -Unsplash

Grief is without doubt the most powerful of all emotions and a completely normal and natural process. Yet despite this we often feel so awkward, either with our own grief or with the grief of others.

It's a Heart thing and yet so many people treat it as a Head thing. For example people often say things like: "Don't cry they wouldn't want you to be sad" or "You'll be OK if you just keep busy" . These may be intellectually truthful for some people, or not as the case may be, but they don't speak to the heart, they are not emotionally helpful. For some people these kind of statements can cause confusion and they can hurt deeply.

Are there stages in grief?

Some of you may have heard of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' work (in palliative care) who identified 5 emotional stages that a dying person might go through after being given a terminal prognosis: denial, anger, bargaining, depression & acceptance. These emotions or processes may be experienced by someone who is dying or indeed experienced by those who care for and love a person who is dying. They were never intended however for those grieving after a death or any other significant life loss. Sadly over time many people have continued to misinterpret & apply these stages to bereavement.

The Grief Recovery Institute recognises that instead of 5 stages of grief, we experience common responses - this sits so much better with my own experiences and that of my clients too.

Common responses:

1. reduced concentration - brain fog and easily distracted.

2. a feeling of numbness - often confused with depression and therefore incorrectly treated with anti-depressants.

3. a change in sleep patterns - insomnia is frequently spoken of.

4. our relationship with food changes - this can go either way; sometimes we feel unable to eat and lose our appetite or the opposite; we find ourselves reaching out to food for comfort (which is often introduced in childhood as a reward for being good, stopping crying etc. - this is another topic in itself).

5. a roller coaster of emotions - periods of energy closely followed by exhaustion.

All of these common responses are fluid, so the length of time we feel them will differ as will the order in which they are experienced, we may even feel they come and go and return again. And that's OK. We may experience all of them or just a few.

We also need to be careful not to make judgement or comparisons between our own grief experience and that of another person. This can result in the person who is currently grieving feeling like they are doing it wrong. It's misguided and a really unhelpful thing to do. What grievers really need is to be listened to with compassion.

Many years ago our society believed that grief was felt initially at 100% and then over a period of time it diminished. This is no longer the belief. We still believe grief is felt at 100% initially, (though there are a few exceptions to this statement as in cases of disenfranchised grief or with inhibited grief) and then it reduces BUT it can also return at 100% intensity in certain times; such as anniversaries, or when you hear that person's favourite song, smell their perfume or visit a favourite place of theirs. Grief is always life affecting, often extremely painful and never linear.

The most important thing to remember is that we all grieve in our own way - grief is as individual and unique as we are. It's impossible to define 'normal grief' because what is normal? However if it gets especially tough and you feel yourself spiralling or unable to cope then reach out for help and talk about your grief, your feelings to another.

* Disenfranchised grief is when you feel forbidden or dissuaded from grieving, for example when it was a secret relationship, or it challenges cultural or religious beliefs. Inhibited grief this is when you choose to keep yourself tirelessly busy or distracted instead of leaning into your emotions.

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