Grief is a natural response to loss whether it be the passing or serious illness of a loved one or a pet, or the loss of something we cherish such as a relationship, a job, a treasured keepsake or even a familiar routine. Although the focus is typically on the emotional or psychological response, grief can also impact our physical health and cause not just physical pain and stress but also cognitive, behavioral and social issues as well.
In her book “On Death and Dying”, a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who had spent years working with terminally ill people divided grief into five stages which widely became known as the Kübler-Ross model or simply “The Five Stages of Grief”. This was later modified and extended, adding two more stages. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no set pattern or number of stages that applies to everyone and every situation. Some people’s experiences might be more complicated or traumatic than others. Some of us may only relate to a couple of these stages, and some may relate to them all. But to help explain that you’re not alone and that it’s normal to feel the things that you’re feeling, we’ll use these seven stages as a basic starting point.
GwG’s own Jimmy Van will use his personal experiences when explaining each stage.
My sister’s cancer diagnosis came just five months after my father passed away from another form of cancer, and my sister was just 48 years old at the time of diagnosis so it goes without saying that it was a shock. This is a natural reaction of course; I didn’t believe it, and it just so happened that I found out minutes before I was scheduled to appear on a live podcast. I did the podcast, and as soon as it was over I’d forgotten the topics we’d discussed.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you deny that the event that’s occurring is real. It’s more of an attempt to avoid the pain of the loss. Some people deny that they’re having a hard time with it or that they’re affected by the event. Oftentimes, denial is due to a lack of understanding or not having the full details surrounding the event. For me, I denied that my sister’s diagnosis was as serious as it was, as well as how affected I was by it.
Feelings of disbelief can oftentimes turn into frustration and anger. “Why is this happening to me?” is a common feeling. It’s very normal to feel angry with yourself for the loss of control that often accompanies grief. In my case again with my sister’s diagnosis coming so soon after my father’s passing, I definitely had “Why her, why now?” ange. Oftentimes people target their anger to a specific source, such as religion, or a doctor, or even the person who shared the bad news. For me, I admittedly turned sour against whatever spiritual or religious feelings were left within me.
This is an attempt to regain control. During this stage, a person tries to find a way to escape the pain. I spent a lot of time thinking about the future. “Okay if we do this or do that, then this will happen.” I would encourage my sister to stay active because I saw how my father’s inactivity contributed to him losing his ability to walk before he passed. And I started to seek out clinical trials and other treatments believing that one of them would essentially cure my sister.
When bargaining fails and a person realizes they have no control over a situation, they may enter a state of depression. I was fortunate to have a young family and two rambunctious children who made it difficult to be in this state for very long. But admittedly I did have moments of depression where I thought about life without my sister, and worried about my elderly mother losing her husband and daughter so quickly. Depression is a natural stage of grief, and something we all go through as we move towards peace of mind.
This is when a person in a depressed state looks for things to do to help them cope and crawl out of that dark space. You might look at these activities as trial-and-error “experiments” to see if doing them helps you in your situation. As an activity starts to work, you’ll find that you’d rather be doing that than stay in your depressed state and so it helps you overcome. For me, that desire to find an outlet to help me cope led to the creation of GwG.
This is the stage when the grieving person accepts reality. This doesn’t mean that you’re over the situation, but it means that you’re able to deal with it and move forward. For me, I found solace in the fact that my sister no longer had to suffer. I believe she’d been in more pain than she’d led on not just due to her cancer diagnosis, but also the arthritis and diabetes that she’d been dealing with prior to that. To this day I’m not sure I’ve accepted the fact that she’s gone, but I have accepted the fact that she doesn’t have to suffer anymore, and I carry on for my family and especially for my children.