Dealing with Loss and Grief

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” was the first to come up with the model of the Five Stages of Grief. They are: 

  1. Shock and Denial: Initially, individuals may feel disbelief and deny the reality of their situation or the loss they have experienced.
  2. Anger: As the shock wears off, people may feel anger, directing it towards themselves, others, or even the situation itself.
  3. Bargaining: This stage involves attempting to negotiate or make deals, often with a higher power, in a desperate attempt to reverse or postpone the loss.
  4. Depression: Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and emptiness can set in during this stage. It’s a time of mourning and reflection.
  5. Acceptance: This stage involves coming to terms with the loss or impending death. It doesn’t mean happiness or complete resolution, but rather a recognition of the reality and a shift towards moving forward.

 You are, no doubt familiar with the stages and they’ve pretty much come to be completely accepted in our society. However, there’s been plenty of research on the topic since’s Kubler-Ross’ book was published that doesn’t agree with her findings. Also, there’s the thing that the above stages are presented in a linear fashion, once you’re through the Shock & Denial stage you’ll more to Anger and so on but for most people they won’t grieve in a linear fashion and they’ll jump around the stages. 

Also, over the years two more were added, although I don’t believe it was by Kubler Ross:Dealing with Grief and Loss

  1. Hope: Some variations of the model include a stage of hope or reconstruction, where individuals start to find new meaning or purpose in their lives.
  2. Meaning: Another variation suggests a stage of meaning, where individuals find a deeper understanding or personal growth as a result of their experience.

There’s strong evidence too that both the psychological and physiological state we are in at the time of a loss will greatly effect how we deal with said loss in what is called either ‘complicated’ or ‘non-complicated grief‘.

In understanding grief, we need to look, for a moment about how we relate to others, we do this via space, time and closeness. When we lose someone our brains have a massive problem in dealing with this new knowledge. Why? Well, it’s logic enough really. Every time we interact with someone this creates some new information in our brain but when we think about that person when they are gone, the brain struggles with this new information because on the one hand the brain is saving new data but on the other, the person has obviously departed and isn’t physically in our lives while mentally they still very much are.

Imagine in your brain there are server stacks of brain memories. There’s one for Nanna, one for Pop, there’s one for Auntie Gerty etc. And here’s the bank of memories you have for a pet. This bank has been collecting data ever since you decided you wanted a new kitty and all and everything has gone into that database from that day on. But then the cats dies and every thought you have had since the cat passing away also gets stored in the kitty memory bank. But the problem is obviously that the cat is dead and so these new thoughts are getting mixed in with the old thoughts and it leads to confusion for the memory bank. 

Why? Because it’s connecting new thoughts and new memories for an animal that isn’t physically in our life anymore. So, really then when dealing with grief we need to try and do some re-wiring in our brains because the part of our brains that is storing memories doesn’t really understand that a person is gone. This is why we often feel emotions like guilt when grieving. Your brain thinks they’re still alive and so you end up falling into wishful and conditional thinking. I should have done X, I could have done Y, things would be better if Z etc. 

This is all obviously theory and look, my heart goes out to anyone grieving. It’s takes an awful long time to get over someone and we can firmly lay the blame at the feet of modern society on this; most of us are simply not given enough time to grieve when we lose someone anymore. I feel lucky that I’m from rural Ireland and I grew up with funerals all around me and I learned many lessons on bereavement. I even served as an alter boy in my local church for a year and that helped me understand it at an early enough age. What was I, 10, or 11 or thereabouts anyway. The greatest lesson was seeing the community offer support to those dealing with loss. In urban areas though we’re expected to get back to our work and responsibilities far too soon, a week off work just isn’t anywhere nearly as long as what people should get for compassionate leave. But, that’s a gripe for another day. It is what it, unfortunately, is. 

I just want to emphasis a point here too. Every time we think of our lost loved one we’re creating a new memory of them and we cause upset to ourselves when we think in conditional ways. The key then to dealing with grief is that we allow our brains to keep storing new memories of our lost loved ones when we think about them, but in a way that keeps conditional thinking, i.e. the should have, would have, could have, might have, thoughts out. 

Here’s the exercise then to go with the theory:

Put aside however much time you have to spare and think about your lost loved one. Just let whatever thoughts come, come, be they sad, happy and all the many shades of gray in between. Just allow what comes to come of it’s own accord. Once, however, you find yourself thinking in the conditionals of could/would/should/might have then just make a firm outward breath and begin again and continue like this until the time you’re put aside comes to an end.

The purpose of this exercise is threefold. First up, you’re creating new memories for your brain but you’re not allowing regretful/conditional thoughts to tarnish the memories that are already there. Secondly, you’re giving yourself time to grieve and to grieve properly and thirdly, you’re creating a ritual-like practice that honors the person, your relationship with the person and your memories of them.

I hope this will help in some way. If you’re going though a hard time with the loss of a loved one, don’t suffer alone. Reach out to family or friends or I offer grieving counseling so feel free to contact me. All the best and take care.

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