As we know grief is a very strange and difficult experience. It is not something to be taken lightly, Grief must be respected and given its due. To successfully navigate grief, one must face it – “lean in to the pain,” as one unknown author expressed it. That is not a very encouraging prospect, I know.
When I begin counseling the bereaved, they are often distraught and explain that they are living in a foreign world that they have not experienced before, and they truly do not know what to do about it. It’s a disturbing and frightening experience to face. Often, I find that explaining grief and a grief model is a helpful way to reduce the tension and give them a sense of direction and purpose of what they may need to do. There are a variety of grief models that have been proposed by various mental health professionals, the most famous being Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, & acceptance). Oddly enough, Dr. Kubler-Ross’ research was with dying patients, but the stages seemed to fit the bereaved as well. It is important to disclose that these stages don’t fit a linear progression through grief. Instead, a bereaved person may go from one to another and back again. To me, it seemed more like phases that the bereaved would experience throughout the grieving process. It failed to give a grieving individual the grounding they seek for where they are and where they must go. Early in my career as a grief counselor I began to research grief models and found that I thought was simple to understand where you were in the process, and where and what you might want to do. So the one I pass on to my clients is a three-stage grief model that was posited by Dr. Roberta Temes . This is how it works, with suggestions of what to do in each stage.
In this first stage, the tasks largely involve dealing with the initial emotional shock and disorientation often brought by death. This leads to overwhelming emotions, reduced functioning, confusion, memory lapses, being unable to focus, and even physical symptoms.
It is helpful in this stage to seek support from loved ones and/or professionals. It is also important to find positive coping skills such as exercise, good diet, writing in a journal, gardening, meditation, and probably a good idea to contact your physician for a general checkup.
Although the initial impact of the death has passed, emotions are often deeply felt during this stage. The bereaved face and must deal with the changes that the death has brought and often challenges to their beliefs about the way things should be. This stage incorporates the most active aspects of grief work. It’s not that this stage is any more intense than the first stage – in fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anything could be more intense than the period immediately following a loss. But during this stage, people are likely to become deeply immersed in their feelings, and very internally focused. It’s also quite common for the bereaved to undergo a “deconstruction” of their values and beliefs, as they question why their loved one was taken from them.
Suggestions for this stage include contending with reality, development of insight, reconstructing personal values and beliefs; acceptance and letting go. This is where a grief professional can help navigate through this process.
In this final stage many issues about the death have been resolved, and the bereaved more fully begin to reclaim and move on with their lives. This stage is generally thought to be one marked by “recovery” from grief. But the loss of someone close leaves a permanent mark on people’s lives in the sense that things can’t be restored to the way they were before the death. However, people can begin to rebuild, creating a new life for themselves and re-engaging with the world around them. As this stage ends, the bereaved become reconciled to the death itself, and the changes it’s brought to their lives. Perhaps most important, they begin to live in the present, rather than the past, re-establish who they are in the world, and plan a future.
The primary tasks of this stage are development of social relations, decisions about changes in lifestyle, renewal of self-awareness, and acceptance of responsibility.
To reiterate, this is a nice simple model. The progression through grief and its stages is not easy. There can be many stumbling blocks along the way. As difficult as they are, they can be the gifts of grief as you work through them.
By Jim Reiser MA, LMFT
Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice of the North Coast
If you have any questions or you think you might want to talk to a trained professional, please call us at the Hope Bereavement Center. Our number is (760) 431-4100, and my name is Jim Reiser, the Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice of the North Coast.