How often do you behave towards others in the way that you clearly know isn't your best way? And how often do you find yourself thinking of others or taking your closest ones for granted, as if they were here forever and immortal?
We are the only species aware of our own ‘expiry’, yet not many live with this knowledge in the same way. Knowing that we will die some day may create anxiety already as early as in childhood. A child experiencing death of a loved person,
This anticipatory grief is somehow representing the beginning of the end in our minds. It is silent, we normally keep it to ourselves, as it is somehow a preparation to our loss ahead.
The stages of loss; denial, anger, bargaining, depressive mood, acceptance can be experienced (either all or just a few) prior to occurrence of the actual loss. They can be triggered by watching a movie with content that awakes our awareness and feelings about it.
We are all unique in experiencing and processing our losses, but most of us pass throughout at least some of the mentioned stages, and we re-live them until we need to. It can be a Denial, Anger, Bargaining, or Depressive Moods, switching between them fast or slow, often or not, until we reach the final stage of Acceptance.
In our path towards understanding loss and our reaction to it the above frame proves to be very useful. It helps us understand and learn how to deal with loss in our most unique way.
Our 'culturally evolved existence' is pushing us to live an illusion of eternal life on earth. We tend to fill our days with so much noise that we can't make space for reflection and thinking about how all the good and the bad things pass, that we all change in our unique ways, and we are not going to be here forever. An illusion makes us focus on pursue of various things, love, money etc. today. Aren't we forgetting to fully appreciate what we’ve already got and who we’ve got around us here and now?
Just as those in Anticipatory Grief may be in denial about their loved one’s dying some day, a person who is grieving loss of a loved one may be in disbelief, state of shock and numbness of feelings. It may be more symbolic than literal because they are aware of the fact of death, and it may mean that one finds himself waiting at home for the loved one to open the door again and walk into the house as usual, or give them a call as they used to. It is common to experience being paralyzed by shock or numbness at the beginning of the denial phase.
We know, we are aware of the fact, but simply cannot believe it. It may be easily too much for our psyche to assume the reality. Denial is somehow a defense mechanism that prevents us from emotional crushing completely.
Examples of such denial phase are mentioned in the book of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler ‘On Grief and Grieving’. One example talks of a spouse whose partner has always been on business travel, until he had an accident and passed away in a foreign country. The spouse organized a funeral and all the details but stayed hooked on to the possibility of the body recognition. Until she saw the loved-one’s body, she had hope that it wouldn’t be him, and even after recognizing the body, she continued to return towards imagining that her spouse in on business travel again until she was ready to accept the whole reality.
This example shows how arrangements can be made and the outside functioning seems all right while our inside isn’t prepared, we’ll keep thinking the deceased in on a special important mission that wasn’t possible to communicate to us, etc. If we haven’t seen the body or we were not present at the time of actual death the more we may need to escape into disbelief and denial.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I believe that it is our natural way of protection. We want it so deeply to be a mistake, to be different, that we explore various options, ideas and scenarios for it, and the more we explore it, our mind stays occupied and we may simply give in to the reality when we are ready. Many people do not know this and may want to force those who are in grief to give in their last piece of hope and simply accept the reality. By demanding this, a person in grief can feel extreme rejection and misunderstanding, as well as more pressure than he or she really needs during that time.
To those who observe it - trust that your griever will return to the reality when ready from within. This stage is their natural protection from disaster. They are aware of the reality, but need some more time to process it.
Another example of a denial stage is a child who needs to believe that his parents will get back together after divorce. A child will tell you what he believes. No matter what you say as a parent, he may continue to believe the opposite. It is a sign that he or she needs this ‘buffer’ to survive the unbearable feelings of loss.
Take for example an individual who can't admit that his love relationship is over. He or she may continue to seek attention of a former partner. Their unrealistic hopes are groomed within sometimes for a very long time, even years after the relationship has ended.
To wrap this one up, the process of grieving is not straight forward and it is not equal for all of us. Even though there are similarities within stages, we all grieve in our unique ways. The denial stage involves us browsing through shock and questioning whether the facts are real, while we are clinging on our last pieces of hope for the information to be incorrect, we kind of prepare ourselves to handle the reality once it is confirmed. It is like giving ourselves a little bit more time to adjust, and this may further help us survive this initial stage of loss. Denial protects us from being overwhelmed with feelings that are too strong to bare with.
In the next blog I’ll explore the griever’s Anger stage.