You, who have shown me great and severe troubles, shall revive me again, and bring me up again from the depths of the earth.
You shall increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side. – Psalm 70:20-21
Grief is a process well all go through at some time or another in our lives. Whether it’s the very profound loss of a loved one due to death or a loss associated with a transition, a move, a change in seasons – losses happen all the time. Grief can be associated with a person losing the ability to do something they used to love.
It can also be associated with loss of health or fortune. Persons often grief even from a friend moving away, or from relocating themselves and missing their old, familiar surroundings. Grief is complex and not just specific to a funeral.
7 Stages of Grief
The benefits of understanding the 7 stages of grief then are plenty because once you understand how grief works and the various ways we experience it, you can know what to expect for healing.
Stage #1 – Shock and DenialThe first stage of grief is what happens immediately after a tragic loss occurs – we go into shock.
Have you ever heard of the three fear responses the brain can go into when enough stress chemicals are emitted? They are labeled fight, flight, or freeze.
The ‘shock’ response falls under the category of a ‘freeze’ response. We might have all the data that a person really is gone, but if the loss was sudden enough, or unexpected, we might not be able to handle processing this kind of loss all at once, and so our brain protects us by going into a state of shock where it temporarily disables our ability to really digest and process fully what just occurred.
Some ways to think of this are that “Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once” (https://www.recover-from-grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html).
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman “psychologist and expert in psychological trauma, has observed that denial can be healthy in moderate amounts. It’s the brain’s way of “dosing” itself. Just as medicine is good for us, fully facing the reality that a loved one has died is ultimately good for us.
But too much medicine too quickly can cause unpleasant side effects. Similarly, being forced to confront difficult grief-related emotions all at once can be unnecessarily painful” (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/201707/why-the-five-stages-grief-are-wrong).
Stage #2 – Pain and Guilt
After the shock goes away, the initial feelings that might sink in are pain and guilt. Pain, because the feeling that was postponed is now very much accessible and a person is feeling the full weight of their loss.
Guilt, because a person in these moments often feels regret for what they could have, should have or would have done if the thing or person lost was not. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten in an argument, maybe they would have stayed in a relationship, maybe they wouldn’t have gone on that trip. But regardless, the person in this stage has not yet been able to grapple with the reality that no matter what they do, the loss remains.In times of serious hurt, we all have a tendency to want to shut our feelings out as a way of coping with tremendous pain. However, unless you really allow yourself to ‘feel the feelings’, you will be practicing avoidance of them, which only leads to prolonged, undealt with grief.
The avoidance of a loss doesn’t make it easier for us to move forward. Until we sit in the graveness of our losses, we are denying the realness and therefore the full meaning of them.
Stage #3 – Anger and Bargaining
Bargaining when grieving feels a lot like the part where a person begins to feel a loss of dignity. The common ‘I’ll do anything’ plea echoed when our chances of holding on to something are fading is the mentality I think of when it comes to bargaining. If you are struggling with a loss, it’s not uncommon to want to undo it.
Often before we succumb to our new reality of pain and fear and hardship, we make one last ditch attempt to ‘do anything’ we can to prevent it from being a reality. This might mean telling an ex we will change the parts of us they broke up with or telling God Himself if He would just listen and give us back what we lost we’d do better.
Bargaining with God is often very common because we can feel so certain that ‘surely this wasn’t supposed to happen to me’ that maybe if God just heard the deal I had for Him and knew He got my attention once and for all, He would return to me my losses.
However, when you can no longer bargain your way out or around a loss and that realization hits you, you might experience a less pleasant emotion than one of appeasement: anger. Anyone who has lost someone, or something can tell you they went through a season – days, weeks, months, or even years – (and maybe all at once, or on-and-off), during which they felt angry.
This, like the other stages of grief, is an important one to allow yourself to feel. Anger, just like sadness, is often a feeling we will do anything to avoid acknowledging because we can feel so powerless in its grip. It’s also easier to deny where anger originates from.We might blame it on us having a bad day, or on someone forgetting to do something they reassured us they would do. But, at its core, anger is actually a very deep feeling that tells us something is deeply bothering us. When someone has dealt with a loss, resulting in a major change in their routine, life, etc., they might at times be subconsciously processing the pain – for months or even years after the loss occurred – without even realizing it.
The conscious experience we might have of this pain is our anger. Anger over a loss is very common, but it can sneak up so subtly or out of the blue that a person or those around them may have no idea why they are mad and mistake the anger over their grief as just irritation at the world.
It’s important if you know someone who has gone through a loss recently to check in with them and maybe ask, ‘hey, are you doing okay’ when they seem upset, or even to prod further such as “are you really missing them today?”
I had a friend go through a breakup, but it was not a mutual one. The person who broke up with them was actually very hostile and left my friend feeling confused and alone. They were not given much explanation for the breakup, and when they made attempts to understand what happened, they were met with profound rejection and shaming from their previous significant other.
This kind of loss, although not a death, was still very difficult for my friend to deal with because it was sudden, unexpected, and ultimately out of their control. But in addition to all of that, it was also very personal to have someone willingly choose to cut you out of their life without you having any say. In the process of healing from this, my friend had days of feeling just outright angry at everyone and everything.
As her friend, I had moments of thinking, “this isn’t the her I know.” Later, after thinking about it, I realized she was struggling with the breakup, even months after it had occurred.
As her friend, I tried to keep in mind her wounds that were still healing, even when they weren’t as visible anymore. A year later my friend was much happier and dealing with far fewer days/moments of anger.
Stage #4 – Depression and Reflection
When you can no longer argue with yourself, God, or others that the thing you lost is actually gone, “a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you.”
You might want to be isolated from everyone in your life for a very long time. It might mean not going to social events, not hanging out with the people you usually did, or not feeling any sense of enjoyment when you do.
Depression requires reflection to get through because it is the first time we begin to actually sift through all the weight of our loss and ‘feel the feelings’ fully.
We begin to face the feelings of loneliness, fear, despair, agony, and more that we postponed (unconsciously or consciously) for as long as we could during the stages of shock and denial, pain and guilt, and anger and bargaining.
During this time, it’s helpful to seek out whatever support you find yourself open to, whether it be a counselor, a friend, or family. Although feeling the feelings and letting yourself cry and mourn are very important for healing, it is also helpful to stay grounded during the tidal waves of emotions that hit you during this time by having some support network in place.
For parents who lost their children, this might mean signing up for a meal train so members in the community can bring them food to make sure they still are taken care of and feel supported in basic ways.
Loss can sometimes be unbearably confusing and make you feel unable to ever return to a place of sureness or security, but you will get there. It just takes time.
Taking the time to heal by grieving in the form of tears is healthy. One of my favorite quotes is “if you’re crying on the inside, you’re not crying on the outside.” Take it as a sign of healing when you or your loved one has begun this part of grieving outwardly.
Stage #5 – The Upward TurnThe upward turn is near when the tears are less. One way to think of this stage of grief is when you are having fewer experiences of the previous four stages of grief.
This might start out small. Maybe today you just felt better. Maybe for most of the hours of the day today you felt better than the past five.
It doesn’t look the same for everyone. But overall, when you notice your thoughts return to some semblance of what they were like before your tragedy occurred, you are beginning to heal.
Stage #6 – Reconstruction and Working Through
During this stage, “your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.”
The reconstruction stage is a lot like the upward turn except now you have a lot more momentum to process all that you went through without it affecting your day to day functioning as much. Sure, you might still experience tearfulness and confusion, but overall you feel more able to cope despite your loss.
Stage #7 – Acceptance and Hope
Many, many people in the Bible grieved over many different things and they would show it outwardly by tearing their clothes or by fasting or wandering for days alone sorting through their pain with no one but God alone.
The stages of grief are not unknown to God Himself even, as Jesus grieved having to take up His cross. Jesus Himself bargained with God, “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). And in His final hour we hear a feeling of despair or possibly even anger, “my God my God, why have you forsaken me.”
But, through it all, we can find comfort, as David writes, in Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Accepting a loss takes time and is not easy, but with time, you will be able to find hope.
“Tough Times”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Up Alone”, Courtesy of Moritz Schumacher, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “Quintessence”, Courtesy of Saffu, Unsplash.com; CC0 License; “New Life”, Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash.com; CC0 License