The most intense and difficult experience that most of us will ever know is the journey through the process of grieving after the death of a loved one. Social scientists have identified a number of stages to the grieving process, which seem to be consistent regardless of place and time. This is not to say that all bereaved always follow this precise pattern. People may move backward or forward through the stages, skip some altogether or get stuck in one stage and seem unable to move on.
The degree of grief that any one of us experiences will depend on a number of complex and intermeshed factors. How close we were to the deceased, how long we had known him or her, the type of death that occurred, our society's expectations, our religious beliefs and our own personality will all have an impact. All of us will have to cope with grief at some time, but there are occasions where outside help may be needed to successfully navigate these difficult waters. This site would not presume to counsel people or try to solve painful personal issues. Below is a list of some of the organizations that can offer assistance. If none of these are in your region, they may at least offer some ideas about where to start to seek help.
Stages of the Grieving Process
Stage 1 Denial- "It can't be true. This can't be happening to me."
Even though death is a normal part of the human experience, in Western society we tend to hide it away, defining it as an event that happens behind the sanctuary of closed hospital doors. Denial is the first stage of the grieving process both for those who are about to die and for those who must cope with the death of someone close to them. Denial can be the contributing motive for those who refuse to seek medical assistance for frightening symptoms, or who won't visit a sick relative. Sometimes patients with a terminal illness, or their families, will spend a great deal of time, money and effort seeking the miracle cure that will enable them to cheat death. In our unconscious mind we are all immortal, so it is almost inconceivable to be openly confronted with the reality of death.
Stage 2 Anger -"How dare this happen to me! It's not fair!"
The second stage involves anger: at the dying person, oneself, fate, anyone. Anger is present because humans are the only species with awareness of past, present and future. With this knowledge we plan our future, cherish expectations, hopes and dreams. When these plans are shattered, anger is a natural response. We must then come to terms with the knowledge that whatever we do, little in this world is really under our control. As the poet Robby Burns said, "The best laid plans of mice and men, gang aft aglee, (often go astray) and leave us naught but grief and pain, for promised joy."
Stage 3 Depression -"I can't bear this."
Depression is the painful process where we must gradually give up all our future expectations as we farewell the person we have lost. At this stage we cut each tie and relinquish the bonds that link us to the deceased. People in this stage may need to relive each event of their life with the deceased, pondering and perhaps regretting what was or was not said and done. The person in grief will have to come to terms with the many life changes that may follow a death and with the overwhelming helplessness at not being able to change the past or cope with the present.
Stage 4 Acceptance -"Life must go on."
During this stage the mourner must emotionally relocate the deceased and find ways to get on with life. This may mean taking the risk of establishing new relationships with the knowledge that caring may again expose us to the pain of loss at some future time. The mourner may feel anxiety or guilt that they are indeed coping, or fear that their gradual return to normal life shows disrespect or lack of love for the deceased. After the loss of someone close to us, we are never the same as what we were, but this stage of the grieving process enables us to find that we can indeed go on.
Each society has its own rituals and processes for dealing with death. In some societies, grief is a very public process involving the whole community. Elsewhere, grief is largely conveyed symbolically and quiet dignity is expected from mourners.
Sanders also emphasizes the need to confront the situation and take advantage of opportunities for final contact (to avoid regrets) and grieving (such as funerals). In Judaism, mourners sit for seven days (shivah) where they refrain from enjoyable activity to get the grief out of their system.
Surprisingly, though, the issue of grieving is no cut-and-dried matter. There is disagreement, for example, over whether people should deal with their pain publicly or privately and what the role of funerals is, as other essays in the book point out.
On the one hand, Ellen Uzelac points out that the AIDS Quilt, colored ribbons, plays, and support groups have helped people confront their pain, forming stronger communities and confronting the larger issue of violence that causes death. Alternatively, Michael Ventura attributes our current poor attitude towards death to a greater societal estrangement from a variety of socioeconomic factors. He explains that we have created a new "mythology" of coping rather just dealing with death, that we try to bring the dead to life. Norman Klein adds, "Yet nowhere has it been convincingly proved that expressing grief has universal therapeutic value. Perhaps more important, this insistence on the requirement to feel and tell represents an ethnocentric standard that can do injustice to person and groups who cope differently."
What do you think is the correct role for mourning? From your experience and understanding, what sorts of things help, and what sorts of things make this process more difficult?
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