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Learning to Grieve

November 30th, 2020 by Valérie Courchesne, docteure en psychologie

ONE STEP AT A TIMEWhen we hear the word “grief,” it often evokes the loss of a loved one. However, this is a much broader concept that applies to all kinds of losses. It encompasses all the feelings often contradictory, intense, and changing that we have in the face of a loss, an ending, or a major change. Some grief is part of normal development, such as grieving for childhood at the dawn of adolescence or grieving for school when we enter the job market. There is also grieving for perfect parents when we develop our critical thinking skills and realize their flaws. Other forms of grief will depend on our life course, but will nonetheless dot everyone’s path: breakups, the death of a loved one, moving, losing a job, etc.

And then there is also collective grief, such as the kind that we may experience in the context of a pandemic or during natural disasters and major events experienced collectively. We therefore go through the stages of grief together despite our individual differences in terms of pace and intensity.

Grief is a non-linear process that is, each of the stages will come back more than once over the course of our lives. The duration and intensity of each of these stages, like the complete process, may vary from time to time. Understanding grief better not only makes it easier for us to accept our emotions, but it also helps us show more compassion toward ourselves and others.

 

Here are the stages of grief as described by experts in the field

STAGE N°1: DENIAL OR SHOCK

This is a totally natural defence mechanism that involves not believing or accepting what one has just heard, which leads us to block the emotions caused by the news.

STAGE N°2: ANGER

Because it is extremely difficult to deal with the pain, anger comes to our rescue! It can be directed at ourselves, others, or even objects. During this stage, we are much more irritable, and our emotions can translate into anger. This may even be directed at the sick or deceased person, thereby leading to feelings of guilt and sometimes greater anger toward ourselves.

STAGE N°3: BARGAINING

This phase is the one where we try to regain control of a situation over which we often have no power. Much like anger, this reflex is totally normal, because even an illusion of control can prove reassuring: “I’ll follow the doctors’ recommendations to the letter, eat well, stop smoking, and maybe the prognosis will change”; “I’ll do anything for them if they reverse their decision and give me a second chance.” It is also during this stage that the “ifs” arrive: “If only I had talked to them on the phone for a few more minutes, then this wouldn’t have happened”; “If I had listened more, (s)he wouldn’t have left me.” Of course, this type of thinking makes us feel guilty, but it also convinces us that we could have changed something and therefore exerted some control over the situation.

STAGE N°4: DEPRESSION

It is at this time that we connect with the suffering associated with the loss. During this stage, many people tend to retreat inward and isolate themselves to experience their pain.

STAGE N°5: ACCEPTANCE

Although the suffering is less intense, this stage is not necessarily synonymous with happiness. Instead, it is associated with serenity, calm, and inner peace. We accept the situation along with the difficult emotions that arise from it.

STAGE N°6: THE SEARCH FOR MEANING

Finally, recent literature presents a sixth and final stage of grief: the search for meaning. Indeed, it would seem that, after accepting the loss, it would be natural to search for meaning in this hardship, to find the positive that may emerge from it. For example, losing a loved one may highlight the importance of expressing our love to our loved ones, a global pandemic may show us the importance of buying local, and losing a job may lead us to reorient ourselves toward a job that is closer to our values.

And then comes the unavoidable question: How do we get through these stages in a healthy way?

WELCOMING THE EMOTIONS

The saying that applies perfectly in the context of grief is “the only way out is through.” The only way to get through grief is to welcome and accept the emotions that accompany each stage. Fighting them only slows down the grieving process, in addition to being extremely demanding on the emotional level. Accepting the emotions also applies to the positive emotions; you should allow yourself the right to feel joy, to laugh, and to fully enjoy the pleasant moments even if you are grieving. All the tools for managing emotions are also helpful. Identifying, naming, and sharing our emotions lets us deal with them better. Of course, it can be hard for the person who is listening and receiving these emotions to know what to say or do, since there really is no miracle solution. Just know that the simple act of being there, actively listening, and holding the person in your arms will make all the difference.

RITUALS

Rituals are also extremely important during the grieving process. This is one of the reasons that can make mourning loved ones who have died during a pandemic more complicated, since funerals cannot always take place. It is therefore important to find alternatives in order to practise rituals that suit you and that are in line with your values when it is impossible to grieve as usual.

CONNECTING WITH NATURE

Connecting with nature can also be very helpful. Whatever the means, try to return to the source and surround yourself with greenery and fresh air: this may include a hike in the forest or other very simple activities such as taking a walk, gardening, or even opening a window and looking outside!

What meaning have you given to the grief that you have experienced so far? Don’t hesitate to join a support group or consult a mental health professional who can accompany you in this ordeal.


Reference: Bigelow, D. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, Scribner.
Reading suggestion: Megan Devine, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, Sounds True, 2017.

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