Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Real Stages of Grief

Here is a fun little fact most people don't know: The "Stages of Grief" (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were actually written about someone coming to terms with their own death, not the death of someone they loved.

How do I know this?

1) A rather reliable shrink told me.

2) Because I've grieved.

Which means, if you are dealing with the loss of a loved one, you can throw that list right out the window. In fact, please do.

Grief is actually not a linear path. It has no set sequence, no list you check off as you make your way along.

The truth is, it looks rather like the picture above - a jumbled mess.

And, as many times as you've heard me say it, no two paths are the same.

Today I want to talk about those emotional "stages" in grief because someone chose to point out on the anniversary of my husband's death that we should not get "caught up in anger" about the loss of our loved ones. This strikes a particular chord with me for three reasons:

1) It made me angry.

2) Anger is an emotion - it is neither right nor wrong and, thus, morally neutral (i.e. neither something we "should" or "should not" do).

3) Anger is a perfectly natural, normal, and healthy part of grieving.

Today I thought I'd look back on the last four years without Craig and give you a bit of a rundown of my own personal "stages" of grief, to show you what my own emotional journey looked like. It goes a little something like this:

1) SHOCK. Complete and utter, mind-numbing shock. Like everything happening around me had a sort of dream-like quality, as if it wasn't real but rather something I was watching on television. If I reached out and touched it, the set would just turn off. Only it didn't.

2) Horror. So much horror. Imagining the details, the breaking of bones, the blood, the violence, the pain and suffering Craig went through. That this could happen to anyone. That this could happen to the person that I loved so dearly.

3) Anger. At God, at myself, at everyone around me. At fate, at the other driver, at bad luck, and bad timing. And the police, at the investigators, at the court system, at the lawyers, and the insurance companies. At that bank and every other institution who made it as hard for me as possible, for no reason at all. All out, blood boiling, rage. Seeing spots.

4) Total despair. Lying on the floor, clutching Craig's clothing, unable to get up for days, despair. A despair so deep and so big I felt it in every part of me. My wrists ached with it. My teeth throbbed. My ribs heaved. My ankles, my toes, my heart, my shoulders, my head... every single part of me felt that despair.

5) Stages 1 - 4 on repeat, back and forth, switching places, for weeks and weeks and months and months.

6) Loneliness. Not, gosh-I-hate-having-no-plans-on-a-Friday-night loneliness. But the kind of loneliness that comes from having a friend so connected and so close that every thought that bounced around in your head all day was sent over to them. Every action, every breath was in anticipation of telling them, showing them, laughing with them. Then coming home, walking in the door, and feeling an emptiness so complete and so thick the very walls around you felt menacing.

7) Fear. Fear down to your very bones. That this is it. That you will never see them again, hear them again, touch them again. That all the pain and the despair and the loneliness and the anger will never end. That there is no reprieve. That this is not an injury that heals or a wound that will get better... that all these things will stay with you forever and ever. That every step outside your front door could be your last. That it never happened at all.

8) Confusion. About everything. Who am I now? What do I do next? What would he want? What does everyone else want? What are they expecting from me? How am I supposed to do this? Where did I put my keys? Why is my milk in the pantry and my shoes in the fridge?

9) Stages 1 - 8 on repeat, back and forth, switching places, for weeks and weeks and months and months.

10) Grim determination. It is time to lug around that boulder. It is chained to you forever, so you'd better get used to dragging it. Bend at the knees, put your weight into it, and start struggling inch by miserable inch. Often accompanied by: misery, angst, despair, more anger, and even more fear.

11) Even more anger. The more details that emerge, the more cliches you hear, the more the unfairness settles in.

12) Emptiness. The feeling of being gutted. Of watching everyone around you carry on with their lives, as though nothing had happened at all. It is just you who struggles to get out of bed in the morning. Just you who cries at stop lights or in the candy aisle at grocery stores. It is just you flipping through worn memories at night and looking longingly for hours at photographs that will never, ever be the real thing. Not even close. There is nothing left. Nothing.

13) Sprinklings of joy. Here and there. Very, very tiny at first. Mustard seed tiny. A split second. Maybe the feeling of sunshine on your face after months of forgetting "outside" was a real thing. Suddenly waking up and discovering you can taste your food for a second - it isn't all made of sawdust. A hug that feels good instead of just sad.

14) Guilt. Because how can you smile and forget for even one second? Because you can go on living, even against your own will. Because no matter what you know logically, inside your worn, aching heart and wrists and bones and eyes there is a yearning for a life beyond this and an understanding that you did not earn it.

15) Still anger. Because it hasn't gotten any fairer, any righter, any less permanent.

16) Stages 1 - 15, on repeat, back and forth, switching places, for weeks and weeks and months and months. Eventually years and years.

17) Calm. Not an acceptance, no. Because you can never really accept that this is it, that it is over, that a person so alive can just suddenly cease to exist. But calm that comes from dragging the weight of it with you, learning to live with it rather than just survive it.

18) And, yes, still sometimes anger.

19) Still despair, still loneliness, still shock. Less often, further apart. But still very much there.

20) Stages 1 - 20, on repeat, back and forth, switching places, forever.

You can choose to live after you lose someone. You can choose to move forward (though not "on") with your life. You can choose to seek out new experiences, new wonder, new joy.

You cannot choose your feelings. Feelings are something you experience, uninvited. If you could choose them, wouldn't we all simply choose bliss at all times? Pain happens to us. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Despair. Loneliness. We can channel these feelings into something, propelling us forward. We can ride the wave, experiencing them, choosing not to fight it. We can reflect on them, analyze them, attempt to understand. But ultimately, they come at us against our will.

To imply otherwise, is not only unkind, it is wrong.

We are entitled to feel grief.

For most, grief will include all the feelings I outlined above.

Yes, this includes anger. It is okay to be angry your loved one is gone.

It is okay to be angry about how and why it happened. It is okay to feel that anger on day 1 as well as day 1,460.

I know this because I have. And I do.

Even still.

If you are grieving, be gentle with yourself. Let yourself feel. You are allowed to. If you know someone who is grieving, try to understand, they will feel what they will feel, whether you approve or not. It is their journey, not yours. They are entitled to it.

Without your "should-ing".


  1. Hello Emily, I found your blog some nights ago. I lost my boyfriend a month and 2 weeks ago and i feel so lost, this feels sureal.
    Thanks for writing this. I hope I can make it through.

  2. this has helped me alot. as i am dating again but i refer to my deceased husband still as my husband. my bf corrects me all the time that he isnt your husband any longer. but i feel that he is until the day i remarry if i ever do. what are your thoughts? should i stop referring to him as that or just use his first name. i was married for 13 yrs but together for 16.

  3. Hi Emily,
    I lost my boyfriend 2 months and 2 weeks ago. I can't help myself cope any, we had our lives planned out together. we decided when we would get married and have a child together. I can put on a good face for myself but i can't seem to help his mother. Her and I were very close and i can't seem to say anything helpful. I was wondering if you had any advice.
    Thank you,

  4. Thank you so much for this post.

    I lost my father -- who may as well have been my only family, at least by blood -- about 6 months ago. It was too soon. He had barely gotten into his 60's, and I'm in my 20's.

    I don't know where I am at any given moment. I go through periods of time where I seem to be functioning normally... except the apartment's a mess and I'm less active than usual. A sort of new, lower normal, but I'm not thinking about it or distinctly miserable.

    And then it will hit me, for days at a time. I'll just have an "attack" that slowly builds for 3 or 4 days and then crescendos.

    For me, the recurring theme is horror. Horror at the images I have behind my eyes. I'll sit there with my hands to my face, backing away from... well, myself, in a blaze of tears.

    And then I'll feel desperately alone. And then I'll feel like no one will ever love me more than anyone again -- and the thing is, that one's hard to get over, because it's probably true. And then I'll get invited to dinner by my best friend's parents and not go because I resent her for having parents at all.

    And then I'll pick apart every little thing I did while my dad was dying that wasn't perfect. And I hate this one, because it robs me of my only solace in all this -- that actually, I did the absolute best I could. I pushed myself to the break-down line every day. And I'm moving ahead with important things the way I promised I would. And I was able to show him proof while he was still barely lucid, and make it ok for him to let go. And I just forget all that and focus on how some stupid thing I said or did was less than flawless.

    And every once in a while someone says, "I know how you feel," and I want to punch them in the face, because they don't. Just like I don't know how you feel.

    And then I'll get scared at having to go it alone without my mentor and the person who loved me more than anyone.

    And then I'll feel selfish.

    And then I'll remember I can be -- I only have to take care of me now.

    And then I'll think about how I'd give up everything I have for that to not be true.

    Repeat, ad infinitum.

  5. Thanks. This made me feel so not alone. My husband died 2 months ago and I am young widow 34. And its hard to find things I can relate to. Thanksim struggling with guilt when being in those tiny happy moments. Thanks so much

  6. You made true statements that I feel. I lost my husband last year at the age of 24 and boy is it not easy. Thank you stating it plain, we all grieve differently but we all need to feel each emotions that may arise.

  7. My husband died a month ago and trying to cope at 30 years old with this new title of widow has been anything but normal. Your post perfectly summed up how I feel not just daily but sometimes within the hour.

  8. God has been the difference in my own life during times of loneliness, heartbreak, and pain. I know too well what it means of not getting encouraged by others and the hurt that comes from that. I've found that only God always offer encouragement and hope, much better than any human can offer. I can only imagine how it feels to be widowed. I have the taste of having a soul tie broken- I've gotten dumped in the past and it's hurt me so much in the past. The Bible teaches that a sexual relationship (whether marital or premarital) results in the man and woman becoming one (a soul tie). I believe that even emotional involvement (without having sex) also creates soul ties, but to a lesser degree than a sexual soul tie. Rejection and abandonment are all painful things. King Solomon said that everything in this world is vanity, everything is meaningless- a chasing after the wind. Eventually whatever we gain in this world (relationships, success, wealth), we lose them all at some point. There is something you can never lose though- God. God surpasses everything in our lives. Our thirsting for things in this world (especially human relationships) is evidence that we need something greater than those things to satisfy us because everything except God will end up failing you in some way. God has promised us that He will never leave us nor forsake us. God can't die on us and leave us in a state of loneliness. God won't cheat on us, dump us and go off with someone else. Whenever you feel lonely or feel that you're missing something in your life- realize that God wants to fill that void in your life. So many times I've been ignorant about the Bible. We're trained from our birth to live by our 5 senses- thus we look to perceive God with those senses. Most of the time, we can't perceive God with our 5 senses as He is a spiritual being. God has wanted me to develop my spiritual senses and rely on His word (the Bible) to experience Him. I've learned to always see God's word as alive, powerful, and relevant for each day. When I've failed to see that in the past, it's robbed me so much joy and peace. I've learned to look at the Bible as a powerful and active gateway/portal to God. We can try to occupy our minds with so many different things in this world to try and fill the void in our lives or suppress the pain, but all of those things will keep us still hungry and thirsty. God has promised us that if we reach out to Him, He will give us rest, quench our thirst, and satisfy our hunger. If you haven't done that, I hope you will give God a chance. I further hope that God will use you to go and reach others with His word, just like He has used me to reach out to you. Many people in this world are hurting just like you. Many are just looking for a simple act of kindness or a word of encouragement (words are powerful- they can heal and motivate or when used in an evil manner destroy others) which they don't receive from others. Ultimately, many even end their own lives because they feel hopeless and want to end their pain of torment- all because they've failed to see God was nearby all along and they failed to perceive Him with their spiritual senses. God loves you more than any human in this world! He wants to be your companion today and take care of you and your family's needs. I hope you see and explore His love for you today through the Bible- the Bible is the secret source for unraveling peace and joy for you when you can't find them in this world. I can't give you physical copy of the Bible right now, but you can freely access it online at (www.biblegateway.com). May God bless you, heal you and strengthen you and your family. Continue to write and help others for His glory. Claim God's promises to you from His word today. Humans will likely fail to encourage you when you really need it, however, God won't fail. All you need to do is turn to His word. It is available 24/7 whenever you need it- to experience God.

  9. Please read these verses when you get the chance- Isaiah 55:11-13; Jeremiah 49:11; Psalm 146:9; Psalm 68:5; Isaiah 54:4-6; Revelation 21:1-7; Jeremiah 17:5-8; Isaiah 2:22; 1 Corinthians 7:29-35.


  10. Thank you for this. I feel like I am spectacularly flunking all the things i'm supposed to be passing, feeling and doing all the things i shouldn't and almost none of the things i should. And there's no one i can much talk to about it - i can mention his name once or twice a month before folks start looking uncomfortable and away. I feel much less alone reading your words. I'm sorry you've had them to write.

  11. This has brought me to tears.. I lost my husband of 14 years in April.. We have 3 children and one on the way.. I'm 30... He was 34.. U have put my feelings in words that I have been u able to express! Thank you!

  12. This has brought me to tears.. I lost my husband of 14 years in April.. We have 3 children and one on the way.. I'm 30... He was 34.. U have put my feelings in words that I have been u able to express! Thank you!

  13. My fiancé died in a car accident 11 days ago. This is the only thing I've read that makes any sense to me. I never thought I would be widowed at 35. I just can't believe any of this is happening when we were so happy together.

  14. Thank you for this piece ... my grief is 3 years on and I found this helpful