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The Myth of Stages


Popular wisdom suggests that we proceed through grief in some orderly progression. Well-meaning family and friends watch anxiously to make sure we move through the stages, and they are concerned when it seems that we are not going through the process properly.

While it is true that people who are grieving experience such things as denial, shock, and anger it is not true that grief is like a path of emotional stepping stones where we leap neatly from one emotion to the next. Remember that childhood game called "Twister" where you have hands and feet on different colored circles at the same time? This represents a more accurate image of grief as a crazy muddle of chaos.

The problem with thinking that grief proceeds in a linear fashion through well defined stages is that it doesn't, and so the grieving person starts to question whether s/he is failing at grief. When one has already lost a loved one, the last thing that is needed is questions about whether s/he is grieving correctly. Since nobody's grief fits the neat stages, the expectation that it will is just a set-up to feel worse.Stage

It does seem as if grief is a process and that there are some similarities that can be identified. Certainly it is not unexpected that the initial reactions to a death are shock, disbelief, and intense sorrow resulting in a kind of numbness for many people. I have also learned to expect that grief intensifies about 3-4 months after the death, at a time when some are thinking it should be getting better. Because there is the expectation that it should be getting better and not worse, this causes quite a bit of concern for the bereaved and their loved ones but I have seen it so often that I consider it to be a normal part of the process for most people.

For most of us, the passage of time softens the pain of grief but the emptiness and loneliness are often constant companions for some time. I expect the first year to be very challenging and although usually less so, the second year is still a difficult one.

There is no set time when grief is finished because we grieve for our loved one throughout our lives. I do expect that over time people are able to return to "normal" functioning following a death, but again, this takes more time than most of us expect.

I do not expect that a bereaved person ever arrives at some magical last stage of grief; instead I anticipate that we find a "new normal" and gradually recognize that there is still joy left to be experienced in life.