Death is the ultimate equalizer. It doesn’t excuse anybody. No matter what your economic status is, no matter how intelligent you are, whatever your race, religion, gender, age, or educational attainment is, sooner or later, someone you love will die. Loss is a universal tragedy.
And there is no singular path to deal with grief. There are several ways but there is no proven method that works for everyone.
However, having said, there are some established facts about grief based on years of research and anecdotal evidence.
1. It is not true that ignoring the pain will make it go away.
People sometimes use their jobs to escape from the pain. They fill their waking hours with so many activities that they are so pre-occupied that they set aside the pain. When they go home, they drink enough alcohol to put them to sleep. That is not helpful. Denial will only accumulate the pain. It is like dirty water being stored, the smell will eventually permeate the house. Pain, like any other energy, cannot be destroyed. It can be stored or transformed. Storing the pain will cause illness in the body and mental imbalance. So, the best way is to embrace the pain and deal with it.
2. It is not true that you need to be strong during times of grief.
Sorrow, anger, guilt, fear and frustrations are normal reactions that happen after losing a loved one. These are not signs of weaknesses. In fact, it is a sign of strength when someone can afford to cry in public. There is no need to protect your family from those emotions either. Being strong means allowing to cry and yet confident that it will not destroy you personally.
3. It is not true that grief has a timetable.
Time heals all wounds. Perhaps that is true. But there is no specific schedule for healing. For some, it takes a short period of time, like one year. Some people grieve for twenty years and still have not recovered from the loss. Take your time, but take your time in working it out, not denying it or forcing healing to happen. There is a flow that you need to follow.
4. Yes, there is a flow.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is known to articulate what is now called “five stages of grief.” These were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but these are true to all other forms of grief and losses. These are:
Stage 1: Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.” “No, my son cannot be dead, he is too young.” “No, not my husband, I was with him the whole day yesterday.”
These are usual, normal reactions. We all go through denial. What is important is that we don’t stay in denial, we move to the next step.
Stage 2: Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
Anger is the first step of acceptance. It is an intuitive reaction. Our protective mechanism triggers the alarm which releases anger. Sometimes, anger is directed towards others: the doctors, the driver who caused the accident, the family member who should have done more, etc. But oftentimes, anger is also directed towards the self. Again, it is important to allow the anger to flow, but not destroy the family.
Stage 3: Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
Sometimes, people bargain with God. Or they negotiate with loved ones. But there will also be bargaining in the process.
Depression: “I’m too down to do anything.”
This might be the most difficult stage, but everyone has to go through depression. It is like jumping into the pool of pain in order to wash away any anger, guilt and shame that resulted from the death. It is a cleansing experience as it allows the person to plunge into the depth of the death experience. But depression is temporary. Soon, the spirit will be ready to move on.
Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
This is the final destination of the grieving process. Full acceptance. There is serenity. There is trust that the dead is not lost at all but his memory lingers. There is a renewed sense of gratitude for being alive.
So, how do we deal with the grief? Go through the process. That is the best way.