Losing somebody you loved: going through loss and grief
When we lose somebody who was close to us, when somebody we loved has died, our world changes. It feels like nothing is going to be the same. It might be the most demanding change one can face, full of emotions that can be very irrational and very strong.
This article includes a widely known psychological theory of loss and grief, and the phases our mind goes through after a loss. Maybe it will help you to better understand yourself or people around you that have lost a loved one.
The psychological phases of grief and mourning
The way we interpret death might depend on our religious views and the circumstances in which it happened, but there are some types of feelings that seem to be experienced by many people of different cultures and views.
The theory of five stages of grief was first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”. Just like any other theoretical model, this one is simplified. I am sharing the model with you because it explains that one can have all sorts of feelings at demanding moments like this, and although it might be difficult to understand them promptly, all of these feelings make sense.
This is not an instruction on how you should feel. It is just a guide that can help you understand what you might feel and what might come next. The five stages describe the typical order in which the emotions come. That does not mean it’s the only possible order or the most correct order. Experiencing it differently, skipping any of the phases, having them in a different order or feeling altogether differently is not incorrect. Grief is very individual.
The five typical stages of grief
The denial phase usually comes first after receiving the news. One cannot believe that it really happened.
You wish it was just a dream. You wish it was a misunderstanding that will turn out not to be true.
One might “hear” the voice of the other person, or their footsteps, or expect them to appear at any moment.
All such feelings are quite normal. Denial is a defence mechanism our mind uses to buffer immediate shock. Such a reaction is there to protect you. This is the time your body and mind need to accumulate energy, to activate all their inner resources, so that they can later go through the sadness and cope with the change. But your mind is not ready yet, and so it denies what has happened.
Some people are unable to progress beyond this phase. They keep behaving – for months or for years – as if nothing has happened, as if nothing has changed: they keep cooking the same number of portions as before, maintain the person´s room and belongings as if the person will appear at any moment. They might need help to move on.
The emotions denied in the previous phase have been emerging, but you are not ready yet for the sadness. Instead, you feel very angry.
You are driven to put the blame on someone. You might be angry at doctors, or at the other car drivers involved in the accident. You are angry at the other people around, often including family and friends.
You might even blame the person who died. Even though, rationally, you know the person is not to blame, emotionally you might be angry that the person has left you and made you feel like this.
You might also feel guilty for the anger you are feeling, and thus feel even angrier.
If the anger persists for a long time, it can have a huge impact on one´s life, so it is worth getting professional help to cope with it.
When your mind feels helpless and vulnerable, it will try to get more control over the situation. That often activates the bargaining phase: the phase when your mind is busy with scenarios of how differently things could have been if...
- If only you had paid more attention to the symptoms.
- If only you had tried different doctors, methods or medicine.
- If only you had not behaved to the person in that way.
You might regret plenty of things.
Again, such feelings and thoughts are very natural. Usually they do not last for years. If they do, one is probably not progressing towards acceptance and might need help.
In the previous phases, we tried to avoid the pain of facing the loss fully. But now the time is here, it’s unavoidable. It hurts deeply, strongly. The sadness is so intense that it is difficult to describe, difficult to share with anybody that is not directly involved. You might feel very lonely with it.
This can be a particularly difficult phase. But it’s also a healing stage, and brings you closer to acceptance. Living the sadness, expressing it, can help you heal and help you cope with the loss. Take your time, ask people around you for time too.
If you are supporting somebody who is going through this phase, please do not ask them not to be sad. They are sad, and they need some time for their deep mourning. Otherwise, they cannot progress. You might find difficult to find the right words, but perhaps all they need from you is a bit of time, and a hug.
Normally, this phase lasts for some weeks or months. After that, the sadness might still appear sometimes, but the overall frequency tends to decrease. Although one might still feel very sad, the feeling is not as intense the whole time, and it does not prevent one from enjoying other things. If that is not the case, and the phase of deep sadness or depression persists for a long time, overshadowing anything else, it is time to seek help.
Progressing to this phase requires admitting your feelings, speaking your feelings out, letting go of the pain, taking your time. Not everybody gets to this stage.
Acceptance does not mean never feeling sad, never missing the loved one.
Acceptance means being at peace with what happened. Acknowledging things that cannot be changed. Trusting that the grief can be healed. Being willing to rejoin life.
Accepting someone´s death takes time. And it is very important to take your time, and recognize that all sorts of feelings can be normal, natural, and adequate.
You might have ups and downs. Some emotions might come back when you thought they were already behind you.
You might feel that nobody can fully understand your grief, because your grief is very individual, singular, personal. But perhaps you can still let somebody comfort you, be there for you when you feel sad.
The most important thing you can do is let go of your sadness when it appears. When you feel full of the sadness, try to get it out, speak it out, cry it out. Suppressed sadness can get toxic, unhealthy for both your body and mind. Letting the grief out is not a weakness, it is very healing.