Coping with Grief: A New Approach

Going through grief is universal and is experienced across cultures and by people from all walks of life. Grief happens in response to the death of a loved one, loss of a lover/friend, moving countries, losing a job, significant life changes and much more. Grief can be experienced on different levels and in different stages, a concept further developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross back in 1969. Although Kubler-Ross’ model has been widely recognized and since adapted to include 7 stages, new studies show that grievers generally don’t follow the 5 basic stages in a standard fashion.

Kubler-Ross initially developed ‘the 5 stages of grief’ for patients coming to terms with a terminal illness, which was later extended to the grieving family and friends who appeared to be going through a similar process. Kubler-Ross’s model gradually broke down some of the stigma around grief, allowing for people to talk more openly about their loss. However, rather than following the 5 stages by the book, recent studies have shown that people generally experience grief in a far more haphazard way. Some rush through the first few and head straight to depression … others might drag their feet… and some even jump back and forth between all or some of the stages. The unfortunate by-product of having such a widely accepted, but firm, belief in this model is that people often think they are ‘not grieving right’ if they don’t go through the motions like everyone else.

Grief is a unique concept and although we might share a lot of similarities in how we cope with it, everyone grieves differently determined by each situation, the type of loss, the people involved, the stage of life we find ourselves in at the time, past experiences and many more factors that affect the way we process grief and recover from loss.

The ingrained ‘5 stages’ model 

  1. Denial – the defence mechanism our minds create to cushion the immediate shock of the loss, essentially numbing our emotions for a moment. For many people it’s a temporary state that helps us through the first wave of pain.
  2. Anger – an emotion we are most used to managing, often covering up underlying feelings like fear, uncertainty, despair and frustration.
  3. Bargaining – the hope/wish for life to return to how it was before the loss as well as bargaining the find a way to avoid feeling the pain all together
  4. Depression – when reality truly does hit and the grief enters our life on a much deeper level.
  5. Acceptance – this can often be confused with the notion that everything is ‘fine’. It’s not about being okay with the current loss, rather this stage is about accepting the reality of the situation

Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief are still very valuable and a quintessential authority in managing grief today; but should be seen more as guidelines rather than the ‘norm’. The concept of the above stages happening in sequence, meaning people must progress from stage 1 through to 5, can be very limiting to many going through grief.  It runs the risk of making people feel that they are not grieving correctly if they haven’t experience all of the five stages.

Not everyone needs help coping with loss 

There is a misguided notion that grief is a process that needs to be worked through with the help of others (e.g.: grief counselling) in order to truly ‘get over it’. Although working through emotions brought up by grief does help (I’m a psychologist after all, we’re here for a reason), one doesn’t just ‘get over’ loss. The pain might eventually die down, but we can’t erase emotional memories, and why should we? People in general are resilient enough to process and recover from grief on their own, and although a support network doesn’t hurt, it is not a prerequisite.

The unnecessary concept of ‘letting go’ 

As mentioned before, we don’t just ‘get over’ loss and erase a painful memory, although it does become an inviting concept when/if going through the bargaining stage. Rather than trying to find ways to ‘move on’ and gain closure, it would be more beneficial to find a continuing bond with the loss that will help us manage it better whenever it rears its ugly head in the future. This can be done through remembering the good times, looking at how we have grown from the loss or lessons we may have learnt since then. We don’t necessarily have to ‘let go’ of the grief but rather ‘move on’ by developing our own emotional and psychological tools to cope with the loss now and later.

Mindfulness and grief 

Mindfulness is about regaining balance between the overwhelming emotions related to loss and avoiding these emotions all together because they are just too painful. It’s a process that takes time and doesn’t come in stages, but instead involves opening ourselves to the uncomfortable/painful emotions that are part of dealing with loss through grief. Mindful ways of doing this can include consciously observing said emotions and allowing them to simply be there as they are, and be present with them. Accepting that such feelings are there doesn’t mean they no longer cause us distress and can still be very painful. The objective is for the emotional consequences of these feelings to no longer block us from our ability to function as we find a ‘new’ way to live life after the loss we experienced. Much like a deep wound that has long healed, there can always be a scar, and things will be different, but fundamentally all right.

Although there is no ‘normal’ way to grieve, grieving itself is a normal part of life. Although ‘getting over it and letting go’ might have the best intentions, a much more realistic goal for our grief is resilience.  This doesn’t mean getting back to who we were before our loss, but learning and growing from our experiences.

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