As a funeral director it was important to understand the grieving process to serve the families who came to us. It was common to hear the identified framework for grief bouncing off the walls at the funeral home.
“Oh, yes, Joan is at the depression stage. That is why it was hard to communicate with her during the arrangement this morning…”
“Jim has reached the stage of anger…did you see his blood boil when I asked him about his late father’s suit to be worn?”
The five stages of grief were brought to life by author and medical professional, Elisabeth Kubler Ross. If you’re not familiar with her work, Ross has been putting pen to paper to help create awareness on end of life since 1969 with her first book “On Death and Dying.” The Death Positive movement around the globe may seem like a fairly new concept, but the late Ross studied and wrote about death long before morticians around the world secured themselves fancy publishing contracts and the TV drama Six Feet Under.
Facing her mortality in 2004, Ross completed a manuscript that would help change lives around the world. “On Grief and Grieving” introduced the famous five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
So, here I was in my polished shoes and pressed suit with the duty of helping grief stricken strangers. When conducting funerals I would observe the family members to establish the stage of grief they were experiencing. I assumed the five stages evolved sequentially. First, experiencing denial then anger and so forth until reaching the finish line with ACCEPTANCE printed on a shiny banner. Yes! We did it! It’s all over! Where’s the confetti?
However, the older I grew and the more funerals I worked on (and attended) I discovered I had been rather naïve. A young adult with frizzy hair who saw the silver lining to every situation had a lot to learn. As well as the wisdom that comes naturally with age, I experienced grief personally and it was the most frightening experience of my life. I had seen decedents who faced violent deaths, infants and even a murder case in my time but nothing terrified me quite like the dark prison of grief.
When I lost a loved one, I thought I was different to everyone else. Like most areas in my life I was doing it back to front. I accepted the death quite quickly, before becoming depressed, then angry. I then denied that Pop was cremated in an urn on Nan’s bedside table and pretended he was off working in a far away city. This wasn’t right, was it? How could an amazing writer get the five stages of grief so wrong? Or was Ross correct and this meant something was wrong with me?
Over the years, I watched my own family grieve with countless losses. There was plenty of anger and depression, and not a whole lot of acceptance. Then, at work I witnessed a colleague “prepare” his own mother for her funeral, yet he was at peace and not angry at all.
I slowly began to realize there is no concrete framework for grief. The five stages are certainly a place to go when feeling overwhelmed and no one around you seems to understand. However, grieving is not a cookie cutter system. We all react to events differently each and every day, why would it be any different with trauma?
I also learned the grieving process is a very lonely path. Grief outlasts sympathy, so when everyone is back at work and packing school lunches, driving the kids around to sporting events on weekends and attending weddings and birthdays, the grieving are in shock that the world can keep on spinning as if nothing had ever happened. And time doesn’t heal wounds. It’s what you do with your time that can help mend you. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you can’t live without die. You will never heal completely. No matter what the culture or “stages” tell us, I really don’t think we are suppose to get over the loss of a parent, sibling, best friend. Their absence will be a life long nightmare of home -sickness for us. Time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will hydrate you, but they will not wash away the memories of your loved one. Nor should they. Why is there such a rush to get on with things?
If you have recently lost someone, don’t put so much pressure on yourself if you feel you are not progressing with your grief. There is no timeframe for recovery. Grief is a deeply personal experience, and going back to that good old saying “Comparison is the thief of joy,” do not look at how others are doing in contrast to your journey. When my pop passed away, my mum busied herself with perfect roasts and a sparkling house while her brother appeared deeply troubled and cried often. If I was my uncle, I would have looked at my mother and felt inadequate and weak. ‘Wow, look at her, she’s keeping on wonderfully. I wish I was as strong as her!’ But you see, mum did cry – in private. She also channels her pain into art as the director at a child care centre. (I still find it ironic mum assists little ones starting out in life while her daughter takes care of them at the end.)
Every single person mourns differently. This is your experience and yours only.
It’s hard to believe, but there are people out there who haven’t experienced deep grief. They’re not close to their family and it’s common that they discover family deaths years later. The next time you are feeling overwhelmed just remember, you miss someone because you were blessed to have that person in your life. Your life has been effected by their absence and if you stop to think for a moment, it truly is a beautiful thought. Your broken heart is in pieces because you once gave it full and beating to someone else.
Many are not so lucky.