By Courtney Glueck, PhD
There is no question that the current pandemic has left us all experiencing challenging emotions – anxiety, fear, sadness, confusion, frustration, anger, etc. And as we continue to wade through this muddy water together the best way we know how, I continue to hear many of my patients repeatedly talking about feelings that can best be described as manifestations of grief. People are grieving the loss of loved ones, jobs and financial security, feelings of safety, comfort, and routine. Milestones are passing people by. Those who looked forward to their proms or graduations for months or years have watched the dates of these events come and go without a fraction of the pomp or circumstance these rites of passage warrant. What’s more, not only are we collectively mourning the loss of these things that are long-gone or have passed us by, but we are also dealing with “anticipatory grief,” or grief associated with feeling as though greater losses are yet to come.
Without question, grief can be one of the most challenging human experiences to process and work through. And with so many of us experiencing such raw emotional manifestations of grief right now, it seems more important than ever that we all learn as much as possible about the grieving process and how we can (and will!) make it through.
Two Common Theoretical Frameworks for Understanding Grief
Perhaps the most commonly cited framework from which to view the grieving process is that which was originally presented by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 1960’s. Her theory centers on the following five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Now before we go into each stage in further detail, it is important to note that these stages do not occur in linear sequence and some may experience only some or even none of these stages as they work through their own grief. In fact, some may find themselves cycling through these stages multiple times throughout their grieving process. One thing is for certain: there is no one-size-fits-all approach to grief. With that being said, let’s discuss these commonly observed stages of grief in further detail:
A common initial reaction for those facing loss is to deny the reality of the situation they have found themselves in. A moment of loss often represents a complete shift in our reality, and it is not at all unusual for our minds to need some time to adjust to our “new normal.” Denial is frequently observed as a defense mechanism used to shield us from the initial shock of this reality shift, and for most people, this is simply a temporary reaction to help us through the acute, intense pain that often accompanies experiences of significant loss.
As denial fades and we begin to release our emotions relating to the significant loss we are experiencing, it is not uncommon for us to express anger initially. Anger is a feeling that requires limited vulnerability and thus feels safe and easy to access and express. Often, however, anger is simply masking more painful feelings underneath, such as sadness, fear, worry, confusion, etc. As our anger subsides, these feelings may begin to take center stage.
As we begin to experience some of the vulnerability associated with the feelings listed above, it is common for us to attempt to regain the control we feel we have lost. This stage is referred to as the bargaining stage and typically involves the bereaved engaging in a series of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” It is also not uncommon for guilt to surface during this stage as well, as those working through grief question whether they could have done more.
While many of the stages above seem to involve running from painful emotions, the depression stage typically marks a sort of embracing of these feelings. Frequently individuals going through this stage tend to turn inward and may become more socially isolated as they try to work through intense sadness and a profound sense of loss.
The fifth stage Kubler-Ross describes is one of acceptance. It is important to note that not all going through grief reach this stage. Furthermore, reaching this stage does not indicate that the bereaved no longer feel the pain of loss or have “moved on.” In contrast, reaching the acceptance stage simply means that we have come to accept the reality of our loss and are no longer trying to change or alter it.
Another theoretical framework through which we’ve come to understand and work through grief was presented by William Worden in the late 1980’s. His model differed most significantly from that of Kubler-Ross in that it presents grief as a process rather than a series of states. Specifically, Worden’s theory centers on four tasks that mourners actively engage in and work through. We discuss these in further detail below:
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss
While some denial is to be expected immediately in the wake of loss, we cannot remain stagnant in those feelings. Rather, it is important for us to work toward accepting our new reality, as it will mark a starting point of sorts as we work to process our feelings, adapt, and move forward.
Task 2: Process the pain of grief
Grief looks different on everyone. It is not uncommon to feel any of a number of challenging emotions while grieving, including sadness, helplessness, fear, worry, pain, anger, guilt, etc. Engagement in this task essentially requires the mourner to let themselves feel these things rather than avoiding or pushing them aside.
Task 3: Adjust to a world without the deceased (or that which was lost)
This task involves both internal and external adjustment to one’s “new normal.” Of course, this will be difficult and will take time. Often it can feel as though we are betraying that which we’ve lost by moving in this direction; however, engaging in this task can help us to better understand our role in this new reality, while also helping us to understand and appreciate the impact our loss has had on our life.
Task 4: Find an enduring connection with the deceased (or that which was lost) while embarking on a new life
In order to move forward into a new reality following a loss, it is often important that we find a way to remain emotionally connected to that which has been lost. Over time, the goal will be to create a balance between remembering and honoring that which has been lost, while also going on to live a full and meaningful life.
Coping Strategies for Grief
As noted above, coping with grief is a unique and deeply personal experience. It will likely look different on everyone, and it is impossible to understand another’s grief as fully as you may understand your own. Still there are a number of ways we can all cope with grief. Many find it helpful to reach out to a mental health professional for help working through these challenging and painful feelings. In addition, below is a list of things we can do on our own to support our individual journey through grief:
- Practice self-care and self-compassion
- Be patient with yourself and give it time
- Reach out to trusted loved ones
- Validate and express your feelings
- Create something
- Express your grief through writing
- Let go of what you cannot control
- Engage in prayer or meditation
If you or a loved one are struggling through your own grief, please feel free to reach out, and we at the Metis Center will work to connect you with any supports you need.