I’ve been thinking about the stages of grief so much this week and it’s helping me to cope, not only to understand what I’m going through, but to put my family experience into perspective. What would normally be a minor dysfunction is magnified in the context of grief and the very people that you’ve always relied upon cannot hold you up because they themselves are barely treading water.
I’ve always heard about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Denial is in believing that nothing is wrong. It is denial that tells us that Dad is going to fully recover and everything is going to go back to the way that it was. Unfortunately, as Bill Deasy says, “now he’s returning to the reservoir”. I hope that, as Jason once said, “that day is far away from this one“, but near or far, it is clear that we need to prepare.
“Life in the long run ain’t never a long enough one, we wanna pocket it like lint, like gold, and it’s a real short story with its turned up pages, all its characters waiting in line to unfold” (Leslie Smith, “Midnight Pirouette”)
The next stage is anger. Unfortunately, in my experience, anger is the usual drug of choice, as it makes us feel safe and justified and righteous.
I’m not really big on the bargaining thing. I mean, I did all the things: I bought us matching dresses, coconut water, every wish, eyelashes, birthday candles, shooting stars… Lis still died. My prayer now as I drift off to sleep is “whatever, Dude!” He knows he’s got me in a stranglehold: “if you ever wanna see your sister again…”. I get it! We’ll stick to the plan! As a project manager, that speaks to me. I suppose that’s a kind of bargaining, so cool! I get it!
Depression. It’s so much more than sadness, the thought of Dad not being at the other end of the phone. It is when I pity myself that I feel most lost. When I focus on what he needs, I’m okay. I can function. I think this maybe a source of codependency … my feelings are too hurty, so let me focus on yours. Whatever it takes to keep the black dog away!
Acceptance I’ve never mastered. Dad and I were talking about a time we were delivering Holy Communion to a nursing home, I said “we have to see Mrs. (so-and-so)” whom I loved very much and Dad said, “oh, she died” very casually and the look of devastation on my face took him off-guard. He apologized, of course, and gave me a minute to catch my breath. The thing with the ladies was that I’d grieve terribly for about a month, then “forget” them. Oh, sweet mercy! I guess that’s a kind of acceptance.
I’m seeing now that there is a similar theory that adds “shock” as number one and “testing” as number six.
Shock is that initial stage in which the griever’s disbelief causes paralysis. I can surely relate! I blame it on my anxiety, which was at such a high level that I couldn’t act. It was very similar to that feeling that I would get when I was drunk (not for many many years now) in which the room would feel as if it were spinning and the only way that I could slow it down was to be perfectly still. I felt that again when I begin to experience vertigo a few years ago. What an awful feeling! It was vertigo that the medics assumed dad had when they first picked him up… Oh, if only! What a happier story I’d be telling today! For me, the shock lasted for about five days until I finally started feeling like I could have any kind of positive impact on the situation.
The other “new” stage is testing. Here’s where you start envisioning a future and considering different outcomes. For example, if Dad can’t take care of himself, who looks after Mom? Maybe Mom needs an emergency alert. Maybe we need to think about checking on her more often. It’s so endearing to see them worrying about each other, but at the same time, heartbreaking to think of one without the other. Thankfully, that is not today’s discussion. I think I keep trying to force us to the testing stage, because I want to be done with the others, they are too painful. However, all of the stages must be experienced, digested, and overcome before acceptance can occur. And just because you go through one of the stages, does not mean that you’re done with it… it is a cycle until you get to healing. Now, more than ever, I’m realizing that it never ends. Lisa died 15 years ago and I still can’t let that go and I still miss her so much. But in dad’s case, we are blessed, he kept all of his wit and snark and kindness that we all love so much! And as he is so fond of saying, there is no point in worrying.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)