I was about five years old when I first witnessed a group of people mourn. I cannot remember now who had died or what the person’s relationship with my family was. My mother cried for days, my father was extremely quiet and several uncles and aunties kept coming in and out of the house. It was a very unsettling experience that stuck with me and crystallized the concept of death in my innocent mind.
The loss of a loved one is a life-changing experience. People pray fervently to the God they believe in, call on the deceased to come back to life, and sometimes resort to self-harm. The dead never come back, not in my experience at least. There was a story told to me by a renowned pathologist of a dead man that came back to life after some hours. They were preparing the body for a post-mortem examination and felt sudden limb movement. The ‘dead’ man rose and return to normal life. Of course, the pathologist hypothesized the effect of hypothermia on the turn of events but the cynic in me believed the doctors who certified him dead in the first place were just profoundly out of their depths. But that is the story for another day.
Elizabeth Kubler-Rose developed the five stages of grief in 1969. The concept of grief is usually associated with loss; however, grief is a reaction that can occur whenever the current reality is not what was expected, wanted, or hoped for. Knowing the stages of grief can help with self-understanding when we grieve and increase the compassion and empathy we show to others.
Denial: This is the first stage, typified by shock and feeling numb. It feels like the situation will be reversed even though there is no rational reason to believe so. Many people actually ‘hear the voice’ of the deceased or ‘see’ them. Shutting down, keeping busy, and saying ‘I’m fine’ even when exhibiting sub-normal behaviors are some ways to be in denial. Denial is a natural way to cope with the much we can handle at this stage.
Anger: Anger is the next stage and is totally normal, especially if you think the timing is wrong or the death or event is unfair. Some people even feel anger towards the person that died or feel angry with themselves for what they could have done or even guilty to be alive while their loved one is dead.
Bargaining: We start making deals with ourselves or God. This is the stage we do a mental review of past events leading up to the death of the deceased. We ask a lot of questions and wonder what we could have done differently.
Depression: Pain and depression can be intense. It can also be prolonged and can come in waves over many months and even years. Life can be meaningless, perspectives change, and it is difficult to be grateful.
Acceptance: By this stage, the pain eases and most people have begun to live with the reality of the loss. A lot of coping mechanisms come into play.
It is possible not to go through this sequence but every grief reaction has these elements. The intensity also varies for different individuals and may time come with physiological and natural symptoms. Sleeplessness, excessive crying, lack of interest in social activities, and lack of motivation. It is important to know that grief reactions can be abnormal; excessively intense or prolonged. Seeking professional help certainly helps.