A friend’s niece and her husband lost their precious little boy six days after he was born. The mother took a few months off from work, and when she returned, she faced the following blunt question from a coworker, “So what stage of grief are you in now?”
I hope that every reader sees this episode as insensitive, cruel and ignorant. People who grieve find that in addition to all of the other tasks at hand, they must also learn to forgive the ignorance, the insensitivity and the cruelty of others. In an effort to perhaps be “helpful,” people say and do the wrong things.
I have found during my journey that learning to forgive is very much a part of living beyond loss. I’m also learning to forgive myself, for surely in my past, I have said or done something that seemed unkind or tactless to someone else in grief. To any I have offended, I deeply apologize.
Speaking of stages of grief, we err on the side of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who developed the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. At least one man corrects our thinking. The stages Kubler-Ross developed applied to terminal patients as they came to terms with the realities of dying. Our culture has since related them to people who are left to grieve after a loved one dies, which is not only possible but also probable.
The challenges of identifying stages is that too many people misunderstand that they do not occur in order, nor does anyone experience all of them. Sometimes, I have found that I experience all of them simultaneously, which, to be honest, is an emotion overload of immeasurable confusion. So to ask someone, “What stage are you in?”, is not only hurtful but also misinformed.
“…grief turns out not to be so simple,” writes professor and author David B. Feldman, Ph.D. on psychologytoday.com (July 17, 2017).
“Studies now show that grievers don’t progress through these stages in a lock-step fashion,” Feldman says. “Consequently, when any of us loses someone we love, we may find that we fit the stages precisely as Kubler-Ross outlined, or we may skip all but one. We may race through them or drag our feet all the way to acceptance. We may even repeat or add stages that Kubler-Ross never dreamed of. In fact, the actual grief process looks a lot less like a neat set of stages and a lot more like a roller coaster of emotions. Even Kubler-Ross said that grief doesn’t proceed in a linear and predictable fashion, writing toward the end of her career that she regretted her stages had been misunderstood.”
Sometimes, a little bit of knowledge leads to a surplus of mistakes as we attempt to provide comfort and encouragement to those who travel the journey of grief. Tread lightly, I recommend. Keep comments minimal. Don’t use your words to put you at ease. Use your words and actions to express care and concern, not explanations or justifications, to the grieving.
“I’m thinking of you.” “I love you and I loved (the person you lost).” “I miss him/her, too.” “May I take you to dinner later this week?” If you find a picture of the deceased person, send it to his family. If you have a shared memory, write it in a card and mail it.
The journey of grief is so individualized that there is no one prescription for traveling it. One thing is certain, however. Kindness means more to a grieving person than most other things. A word spoken or a deed performed in kindness eases the journey of grief just a bit – at least for that moment.