Part 3: “Psychology of challenges” series

By: Linda Music

Death. We fear it. For ourselves and, even more so, for the people we love. When it comes marching mercilessly into our lives, we are not prepared. We have no tools to cope with the anguish and the pain that inevitably follows.

It is indeed one of life’s most difficult challenges.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, published a book called “On grief and grieving”. This book has formed the basis of psychological thought into grief and a quick google search will bring up this book as the seminal work on this topic. Kubler-Ross and Kessler define grief as moving through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.

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I am at odds with this structured view of grief. Having lost three family members, two of whom were my parents, within a four-year period, I believe that Kubler-Ross’s neat five-stage process of grief is too simplistic and too narrow.

It gives little regard to the fact that just as each death is unique, so is the uniqueness of each person’s grieving process. My experience is that grief cannot be placed into neat categories or onto a timeline of stages that we must pass through.

Pain – unbelievable pain

My mother died suddenly at the age of 55. Diagnosed with a heart condition at the age of 32, we knew there was a strong possibility that one day it could claim her life. But despite this knowing, the suddenness of her death not only shocked me, but brought with it the worst possible pain I had ever experienced.

People tell you it hurts when someone you love dies. But what they cannot possibly describe is the all-encompassing pain that consumes your entire body. It was not just my heart and my soul that were suddenly thrust into maddening and excruciating pain, but it seemed that every cell in my body ached with loss.

I remember wondering how it was possible that every fibre of my being could feel so much pain. It was as if the very nerve endings of my skin ached to hold my mum again.

Kubler-Ross says that the first stage of grief is denial. I didn’t deny anything at first. I witnessed my mother’s final moments as her body fitted violently. I looked into her eyes between each episode and did not deny that this was her end. Our end.

But I denied later. After the pain, I threw myself into my work and into my teaching degree and assured anyone who asked, that I was fine. Busy-ness has a way of covering up pain. But grief lay under the surface and I held it there, quashed under my commitment to motherhood, uni and work.

When uni was over. I fell. Hard.

Grief consumed me and my longing to see my mother, to hold her and tell her all the things I had failed to say in life, became intolerable.

I was embarrassed. It had been six months since her death, so I believed that I should have be fine.

But grief does not fit neatly on some timeline. It swings relentlessly backwards and forwards from pain to acceptance to pain again.

It has been 12 years since my mother passed and, of course, acceptance has come with time. But I still grieve for her. In significant life moments or when I’m sad or feeling sick, I desperately long to pick up the phone and call her.

The grief bubbles up to the surface again.

Regret

When my mother-in-law died, I was shocked at the grief that consumed me. During her final hours, I sat at her bedside with my husband and held her hand and rubbed her feet in a desperate attempt to stop the coldness that, even in life, was beginning to envelop her body.

I did this, all the while feeling tremendous guilt.

I was never mean or disrespectful to my mother-in-law but I wasn’t warm or loving either. When she passed, I grieved for the relationship that she desperately wanted us to have but which I had denied her.

So, I didn’t go through any of Kubler-Ross’s stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. I went through an altogether different kind of grief: the grief of regret.

Relief

My father’s progression towards death came, one day at a time, over a period of six months. I cried every day from his initial diagnosis to the day he closed his eyes for the last time. The pain from four years earlier was back. It stretched out over the ensuing months as I watched him wither from a merciless cancer.

I was angry at the world when he was diagnosed. I was angry with him for smoking and then for continuing to do so despite the death sentence he had been given.

“What’s the point of giving up now,” he kept saying.

I was angry at the doctors who couldn’t help him, particularly one doctor who had no compassion and who seemed to gloat with his “I told you so” demeanour.

Grief doesn’t just come after death. Grief came for me every day of my father’s battle with cancer. I wanted to scream, beat my chest and tear out the heart that threatened to consume my world with pain once more.

I felt hopeless. That was my grief.

When my father passed, I did not experience the same emotions as I did when my mother died. In fact, his death came as a relief. When you watch someone you love suffer, it breaks you. I felt ashamed but I wanted him to rest. I wanted him to be at peace. Perhaps it was selfishness on my part but I wanted his pain to be over. And mine too.

It doesn’t mean I loved him less or grieved less. It’s just that I did most of my grieving before he died.

So, when I look at the five stages of grief, I know that I did it all out of order. I even skipped the ‘bargaining’ stage altogether, never once experiencing that stage.

I grieved my way. And that’s how it should be.

We should not be told that it’s time to move on.

We should not look to some timeline of stages to see how we, or those we love, should be progressing.

For grief is not a production line of emotions nor is there a right or wrong way to grieve.

Grief, in all its entirety, reminds us that life is precious and that we must remember, every day, to tell those we love how much they mean to us.

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