“Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance” is a really bad name for a law firm. Can you imagine the poor receptionist who has to rattle that off every time the phone rings? If you are not familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief, courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, perhaps you’ve heard those five words spouted by daytime talk show hosts. (My first exposure to them was via the film All That Jazz, but I’m a bit of an odd duck.) This poker hand emotion summation has been as quoted as it has been misunderstood. The stages; anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, reference the typical response to being diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is not about grief or loss but about how one deals with their own imminent demise. If you’ve mistaken the Reaction 5 as being about losing someone, you’re not alone. There are many mental health practitioners out there who don’t know the difference either.
Semantics, you say. Or perhaps you’re thinking “potato, potahto” Or perhaps you’ve stopped reading this altogether. Let’s pretend that you’re still with me.
The difference is critical if for no other reason than loss does not follow a predictable trajectory. No one has (or probably ever will) collected any data that results in a bereavement proclamation such as the Reaction 5. There are simply too many variables. At what stage of life is the survivor? What was the relationship between survivor and deceased? How did the person die? We could go on and on. Being told that one’s expiration date is imminent is much more clear. The Reaction 5 is to the idea that “I’M GOING TO DIE!”, there really are no other variables, and after stage 5, you’re done. Let’s keep in mind that this is not a competition between the terminally ill and the bereaved. I merely would like to share how the bereaved are ill-served by the Reaction 5.
“Time heals all wounds” is as much a big bag of bullshit as “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. Time changes all wounds. But every day, week, month, or year will bring a new reminder or old anniversary. Triggers don’t disappear they just get more stealth. The rawness ebbs and the fog and terror abate but that is not the same as healing. The healing a wound metaphor is at best meaningless and at worst offensive. You’re not getting over a break-up or a job loss. The hole in your life and heart doesn’t come together like gathering clouds. Life changes, and the heart never forgets. No matter how much time passes you will also be your deceased child’s parent or partner’s spouse. You don’t “heal”. Don’t even get me started on the “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. That rubbish adage is as ridiculous as bird poo on your head or rain on your wedding day being good luck. If this were true we’d all marry in the rain forest. It’s just the malarkey we throw around in our attempt to make people feel better during a crap time. What doesn’t kill us can leave us seriously damaged.
The thing about these platitudes and the misuse of the Reaction 5 is we’re telling people how to feel. I know how hard it is to come up with anything sincere and useful to say when someone is in a fresh hell. I have held a friend whose child was killed and felt nothing but impotent. I have listened to a childhood friend whose wife had just died and desperately scrambled to say something hopeful. My telling him that it is a journey of discovery and not a process of stages was not what he needed in those moments. He needed me to listen and to say that it will get better. I told him it does and I was not lying. It does get better, but it doesn’t go away. Life changes (with or without loss) and the human spirit is not designed for sustained, permanent grief. We are wired for recovery. Our bodies recharge with every good night of sleep and we seek nourishment several times a day. We go forward, like sharks. If we’re lucky we discover new sources of joy and beauty and perhaps even peace.