Information from the Annals of Counseling Psychology
John was a patient of mine whose wife had died unexpectedly from a sudden heart attack and wanted to discuss the stages of grief. I told him that denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the well-known stages of grief, as postulated by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. At the time of the book’s publication, very little instruction was given in medical school on the subject of death and dying, which was what motivated Kübler-Ross to share her findings in her work with terminally ill patients.
I told him that these five stages of grief have become so well-known that they are now engrained in pop culture. Through his own therapy, he was surprised to learn that Kübler-Ross didn’t create the stages to indicate a linear progression of grief, but rather to describe the process of the patients she observed. Before her death in 2004, Kübler-Ross noted in her book On Grief and Grieving that the five stages were not meant to be a linear and predictable progression of grief, and that she regretted that the stages had been misinterpreted.
Also, there was no indication that John went through all of these stages in the usual sequence and that initially troubled him. I explained that he was a unique individual as was his relationship with his wife, so too would be his experience of the grieving process.
Since mourning the loss of his wife was such a devastating experience, he yearned for a checklist, a time to look forward to when his sadness and grief would end. Unfortunately, there seems to be no definitive “end” to the grieving process; much like our own personal growth, we’re never really “done” or complete with grieving.
I explained that as he continually deals with his life, hand in hand with the experience of mourning his wife, he will find a “new normal” – a new way to be in the world without her in his life.
Although grief has no particular stages, timeline or ending, it doesn’t mean that we will grieve in the same way forever. The people that we love and lose are forever engrained in our hearts and minds. Over time, the indescribable sorrow of grief morphs into a sort of bittersweet gratitude: still sad that we lost our loved one, but happy and grateful for the gift of sharing our life and time with them.
After 10 visits with me, John was relieved to find that the way he was mourning was as normal as anyone else’s, his guilt disappeared and he was starting to look forward to his life again.
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