After the loss of their child, Steven and Samantha felt like they couldn’t breathe. Everything hurt as if the entire body took on excessive pain. It took extreme amounts of energy just to move, especially to breathe. Time seemed to stop. They couldn’t talk, words failed them. The voices of other people sounded like muffled noises in a distance. The only constant thoughts were: “Was this real?” and “This must be a bad dream.”
The doctor delivered the news of their child passing away after a routine surgery. Death was barely mentioned as a possible outcome. He was supposed to be OK and back to playing with his legos and his sibling in just a few days. But now this happened. “What is this?” they pleaded, “What just happened?”
Seconds turned into days and days into months. Steven and Samantha were still unable to function. Friends and family tried to help but everything seemed pointless. But they had another child who needed them to be present, who didn’t understand what happened, and unknowingly craved for normalcy. So they went to a therapist to help the family process their loss.
Not everyone grieves in the same way, children are very different from adults. Add to that the different perspectives, experiences, thoughts, emotions, and attitudes. When it comes to grieving, there are many healthy forms with the exception of one: not grieving.
Embracing grief is a willingness to accept the fluctuating emotions, random thoughts, internal struggles, constant questions, and ever-shifting environment. But “accept” does not mean enjoy. Grieving is hard work, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Yet it is a necessary part of moving forward even when it is unwelcome. Here are the stages of grief which can be done in any order. Most often, people find that they oscillate between stages or the stages come in waves, some stronger than others.
Stage one: Denial. It is difficult to believe that what has happened has really occurred. Feelings of numbness, anxiety, panic, shock, disbelief, coldness, detachment, and emotionlessness are typical. In the case of a death, for a period of time, the person may even imagine conversations with their loved one. This usually does not last too long, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. However, it frequently reappears during the other stages when things get overwhelming with too many new decisions to make.
Stage two: Anger. This is a hard emotional reaction for some. Some become angry with the person who passed away, for missing some important detail and not paying attention, intense feelings of abandonment or rejection, or frustration over the circumstances that led to the event. Others become angry internally for not saying good-bye, not performing some task, having a fight or argument, failing to take care of matters, or an inability to help. Oftentimes, the anger is projected onto others who may or may not have anything to do with the event. Anger can be aggressive, suppressive, passive-aggressive, or the best way: assertive.
Stage three: Bargaining. “If only,” “I should have,” “How come,” “Why,” or “I wish” are all forms of bargaining. This obsessive thinking pattern is an attempt to regain some control over circumstances that appear to be out spiraling downward. This is a normal response and while it sounds a little bit dysfunctional, it can be helpful. The feelings of denial and anger consume thoughts and feelings as life appears to be out of control. In contrast, bargaining is a way to return life back to some level of control.
Stage four: Depression. It is perfectly normal to feel depressed after a death. Depression is a valley in life, a period of time when things seem to slow down. It is a time for being introspective, doing self-evaluation, and reflecting on what has transpired. These moments can bring greater clarity and meaning which later will enhance the quality of life. Depression resulting from grief is normal and should be embraced as part of the process and not something to run from.
Stage five: Acceptance. Not that the event is OK, but at some point, there is a realization that life goes on and happiness can be regained. While contentment seemed elusive before, it now becomes more frequent and the simple things bring joy again. It is as if there is a return to a better form of existence as a result of the experience. Things are better in that life is appreciated more, time with loved ones is valued, relationships are more meaningful, and purpose in life is newly redirected. Acceptance is not about forgetting; rather it is about acknowledging and enduring. This stage is not fully entered into until the other stages are complete.
Grief is normal and healthy. It can take on many different forms depending on the person. For children, it could be delayed from even beginning for several years. The entire process can last a few weeks, months, or years and should not be rushed as if another task to finish. This is a valuable time of insight, reflection, and understanding that can improve the quality of life going forward.