You just got news of a new promotion, a bundle of joy on the way, an engagement, graduation…or….a diagnosis. None of these things mentioned are synonymous with death in the traditional sense of the word, BUT all of these events (plus many more) can definitely have us experiencing the 5 stages of grief. I know what you might be thinking “why would I be experiencing grief if no one has died?” or maybe you even re-read the first sentence again and thought to yourself “why would I be experiencing grief with a promotion, engagement or something as magical as the announcement of a child?”. The answer is simple: grief is not just the feelings associated with death. Grief is something we experience with change, regardless of the excitement or sadness associated with the event. Grief is also complex, it is what we experience when we are facing change.
So what exactly do these stages look like and what can we expect? We’ll get to that in just a moment, first, I want to be sure to explain that these stages are in no particular order. These stages are also fluid, meaning, we can feel them in any particular order, we can move through stages and go back to feeling a stage we may have previously worked through. There is no “set of rules” when it comes to change.
Denial: We all have our own ideas of what is supposed to happen…or not happen in life, so when the unexpected happens it is very possible that our initial reaction is shock or denial. Denial can be subtle, like when a friend does something shocking and we keep saying “there’s no way THEY could do that to me”. It can also be a bit more extreme. I remember when a long-time family friend passed away a couple years ago, I went back to the house to visit after her services, her mom came to talk to me and began asking me if I could hang around a little longer because she was in the hospital and would be coming home soon. Although I new she would never be coming home again, I also knew that her mom was in shock, so I gave her a big hug and told her I would wait around a little longer. Some people would also refer to this stage as Shock.
Anger: I have found anger to be the most “acceptable” form of grief. The reason I say acceptable is not because I agree or disagree with any of the stages, but more so, because anger seems to be an emotion that many people are familiar with. For some of us anger has also become one of the most commonly expressed emotions. Why is that? Simple, we learn from an early age that anger is “normal”, “acceptable” and healthy to express if done correctly. If you look at the other stages Denial, Depression and Bargaining, those are not emotions that are encouraged or explored from childhood. I don’t think I have to go into depth about anger or what it looks like.
What I would like to say about it is that it is completely normal! Although it may bring discomfort or bring out a side of us we don’t particularly enjoy, the truth is that anger gives us a lot of good information. Why are we angry? What do we need? What do we miss? Who are we angry AT? Most of the time the things we are most angry about or at are the things we have the least amount of control of. Which makes sense, this is typical in nearly every setting and is enhanced when we are experiencing grief.
One point I always try to make with Anger is to try and re-evaluate our relationship with it. Although it is nice to feel happy all the time, I believe, that we need to also learn to befriend anger. I used to think that Anger was a “negative” emotion but more recently I stepped away from the idea that emotions are either positive or negative because emotions are what they are and nothing more. They are simply indicators of where we are emotionally and give us information as to what work needs to be done. But I could talk about anger all day because anger is a secondary emotion which means it is protecting us from having to feel the primary emotion.
Depression: Many people have experienced depression, whether it was associated with grief or not. Depression is also a big word that scares many people but I would like to tell you, it’s not so scary, it just has a bad reputation, similar to Anger. I also think there is a huge fear that if we are experiencing depression that we will get stuck there and next thing you know we are clinically depressed and somehow helpless.
Is it true that a person can become clinically depressed? Absolutely. When we experience happiness we never look in the mirror and judge our smile and start asking ourselves why we’re so happy or how long will it last, we simply enjoy it and understand that, like every other emotion, it will leave and eventually come back around again. So why do we treat depression differently? Another thing I have learned is that, as humans, we are horrible at suppressing emotions. We might think we have become clever and mastered wearing a “mask” but usually it’s not so true, it tends to leak out in other ways.
So, what is the trick?
-Recognize when your emotions are beginning to shift.
-Allow the emotions to come and go, like the waves in the ocean. Some will be higher than others, but all waves will soon crash.
-Listen to how to you talk to yourself during these times. We never say “MY happiness” we just say “I feel happy”. For some reason when depression comes knocking we say “MY depression” as though it was a long-lost friend that came to visit and we’re unsure if they’ll ever leave the house again.
-Understand triggers. It might be a person, a song, a place, a smell or even a word. As we are working through the stages there are times where we need to protect ourselves from these triggers. A perfect example that is all over the media right now is pop star Ariana Grande taking time off of social media because she has been unable to avoid certain triggers. We owe it to ourselves to do the same, even if that means staying away from people or things we love. Be cautious though that this is done in a healthy way and not in a way that encourages us detaching from the world around us.
Bargaining: This one is definitely my go to. “If you just let me pass this test, I promise I won’t cram or pull an overnighter next time.” We somehow think that we can magically control our surroundings but it’s not true. I have found that I feel most empowered when I let go of all attempts at control. When we try to control or bargain what is happening in our life what we are essentially doing, is to resist what is actually taking place.
Of course, there are times we wish would have never happened or things that we wish we never had to go through, but, life is going to happen regardless of whether or not we want to accept it. Bargaining is a natural instinct and the more we work on acceptance and challenge our thoughts the more we are able to move through this phase.
If I crammed for a test and know that I am unprepared it is not going to be helpful to try and bargain at that point. If I happened to have failed that test it will not be helpful to get upset and run through the bargaining phase again. What is helpful is to recognize what I can do differently and make the necessary changes. If there are things beyond our control, such as a diagnosis, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that no amount of bargaining will change the outcome but the energy we put towards the resistance can impact our every day lives. Bargaining is absolutely natural and is our attempt to try and process and understand the circumstances in our life. This part of the process is not bad or wrong, like every other stage, it is what it is. Having awareness can help us move closer towards acceptance.
Acceptance: Some people would say this is the final stage, I prefer saying this is the ultimate goal. This is the goal with all things in life, not just loss or grief. Once we get to a place where we can move with what’s happening around us and accept what is, we have the ability to create change and find peace. There will always be things that happen “to” us, we cannot stop what others will say to us or about us but we can control how we react, how we handle the situation and how we move forward.
Yes, I am sure there are verbal lashings you didn’t deserve. Yes, it is true that no one deserves something as cruel as cancer. It is also true that life happens and we cannot change it, we can only accept it and be as strategic and loving as possible in the process. This is my belief with all things in life.
Similar to every other stage previously mentioned, acceptance can come and go. These stages can happen in any order they would like. I say “they” because we simply don’t have control over them. We might go from Denial to Acceptance back to Denial to Depression to Anger back to Depression then Acceptance again. Each stage can be a different duration of time. When does it become a diagnosable clinical issue? When you begin experiencing depression for months at a time.
What happens now?
Talk about it. Challenge the idea of what might be considered taboo.
Talk about it. Challenge the idea that you are burdening others.
Talk about it. Challenge the idea that your feelings are ridiculous.
Talk about it. Challenge the idea that just because you received “good” news means you “shouldn’t” be experiencing these stages.
Talk about it. Challenge the idea that no one understands.
Talk about it. Challenge that idea that you don’t need help.
Talk about it. Challenge the idea that counseling is for the weak.
Talk about it. Challenge the idea that you shouldn’t be talking about it.
Get it yet? Challenge yourself to TALK ABOUT IT! __________________________________________________ Podcast: 10/17 Recap: Kahila’s introduction to the podcast, why it got started and the journey that the podcast will take you on. She also shares part of her own story including her promise to her mom! Check her out using one of the various, easy to use platforms, by searching “Cancer the Easy Life”:
Android: Podcast Player
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__________________________________________________ Upcoming Events: 10/31 Podcast: Interview with Robby Medina
11/15 Seany Movie Night (purchase tickets online: The Seany Foundation)
11/17 Childhood Cancer Thrivership Symposium (Registration required: The Seany Foundation)