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The Stages and States of My Grief

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I would have hoped that something called the “Five Stages of Grief” could be a relatively orderly practice. I imagined the five stages as a sort of life syllabus for the grieving process. A bit like the developmental stages of infant-toddler-young child, with a clear trajectory, even if there are some points of overlap.The actual grief experience, however, is much less defined and quite a bit louder.

The chaplain hands me a simple pamphlet, describing the five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The whole process seems tidy and manageable, all summed up in an eight-page glossy format. I read the whole thing in less than seven minutes. It seems reasonable enough. Almost refined.

And then the work of grieving begins.

Let me just say that my grief has not been especially cooperative with the outline. I’m a pretty diligent student. If grief and healing had been a class, I would have completed much of the assigned reading and turned most of the assignments in on time, all within the course of the semester. But loss is a test you can’t really prepare for.

Each grief is different, just as every child is different. The best I can do is to become an expert in my own grief. The good news in all this is that there are many ways to do grief right, and only a few wrong ways.

I swing from Denial to Acceptance in a single loop around the Rose Bowl. I hold on to a few steadfast girlfriends who are relentless with their love and attention. I have two good reasons to get up in the morning, but Depression crawls back under the covers after she walks those reasons to school.

Not every experience fits neatly into a five-pronged paradigm. The uncontrollable tears — are those Depression? Or Anger? Or Acceptance? Isn’t there a plain vanilla Sad? What about Panic, Sleeplessness, Loss of Appetite and Inability to Focus? The sense of being so completely Alone. Resentment. Remorse. Apathy.

The stages blow in together like a winter storm, with lightning flashes of Desperation, clouds of Fear, winds of Self-Pity, hailstones of Loneliness. The calm and beauty of a summer day seem very far away.

There’s no real time constraint. Just when I think I’m done with a stage, Anger for example, one of the boys comes home from school devastated because somebody else’s dad brought a prototype Mars rover to show the class, or gave a cool art presentation on Picasso, or just came home from work like he does on any given day, and then I’m angry all over again. Angry at Sam, at myself, at Life, at Picasso. Just plain angry.

And so it goes.

I cannot check the stages off, like my daily task list. Done. The stages come back in their random order and time. Acceptance seems to linger for days or weeks at a time, but Depression might return when certain anniversaries come around. I revisit Bargaining when the children are hurting.

All of which is complicated by the fact that the children’s grieving process is as noncompliant as my own.

Some days the six of us are each in a different stage, and it’s like playing a game of musical chairs, with each of the five chairs representing a stage of grief. When the music stops, the last man standing looks around, bewildered, not wanting to play the game at all. By evening, of course, everybody has exchanged seats, some of us multiple times (except the one who refuses to leave his chair), and we face an entirely new conglomeration of simultaneous stages. We cannot agree on which music to play. It’s not organized or pretty.

We live our way through. Because the fact of the matter is that our grief — whatever its states and stages — is the price we pay for loving wholeheartedly.

A few months after Sam’s suicide, I took a meditation class. I didn’t realize what a healing course this practice would be at the time. I continue to engage in a meditation practice, as those five stages — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance — appear with alarming relevance in the course of parenting teenagers. The key is simply to become aware of the range of experience, without judgment. Just notice what is happening, and let the feeling flow without getting stuck. Awareness leads to healing. It’s not ignoring the sadness, but there is kindness toward the process.

One of my favorite places to sit and meditate is on a balcony above the boardwalk at the beach. The sun warms my face. I hear the wind in the palm fronds. And I’m vaguely aware of the stages of grief, traveling along the path before me. Anger scoots by on his skateboard, kathunk-kathunk, kathunk-kathunk. Depression plods by with sticky footsteps. Denial and Bargaining walk together, yammering animatedly. Acceptance runs by, light on her feet, steady and joyful with movement. And still the warmth and the wind. Gentleness.

An amazing thing starts to happen in this place. Even though there is constant change and flux, my essential wholeness remains intact. The true self. The soul. Spirit’s song. Inner light. Identity. Whatever you call it, I am. Right here. In the midst of all that has been broken and shattered, I am whole and safe. The universe holds all the pieces.

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Originally published: May 23, 2017
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