The Stages of Grief and the One They Forgot

The Stages of Grief and the One They Forgot (May 27, 2015)
The very outdated copy of my undergraduate psychology book uses the Kubler-Ross Model to describe the stages of grief.  You’ve probably seen them before: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  As an English Language Arts teacher, it almost pains me to say this, but Wikipedia does a decent job of describing the stages as well.   Most of these are pretty self-explanatory but for the sake of the blog, I’ll walk you through them.

  • Denial: “This isn’t happening,” and “This didn’t happen,” or as I like to refer to it, “Check again!”  Kubler-Ross described this stage as imagining an alternate ending.  Others describe it as denial of feelings experienced in grief.  I remember both.  For weeks (maybe months) after John Karl’s death I woke up thinking things like, “Oh my goodness, I haven’t feed the baby all night!” My brain thought this on its own, unconsciously. I then had to say (sometimes out loud), “No, Misty. There is no baby now, remember?”  In my cycle of grief, I found that denial extended for me into the denial of comfort and the denial of God’s presence. Stay with me here, I’ll try to explain.  I didn’t believe that anyone on the planet could possibly understand what I was feeling or what my family was going through, and I was actually grateful for that. No one should know the experience of losing a child. The reality is that they do and I soon remembered close friends who loved me and came to me, checking in regularly and offering any comfort they could because they too knew what it was like to lose a child. God bless them.  I didn’t realize at the time that I was in denial of God’s presence.  Let me tell you that in the thick fog of grief you have no idea what is happening around you.  None. Zero.  I had no idea in the present that God was even there.  Now, I can see for certain that He never left us. He never left our side. Again, thank you to all our friends and family who sent positive thoughts and many, many prayers of comfort and strength.  It was (and sometimes is) such a dark place for us, that I can honestly tell you the denial is real.  Sometimes I’m so mad at God that I don’t want him there for a minute.  I just want to be alone.  The truth is, that’s a new form of denial. Because even though I get my mini-pity party and “alone time”. God never leaves. Never.  Not for one second.  I know this because if He did, I believe I would literally cease to breathe on more than one occasion. 

  • Anger: “Why me?” and “This isn’t fair!” New opinions say that some never experience this stage of grief. I certainly did and sometimes still do.  My past stages of anger were better described as “F you, God!” and “I can’t believe You let this happen to us.” And my personal favorite, “God, you’re really kind of a jerk.” Almost 7 months later I find my anger surfaces as “Why couldn’t I keep him?” and “I’ll never take him to a baseball game or watch him play little league.”  You know the most amazing about God in my recurring stage of anger, Matthew 11:28.  God says, “Bring it.” In Ephesians 6:12 God reminds us that the “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  The feeling of anger isn’t the sin and it isn’t the problem in grief either.  The reaction to anger sure can be though. Like any other sin that we struggle with God says, “Bring it. Give it to me.”  Easier said than done, I’m sure you know. But it is what I keep reminding myself as the stage of anger returns again and again.

  • Bargaining:“If you ___, then I will ___.” I’m a mom, so my natural reaction to this was, “If you save him, I will do anything.” And I probably would have done just about anything to save that lifeless little boy that was in my arms.  Anything to make him breathe and stay here on earth so I could raise him, and giggle with him, and watch him grow in a man as wonderful as his father.  The trouble is…you can’t bargain with God. It’s not how He works.
  • Depression: “I’m too sad to go on.”  Kubler-Ross says that this is true depression only temporary. Lack of focus, control, motivation, etc.  For me this stage was completely internalized. Very few people that I know were able to witness it.  I forced myself to hold it together to fight the depression. I didn’t want to. I really, really, really didn’t want to. Remember. I told you that what I wanted to do was crawl into bed and wake up when this was all over, and believe me, there were days when getting out of bed was the most painful thing I did.  But I had to.  I have seen depression crush people…ruin them.  I was terrified of it. I think so much so that I forced myself to try to heal more quickly than I wanted or needed to.  So the cycle would start all over again.  It never ends. Grief never ends.  What I needed to do was find a way to live through it. I did…my husband, my girls.  They were here and had been given to me to love, and raise, and enjoy.  I needed them and they needed me.  Depression was simply not an option.  I know that this isn’t true for all who lose a loved one, or a child.  I can’t allow myself to think about that possibility and I feel like any of you reading this and feeling “too sad” to not be afraid to talk about it.  I discussed it with my husband, with my friends, with my therapist (everyone needs a therapistJ).  I ran from it. Ran!

  • Acceptance: “I am going to be ok.”  Though I doubt the existence of this stage all together…the phrase has sort of become a mantra for John and me.  I get flustered when people say, “It’s ok.” Before you freak out because you realize that you have said this…don’t worry. It’s ok.  It is an immediate response that most people make.  I can assure you that “it” is not ok. There is nothing ok about the death of our infant son. There will never be anything “ok” about that.  “It will be ok.” That’s a little better. Encouragement that the way we are feeling now, will not be the way we feel forever – whether that is sad, or angry, or depressed, or any of the millions of other emotions.  “I am going to be ok.”  That does it.  Though, John and I use “we”. We are going to be ok.  The “we” in the sense of the two of us as individual people and the “we” that is our marriage. “WE” will be ok.  “WE” will get through this.  I am learning that this happened because of our faith, because of our amazingly supportive family and friends, and because of their faith. When I was swamped in denial of my feelings and my faith, others were strong and praying and now I can see THAT is was carried us through the darkest part of the tunnel.

Other stages have been added to the Kubler-Ross model Five Stages of Grief and the existing stages have been debated since their initial existence in her first book, On Death and Dying. It has also been pointed out that the stages don’t necessarily occur in order, as once believed, and that one can and will cycle through stages and return again and again to some and skip others.  An updated version – The SevenStages of Grief, seems to be the current popular choice. Though the Seven Stages add shock to the beginning (totally true!) and guilt to the middle, neither of these include what I think is the most important and always forgotten stage: Pain.
If you have ever experienced loss, in any form, you know that pain is real.  I look back over my journals and that’s when I see the pain.  Pain takes on so many forms: emotional pain, spiritual pain, physical pain.  So many. So much.
The emotional pain involved in loss and grief is big.  My heart is irreparably broken.  I don’t believe it will be whole again until John Karl and I embrace again in Heaven. I will be ok.  I broke the hearts of my girls when I gave them the news.  Emotional pain continues each time I realize something else I will miss with my son:  seeing him try green peas, or have a Popsicle, learning to crawl and walk, running for first base, going to kindergarten, playing sports in middle school, taking a girl on a date, graduating high school, choosing a college (I like to think he would have surprised us and been a Buckeye fan), getting married, having a son of his own – John Karl VII.  This will never happen. None of it. It’s gone.  The emotional pain of losing a child or any person we love is great. The emotional pain of losing all of the things we hoped for, prayed for, and expected…it’s so much more and last so much longer.
Spiritual pain…My relationship with the Lord was weak, at best, for longer than I would like to admit. The amazing thing about our relationship with the Lord, is that sometimes it’s stronger than family…If you’ve ever had a fight with a parent, or sibling, or spouse, you know that soon all is forgiven, but rarely forgotten.   I am thankful for His grace and His mercy and His willingness to welcome me back into His strong, loving, and comforting arms like the prodigal son. Forgiven as if the anger and frustration never happened. Our relationship is different now, but better.  I chose to be better, and not bitter.  Faith and feelings are a choice.
Physical pain in grief is real.  If you’ve lost, you know.  I can’t make this up.  My head, my body, my stomach, my chest…literally hurt, writhe, ache with the physical pain that probably derives from my emotions and spiritual pain, but just has nowhere else to go.  Sometimes it hurts so much that I can’t breathe. I stop breathing. Literally stop, almost pass out.  When we left the funeral home after having to ID John Karl’s sweet little body and physically lay eyes on our son for the last time, my body gave up.  I fell to the ground. I felt paralyzed. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to remove myself from the floor of that little room.  He looked perfect, more perfect than I’d ever imagined and all the pain rolled through my body like a title wave and knocked me to the ground.  It was 5 full minutes before I could control any physical aspect of my body or emotional response in my mind.  I spent weeks dealing with the spiritual pain.  Scrounging the bible like a wild animal looking for food.  Something to ease the pain.
That’s the stage they forgot. Pain.
Almost every day I get in the van to drive to Kindergarten, two girls strapped in the back seat. Every day I am reminded that there is no baby boy in the car seat, and for a minute I panic. I think, I’ve forgotten him at home. Oh my goodness what a terrible mother I am!  No.  There’s no baby.  I didn’t forget anything.  That little twinge of pain I feel in my chest is a combination of emotion and physical pain.  I ponder my spiritual pain again, bravely asking God when I can stop reminding myself that he’s gone.  My baby boy is gone and won’t be coming back.  I’m still struggling to find that answer. I’ll let you know.
All the pain – still there.

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