Bereavement: Ways to Cope to Get to the New Normal After the Loss
“They” say you will be happy again some day. “They” say time will heal things or “this too shall pass.” And you probably say, “YOU are full of baloney (or worse.)”
Some losses are little daily don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff experiences. Others are devastating. I recently encountered a description of healed life after bereavement called “the new normal” which I feel is very helpful.
Dealing with Bad Change
In the 1960’s, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. published research on how terminally ill people deal with the news of their imminent passing. Her book for lay people, On Death and Dying, is still used to educate professionals working in hospice and other health fields. Although her original findings and way of organizing the process focused on preparing for one’s own death, the process seems to be consistent for anyone adjusting to a serious, chronic bad change. Examples include a diagnosis of infertility, loss of a limb, or loss of an important person in one’s life.
Five Stages of Kubler-Ross
Kübler-Ross separated what she observed into five steps – though she never claimed that every single person goes through all five. Also, this model acknowledges that someone can cycle through the stages in various orders and have them ebb, flow, and return. It is a construct – a way of thinking - about the adjustment period. At the moment, there are no lab tests to indicate whether or not, or in which stage a human is processing.
The five stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For someone in bereavement, it may be very nurturing to recognize that these sorts of thoughts are possible and rather common. One can give herself permission to feel these ways.
Examples of the denial thoughts are “No, that didn’t happen. It couldn’t have happened. It’s impossible. Quit messing around with me; it’s not funny.”
The anger thinking is often directed at a Supreme Being or at the person who left. Anger with God or Fate might be “Why did you let this happen? If you are so good and compassionate, why did you do this to me? And to the kids? You don’t know how to run the world – that was a good person you took away. If you want to know who to kill off, I’ll tell you who.” Anger at the person who left could sound like “Why did you do this to me? Why were you so stupid as to get yourself into the accident (illness, situation). I am so angry that you left me holding the bag on my own.”
The bargaining thought process is also directed at the Supreme Being or Fate with a let’s make a deal proposition to turn back the hands of time or to change a health diagnosis. For the latter, it can also be the plea for a miracle. Examples of this stage are “If you let me get pregnant, I’ll volunteer at the Food Pantry every month.” “If you bring her/him back, I’ll go to ________(fill in the name of organized religion) services every week. If you let me live, I’ll give ten percent of my income to charity. If I go to the sacred shrine and fast, you must heal me.”
Depression thinking may sound like “This is too painful too bear. I am without hope.”
Acceptance thinking does not necessarily occur last. It can pop in and out of one’s conscious thought throughout the grieving. Examples are “Ok, now I am single.” “ Now I am alone; I must take on this list of tasks.” “If I really am blind forever, I will start to learn how to eat, cook, get around. Other people have done it, therefore I can do it.”
Equally Helpful: the New Normal
Recent heavy news coverage of the Kyle Pagerly local tragedy included an article describing other police widows reaching out to console and support his widow Alecia. An expression they used, “the New Normal,” struck me as enlightening. The gist of this mantra is that one can and WILL be happy again but not in the same way. It almost predicts a metamorphosis into a new person with alternate – neither better nor worse – ways of enjoying life. I believe this philosophy dovetails and complements the acceptance stage of the Kübler-Ross construct extremely well. To me, it allows for remembering the prior life and the loss, yet also acknowledges that someone has moved on.
What if there was no more happiness?
Concurrent with the Pagerly tragedy, our newspaper ran a nationally syndicated column which addressed grieving. It discussed situations in which a bereaved person (especially a surviving spouse) is subtly pressured by the family to remain in grief mode – sort of as the official family griever/rememberer. In addition, it examined persons who have not moved out of bereavement for other reasons. The blunt conclusion was that if an individual forever pines and stays stuck in unhappiness, then two people have died instead of one.
As raw and heartbreaking as loss and grieving are, I do not think it is the Divine Being’s plan for two to die.
My Prayer for All I Love
I wish and ask that we can learn our life lessons without harm to ourselves or others. If we must experience pain, I ask the Big Cheese of Goodness to make it of the cut finger intensity, rather than catastrophic loss. Please.
Nonetheless, mortal life for some of us humans includes a measure of bereavement. Perhaps these ideas about stages of adjustment and a new normal life with happiness will help.
For Further Reading
An article disagreeing with the Kubler-Ross model:
Text copyright 2011 Maren E. Morgan