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Explaining the seven stages of grief

Lighthouse column
By: Angela Ponivas, Special to The News Messenger
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Last month, a great woman and community leader, Becky Romness, passed away. I had the privilege of attending the “Celebration of Life” ceremony that honored Becky. I understand that I was one of 400 people in attendance. The expression of love by the community for Becky and for the Romness family was beautiful. As I sat in the audience watching the love pour out from Becky’s family and from community members, I was mightily impressed by Becky’s positive impact on others and by the fact that a whole community was grieving her loss. With that, I felt it would be appropriate to discuss grieving, the process and how to give yourself grace while you are grieving. Grief is suffered for a variety of reasons. Most experience grief after the loss of a loved one but grief is also experienced when dealing with other life changes such as divorce, changing jobs, moving to a new house or community, a change in a relationship and so many other life-changing events. To understand the stages of grief will provide you with a good general guide of what to expect. Also, it should be understood that grief is experienced by the young and old alike, although it may manifest differently depending on age. At the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center, we counsel many children who are experiencing grief and their expression of grief may be different from an adult’s expression. As we walk through the stages of grief, it is important to interpret the stages loosely and expect much individual variation. Grief does not provide a nice, neat progression from one stage to the next. Most people bounce back and forth between states or hit multiple stages at the same time. There are seven stages of grief and they include the following: 1. Shock and denial Many people react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. They may deny the reality of the loss at some level, to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks. 2. Pain and guilt As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that we experience the pain fully and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs. We may have guilty feelings or remorse over things we did or didn’t do with our loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase. 3. Anger and bargaining Frustration gives way to anger and the desire to lash out and lay unwarranted blame for our loss on someone else is present. Please try to control this as permanent damage to relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled-up emotions but it must be done in a healthy way. During this time, many rail against fate, questioning “Why?” This is also a time that many try to bargain with the powers that be for a way out of the despair (“I will never drink again if you just bring him back”). 4. Depression, reflection, loneliness Just when friends think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection is likely. This is a normal stage of grief so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning people. Encouragement from others is not helpful during this stage of grieving. During this time, the true magnitude of the loss is realized, causing depression. Some decide to isolate on purpose, reflecting on moments and experiences, choosing to focus on memories of the past. This is a time when feelings of emptiness or despair surface. 5. The upward turn During this period, adjustments to life begin and life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Physical symptoms lessen and the “depression” begins to lift slightly. 6. Reconstruction and working through This is when the person grieving becomes more functional, the mind starts fully processing again and the person begins seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life. It may be evidenced in resolving the practical and financial problems of life and in the reconstruction of what their life will hold. 7. Acceptance and hope During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, the person grieving begins to accept and deal with the reality of his/her situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Rather, it means the person grieving begins to find a way forward. He/she will begin to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, he/she will be able to think about his/her lost loved one without pain; sadness, yes, but the wrenching pain will be gone. He/she will once again anticipate some good times to come and even find joy again in the experience of living. As mentioned earlier, grief can be experienced in varying order of the stages. Some people experience a long period of “depression” (not clinical depression), isolation, and loneliness late in the grief process, months after the loss is experienced. It is important to know that this is actually normal to experience depressed feelings and sadness many months later. Not everyone will understand the process and some may feel that it should be time to “get over it” and rejoin the land of the living. It is in knowing that your desire to be alone with your sad reflections at this time is normal that will help you to give yourself grace and deal with outside pressures. For the Romness family, a great expression of faith was communicated at the “Celebration of Life” service and faith will carry this family through the process with feelings of hope and acceptance. Faith is a powerful strength that helps people reach the place of “recovery” stronger than those who seek “recovery” purely through therapeutic techniques. Faith provides people with hope, encouragement, peace, comfort and a purpose to continue with life. I was honored to be at the “Celebration of Life” service for Becky Romness and I believe Becky was mightily honored by all. One again, the community of Lincoln shined brightly. Angela Ponivas is the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center’s executive director. Her phone is 645-3300 and web site is lighthousefrc.com.