Many people, when they hear the word grief, immediately think of losing a loved one. Certainly, this is a very significant and poignant experience, one where the aspects of grief live on for years. “But all is not lost” as memories can continue to energize us as we begin or continue the grieving journey. Memories of the deceased triggered by photos, videos or various life experiences are helpful in accepting the reality of loss, as well as finding further meaning in the experience, and a deeper awareness of the relationship.
The heartbreaking and overwhelming experience of losing a loved one is for many the most significant source of life-altering change. Examples of other significant experiences of loss which often prompt grief include moving from a “wonderful” neighborhood, losing a job, living through the rupture of what was a loving relationship, the closing of an effective and loved parish or school, or losing a favorite pastor or teacher. Losses of favorite events and people, hopes and dreams, prompt a process of grieving. Experiencing both success and failure are related to loss. They are intertwined with disappointment, not reaching goals, not supporting team efforts, as well as positive aspects of life such as getting married, receiving a promotion, winning a game, etc. Just as an experience of failure sparks grief, so do “positive” changes. There are losses in accepting a promotion. For instance, peer relationships are not the same; “office” space changes; schedules change; availability may be limited or increased -- both successes and failures are embedded in some loss and grief.
Dealing with loss, failure, change and grief is not a “once and for all” experience. It is a process, where people go through various stages. Different specialists such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross or John Bowlby vary in how they name the stages and the number of them. However, they and others conceptually recognize the first four concepts described below as being intertwined in most grieving processes. The fifth area, which is not universal, is where the consciousness of the Spirit’s presence in the grieving process is recognized.
Many religious/spiritual traditions and various rituals are embedded in grieving practices. Some are individually focused, some communal, national, international or global. After culling, editing and discerning the ideas about grief from specialists, along with my own experience, I offer the following thoughts with the hope that they may stimulate your own ideas and reflection and that you will share and discuss them with others. They are not “the answer” to dealing with loss, but are meant to prompt sharing and reflection.
A Grieving Process:
1. Experiencing shock, disbelief, numbness, denial
2. Yearning, searching, bargaining and desiring for what has been lost
3. Being angry, depressed, disorganized, “out of sorts,” anxious, fearful
4. Recovering, being less anxious and more organized, beginning to rediscover elements of joy in life
5. Discovering the role of Spirituality in suffering, loss and grief
Spirituality is not a separate stage, but is integrated into all aspects of grieving, though spirituality is often not recognized, as such.
Stage One, experiencing shock and disbelief often have threads of denial—“this could not be happening,” or “if only I had…” or feeling guilty and distressed which critically hurts a sense of “self.” While some pain is inherent in loss and is part of life, how it is handled, is critical to its effect on those enduring the loss. If the loss or hurt is “denied” or “not taken seriously” that can lead to the person or persons experiencing the loss feeling serious physical diminishment, “aloneness” or psychological anguish. If the loss is taken seriously, and through a deeper awareness and reflection on the Spirit’s presence, the focused energy can have a calming effect with glimmers of hope, as undefined options begin to emerge.
Stage Two, yearning, searching and desiring for what has been lost moves beyond denial and often includes the impetus or the temptation to bargain for change regarding what has been or is about to be absent. The Spirit is called upon to change the situation back to the way it was, or even to find a better option. For instance, due to an economic situation, if a person is about to lose a job, the temptation might be to bargain and negotiate for a lower salary or work schedule in order to regain the position. Or a grandmother of five grandchildren, whose mother has terminal cancer, might express a desire for her own life to be taken, so the children would still have their mother. Or in an inner city, a high school junior, Mike, returns his new bike with all the latest gadgets etc., to the store where his relatives bought it for his 16
birthday and asks for three smaller bikes in return. (He wanted to share them with the 6 “little kids” in the neighborhood that did not have bikes.) The store manager said he would trade the new bigger bike for two bikes but not three. Mike told him what his plan was for the small bikes but the manager still did not budge on the deal. Then Mike got an idea, another bargaining chip, which the manager might go for: what if he added that he would sweep out the store for 30 minutes on weekdays and an hour on Saturday for seven months? Would that be acceptable? The manager went along with that and the bargain was sealed. Notice how Mike was energized by sharing, which diminished (not eliminated) any pain of the loss of his highly valued bike.
Stage Three, experiencing anger, depression or various emotional anxieties, stresses or a sense of disorganization, failure, loneliness, or “blaming God” or others are samples of distressing situations which reflect the third stage of grief. Anger and depression are all encompassing and life consuming. While it seems contradictory, this stage of grief with all its sadness, can truly offer insights and give the energy and knowledge needed to recognize the broader gifts and elements of pathways to new life. One of the worst expressions to hear at this stage is, “snap out of it.” Grieving takes time and it takes courage. It takes confidence that calling on the Spirit for new energies and understandings will be a reality. It is very “healthy” to go through this stage of grieving because it gives opportunities for renewed courage, clear perceptions, and deeper knowledge. This phase in dealing with loss provides time to reflect and begin to see more signs of hope.
Stage Four, recovery is rooted in acknowledgment of the loss and the acceptance of it in some form. This is critical to being able to move on. While everyone experiences loss and grief differently, so is the process of recovering from the loss unique. Gradually difficult emotional times begin to diminish. If the grief is related to losing a loved one, keeping the memory of the person alive is important. Some make the mistake of “hiding gifts, photos and other memorabilia” to lessen the grief. On the contrary these measures will only prevent the healthy grieving process and they can have unhealthy consequences. Recovery is related to transformation, and for transformation to energize us we need to recognize it.
It should be noted that in the description of these phases, while organized separately for over-all clarity, they are not rigid. They are porous with a sense of fluidity. New elements related to the first stage or new insights may arise throughout the process. A new memory or new information about a person or event could shed additional understandings into the issues…and these could come at Stage Three! Sometimes a new prognosis or understanding at Stage Four will solve issues that arose at Phase Two in the process. We often try to avoid loss or sorrow or grief, at all costs, especially in the “heat of the moment.” Given time to “calm down” and reflect on the situation in the “bigger picture,” we begin to see the value of dealing in healthy ways with loss and grief especially through some positive lenses.
Some of the positive values, opportunities and energies that emanate from healthy grieving include:
1. Grieving offers many opportunities to deepen relationships.
- Deeper sharing naturally occurs
- Sharing strengthens relationships
- Sharing and bonding diminishes facing loss alone
2. Grieving loss provides occasions for new discoveries about one’s self, others, the community.
Natural questions which are not part of most daily conversations emerge when dealing with loss such as:
- What is the meaning and purpose of life?
- What do/can I contribute to the life of others? Family life? Communal life? Local, National, International life?
- What are the gifts I need to acquire or further develop?
- In what ways can I empower others? What do I need to do to be energized to make a positive difference?
3. Grieving can lead to new awareness of the presence of the Spirit which permeates existence
You might consider avoiding “catch-all” religious phrases or images such as “God will take care of everything,” and focus on becoming more aware of the Spirit’s challenging and consoling presence in daily life experiences—in other words “God in Action!” Some samples include:
- someone, you hardly know reached out to you;
- you experienced a deeper sense of caring community;
- prayer and reflection took on new and deeper meaning and an increased desire to make it habitual;
- you become more aware of how your life is being transformed.
4. Grieving, seen as a process, can increase our understanding of change, from an individual, communal, national, global perspective.
- Reflect on the stages of grieving and assess where your experiences reflect any aspect of the stages. Share these with a friend for his/her insights.
- Reflect on what has been most difficult for you as you review the stages of grieving.
- What can you do for yourself or for/with others to journey together
- What are the first steps you will take?
From a Christian perspective, what we have been reflecting upon is the “Life-Death-Resurrection” mystery. Christ, by his life, death and coming to new life modeled for us how to recognize the Spirit’s presence in all of life. He attuned us to the Spirit, the ultimate source of divine energy, by the way he lived his everyday life, walking with friends, reaching out to those in need, lending a hand when it was crucial, embracing those whom “society” rejected, sharing home-cooked meals, etc.
Jesus modeled the experience of hope, confidence, energy and belief that all creation is permeated with the Spirit. As the Jesuit Theologian, Teilhard de Chardin reminds us, “By reason of creation and even more the incarnation, nothing is profane for those who know how to see.” Jesus helps us to “see.” We find in Jesus’ life journey patterns of grieving which help us to recognize the Spirit. The grieving process helps us to realize that “there is more to life than meets the eye.” The process gives us opportunities to be conscious of the Spirit permeating all of life. One analogy akin to this was shared by Matthew Fox. He said “the fish is in the water and the water is in the fish.” Grieving helps us realize that the Spirit is in us and we are in the Spirit.
Maureen Gallagher is a Partner and Senior Consultant with The Reid Group, a national consulting firm providing services in Executive Search, Leadership Development, Strategic Planning, and Conflict Management to nonprofit and faith-based organizations.
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