The Art of Grieving
Lisa Foppa, MS, MSW, LMSW
One sunny spring morning, I received an unforgettable phone message: “Your husband has had an accident. His teeth are knocked out. His ear is injured. He is at Grady Memorial Hospital.” Okay… Heart pounding, palms sweaty, blood rushing away from my head to my extremities, not thinking clearly, with a handful of perishable groceries and a large “To Do” list… I try to calm myself. “Calm down. You need to drive home without injuring yourself or anyone else, store the groceries, call the nurse, get directions to the hospital, and kick into operating mode. This can’t be happening!”
That was the initial shock. “What did the nurse say? Is this a dream?” I drive in a daze to the hospital. I arrive at the hospital, and the doctor asks if my husband speaks English. “What?! He is not speaking in his usual dialogue? This can’t be happening!” The doctors rattle off a slew of diagnoses… intraparenchymal hemorrhage (“intraparen-...what?”), subclinical hematoma, lacerations, fractures, teeth (8 fell out, 7 knocked loose), etc. “What are you saying? Let me write this down.” At this point, I am feeling nauseous and weak in the knees. While doctors and nurses swarm around us, a doctor intent on investigating my husband’s lip laceration walks in. Given the fog I am in, she looks like a ghost to me – yet a familiar one. I have seen this woman before, but where? “This day is getting stranger by the minute!”
We both feel as though we know one another. We begin exchanging information, in search of commonalities. I learn that she had been an aerobics instructor in the state from which I recently relocated. But why is she here… in the emergency room? She is like the Good Witch of the North in the Wizard of Oz, the “blessing in disguise,” directing me onto the right path. She has a calming voice, reassuring me that I am in the best trauma center and that everything will be okay. This resident was the kernel of hope I would cling to for the remainder of my husband’s hospital stay.
With my husband’s accident and over the course of his recovery, I noticed I was going through a grieving process similar to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grief.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross studied people who were dying of fatal illnesses to find out how they adapted to their own impending deaths. She found that the people she talked with usually experienced five stages of grieving, and that these apply to situations of loss as well. People may not experience these stages in exact sequence, and they may move forward and backward in the process, slipping back into an earlier stage at times. Some people, because of insufficient time or because they resist the process, are unable to complete the stages of grieving and remain stuck somewhere in the midst of the process.
The first stage of grieving is Denial. This stage allows us to survive the loss and pace our feelings of grief. “In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, and why we should go on.” (Grief.com) For me, these were the sleepless nights in the hospital and my exclusive focus on the well-being of my husband. Our daily routine, life, work, and children’s schedules all became meaningless and secondary, and I wondered how I would be able to get through this change.
Next comes Anger... “Why us? Why now? After a slew of other recent stressors! Why must I be the sole caretaker of two children and a husband who is functioning more like an infant? Why was he riding that stupid bike? Why doesn’t that nurse clean up his mess? Where are the doctors? No information… Yet! We must wait! No, No, No!!!!!” “Anger has no limits, it can extend to your friends, doctors, your family, yourself, and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, ‘Where is God in this?’” (Grief.com) Underneath anger is pain. I was feeling sorrow and pain. “Who will I be able to share my life with? Who is going to help me with my children? No more heart-to-heart talks.” My husband appeared to be only 25% of his old self – he did not look, think, nor behave the same. I thought to myself, “I am alone.” I cried, grieving the loss.
The next stage of grief is Bargaining. In this stage, people may try to make a deal with God, fate, or some person they feel has the power to keep the loss from happening. “God, if you just return my husband to his former self, I’ll do anything. I will always be kind and giving.” This is another attempt to control the situation and avoid the loss. This stage ends when people see that this tactic is not preventing the loss.
Depression is the stage we reach when we realize that we cannot escape the painful experience. Depression may be experienced not only as a “down” mood but as apathy, withdrawal, loss of interest in many parts of life, loss of energy, loss of appetite or increase in eating, changes in sleep patterns, difficulty thinking or concentrating, self hatred, and thoughts of death and suicide. People in this stage often become worried that they are falling apart or going crazy and that they will never return to normal, but this is a common experience. I experienced a loss of passion for what I once valued – work, travel, and family outings – and I felt an internal shift, an imbalance within myself.
Acceptance is the last stage, when we begin returning to normal. The loss we have experienced becomes part of the past, and changes in our world and life become what we think of as normal. Thinking of the loss becomes less painful, though it will probably continue to cause sad feelings for a long time. I learned to accept the loss, adapt to my husband’s impairments, express my feelings, identify lessons to be learned, and develop a deep gratitude for my husband, my support system, and life in general. I found a new homeostasis and created a new, beautiful, yet different life.
During grieving, it is also important to take time for self care – to eat properly, obtain quality sleep, get regular exercise, seek social support, use mindfulness, and seek psychotherapy when necessary. Facing emotions, experiencing and accepting the grieving process, and taking time for self care can allow people to accept not only the frailty of life, but also celebrate its sanctity.
Portions of this article excerpted from Grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief ( © 2000-2012. David Kessler) and based on group materials from River Oaks Hospital, New Orleans, Louisiana.