The stages of grief misnomer

I recently completed binge watching Cheers on Netflix – all 11 seasons and all 275 episodes. It was as good as I remembered from being a kid. Actually, it was better now that I’m older and get the more subtle jokes. Cheers filled my time in bed alone night after night for several months and reminded me of happier times. But, it also left me with a TV-watching void to fill once it was over. I ended up moving on to Frasier – not quite as good, but Eddie the dog keeps me coming back.

It turns out that Frasier lost his job at the end of season 5, and so the first episode of season 6 was entitled ‘Good Grief’. Early on in the episode, Frasier’s brother Niles (also a therapist) parallels Frasier’s loss of a job to the death of a loved one, and so begins the episode covering Frasier’s journey through the 5 stages of grief.

When there are 5 stages of grief, they are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There is also a 7 stage model, which suggests the stages are:

  • Shock & Denial
  • Pain & Guilt
  • Anger & Bargaining
  • Depression / Reflection / Loneliness
  • The Upward Turn
  • Reconstruction & Working Through
  • Acceptance & Hope

While we may not all have been through extreme grief (yet?), we all have likely heard of these stages of grief. The stages of grief are probably the one thing most people have actually heard about regarding grief, because it’s commonly referenced in shows like Frasier and The Simpsons.

Unfortunately, like a lot of culturally shared knowledge, it’s also very misleading.

stage – a point, period, or step in a process or development.

Google Dictionary

The word “stage” implies that these are independent periods in a process, or individual steps in an ordered set of steps. This word has no meaning at all in a process like grief, which is unwieldy, violent, unpredictable, and incredibly random at times. So, if they aren’t stages, what are they? They aren’t phases, as that word also implies a distinct period in a series of events.

The best word I can come up with is simply “feelings”. These are common feelings that people grieving likely will experience. I tend to think that “stages” just had a better ring to it, and that’s the only reason that word was used. I have to admit that “The 5 stages of grief” sounds a lot catchier than “The 5 feelings you’ll likely have at various times during grief.”

It’s entirely possible that some of these feelings may happen sooner than others. For example, it makes sense that acceptance would come after denial. But, it would be entirely wrong to think that once you have experienced acceptance of your loss, that you would never again find yourself in denial – that simply isn’t the case.

Each time I go to a parent/teacher conference alone, and each time I visit my in-laws and stay in their house without my wife, I experience denial – I still can’t believe I am doing these things now without her. Similarly, I can’t say that I’ve experienced a specific anger “stage”, but I know I have been angry at numerous times throughout the last year and a half.

So, I say all this to say, the “stages of grief” is one big misnomer. They are not stages that you go through as illustrated in TV shows. They are not stages that you only experience one at a time, nor is it such that once you complete a stage you will never revisit it again – they are not stages.

I would hate to have this simple idea of how grief works, and try to apply that to how I understand the grieving, or to be rudely surprised to find out it’s not that simple when experiencing significant grief for the first time myself. I do think it’s important to understand these feelings, and understand that the grieving will likely deal with them throughout their grieving process, but let’s stop using the word “stages”, it’s just not that simple – I want you to be happier.

It’s okay to be okay, or not

I’m currently enrolled in GriefShare at a nearby church, and we meet every Sunday night. Previously, I had only been involved in weekly 1-on-1 counseling, something which I continue now biweekly. Being in a group setting has been a great step forward for me. My heart breaks for everyone in there with me – people who have lost their parents, their spouses, their children. It’s cathartic to be alongside others who can understand your loss, and to be there for others in their time of need – people who are seeking so earnestly for anything that can help deal with their pain.

One thing that I’ve come to appreciate about GriefShare is how it helps me remember where I was a year ago, as compared to where I feel I am today. Several of the folks in our group are experiencing their first holiday season without their loved ones, while this will be my second.

Recently, someone in our group said “it’s okay to not be okay.” This took me back as I remember hearing the same thing from my counselor early on in my grieving process. I remember how it gave me comfort to know that others weren’t expecting me to be okay all the time, and that it was more than reasonable to not be okay while grieving the loss of my wife, especially during the holiday season.

The other thing that struck me though was the contrast to now talking with my counselor about how “it’s okay to be okay.” Now, unlike then, I actually have some days that seem normal (whatever that is). I’m no longer bawling my eyes out daily, and I’m no longer breaking down at least once a week – and honestly, it’s disconcerting. I need to be affirmed that it’s okay for me to be okay, and no longer just that it’s okay for me not to be okay.

One thing, of many, that I’ve learned from my counselor is how grief in many ways is what helps us keep feeling connected to our loved ones that have passed. When I mourn the death of my wife, when I cry from missing her, I feel close to her – it’s the closest I feel to her now that she’s gone. And so, when I go for a week, or two weeks, without mourning her death, it makes me feel callous. It makes me feel uncaring. It makes me feel like I don’t really miss her, or that I don’t really love her as much as I once did. When I think about it rationally, I know that these are all lies.

The call to grieve our loved ones that have passed, and the desire to feel that emotion and passion of a loved one lost, are real. There will always be that calling to grieve, and yes, sometimes, I will continue to indulge in that grief. But, I also know that I don’t have to stay stuck there. Time marches forward, and it’s okay to be okay – or not.

One song that comes to mind when I think about where I’m at in my grief journey today is a hip-hop song by Mac Miller called ‘2009’. Unfortunately, Mac passed away from an overdose just over a year ago after putting this song on his last album. To me, the song is about grief, rediscovering happiness, moving forward from grief, but also understanding that it is always there if we ever want to revisit it. A fan of his put together a tribute to Mac using this song after he passed (warning: profanity):

Now every day I wake up and breathe
I don’t have it all but that’s alright with me

And sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route
Instead of havin’ demons that’s as big as my house

I was diggin’ me a hole big enough to bury my soul
Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own

It ain’t 2009 no more
Yeah, I know what’s behind that door

Mac Miller, quotables from ‘2009’

As the grief subsides, there will be days that are almost normal again – and that is okay. Similarly, in the beginning, and even years later, there will be days that we aren’t okay – and that’s okay too. Just focus on doing your best, and trying to enjoy today – I want you to be happier.