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.

Grief, like time, can be cyclical

I was having dinner with a friend last night, and he commented on how he hated this weather. I thought he literally meant the cold and rainy weather, but he went on to say how it reminded him of where he was at this time last year – the last time it turned cold. He was in the midst of a major life challenge, one that he’s still working through today. I could relate, in fact, I had been thinking the same thing myself recently. It seems like just as time is cyclical, grief can be as well.

Something I saw on my friend’s Facebook page – seemed appropriate.

The holidays tend to be hard in general for those grieving a loss. The GriefShare program offers an annual program entitled Surviving the Holidays. It is something I attended last year, and something I will be starting again in just a few days. It’s crazy to think a year has already passed since attending it last year.

Last year, as part of the program, they broke out the widowers into a small group. There were four of us. I was the youngest of the group, which wasn’t too surprising. What was surprising to me, at least at the time, was an older gentleman who was there. His wife had passed some 15-20 years prior, and the holiday season was a tough time of the year for him too.

The challenge of getting through the holidays each year seems like a somewhat obvious repeating cycle to keep an eye out for, along with other annual events like anniversaries, birthdays, and many holidays, but there are others that might be less obvious.

For some, it’s a day of the month. Thankfully, this one doesn’t apply to me as much anymore, but in the beginning of my grief, it was the 1st and 15th. These were the days I’d have to do the bills, something my wife took care of before she passed, so that would remind me of her absence.

For others, it’s a day of the week. In my case, it’s sometimes Friday nights, mostly when my son has parents-night-out at daycare. I try to plan things for those nights, otherwise it’s too in-my-face that my normal date for ~15 years is no longer here with me.

Finally, for others, it might be a specific time of day. In my case it’s 4:03 am. Thankfully, I’m rarely awake at that time of day, but it does happen from time to time. When I’m awake at this time of the morning I can’t help but remember being in my kitchen with a policeman and a detective, not believing my brand new reality.

If it’s not a date, not a day of the week, or a specific time, it could be a place, or a smell, or a voice you think you hear passing by in an airport. That’s the thing with grief, it’s both predictable, and not. It can be both cyclical with time, and totally random as well.

As the second holiday season since my wife passed approaches, I won’t just be remembering the last holiday with her while she was alive, but now also the last holiday which I was without her as well – a sort of juxtaposition of the two I’m betting. It hit me this week that it will soon be 2020, and that my wife was not alive during any part of 2019 – a whole calendar year of events from start to finish will have now passed – there are no more annual firsts remaining for me.

My wife bought a little piece of art during her second battle with cancer that she loved. It helped her keep time in perspective, and it’s something that I now have hung at the bottom of the stairs, so that I see it every morning:

Don't count the days; make the days count.
Don’t count the days; make the days count.

It’s one thing to have a time of year, or a special date, make us sad or anxious, and then to realize why we are feeling that way. It’s another thing to seek out dates, to try and remember exactly how many days, months, or years it’s been. It’s good to remember, and it’s good to memorialize the past we’ve lost, but let’s not just count the days – let’s also make the days count.

I hope that this holiday season will be a good one for you, even if you’re sad, even if you are still broken. That you will not just remember fond times of a past we cannot return to, but that you’ll make new fond memories that you can cherish going forward as well. I want you to be happier.