Sunday, April 5, 2009

Stages of Grief

In the first few years of your grief journey, you will experience so many different emotions, all of which are normal and not “weird” as some people may say to you.

There are five phases of grief (some experts use different names for each phase, but in the end they are all the same). As I write about each, I’ll tell you how I personally fit into each one. Keep in mind that once you leave one phase and move on to another, it does not mean you will not return to that phase or overlap between phases. Going back and forth is normal. You will be able to deal with it all eventually, but don’t expect too much of yourself at first and also don’t expect to move on too quickly. Your grief journey could take you anywhere from one to five years or even more. It all depends on how you handle each phase, each benchmark. Each phase offers an opportunity for growth. Facing this process takes courage and a willingness to want to get better. I hope you all get something out of this, whether you have gone through it yet or not.

The first phase is SHOCK. You can’t believe this has happened. Children don’t die before their parents. How the death occurred and whether it was a sudden death or anticipated death can determine how you first react. You might scream, shout, feel confused, be forgetful or just be so numb you can’t function at all. My daughter’s death was a sudden death, a car accident. I remember being so numb at first, I just wanted information, to know how it had happened, when and where…and then the thought came that perhaps this was just a cruel joke…so a call went out to the morgue. Yes, she was there. Then the screams came. Everything became a blur, and I desperately wanted to make some sense out of what had happened but couldn’t. At some point when the shock wears off, you begin to feel the intensity of your grief and move into the second phase.

The second phase is AWARENESS OF LOSS. In this phase we might experience anger. My child was killed by an impaired driver. My anger began to build as the days and months wore on, and I kept saying to myself, “What a waste of a beautiful life!” I wanted the driver caught and punished. He was never found, causing the anger to last a long time. Other characteristics might include prolonged stress and physical anxiety like your heart beating very fast when thinking about the situation; oversensitivity at what people may say, do and not do; a sense of security severely uprooted through stress; and guilt at not being able to save your child.

The third phase CONSERVATION/WITHDRAWAL can include fatigue, despair, a weakened immune system and hibernation. Many parents don’t realize they are not getting enough rest and sleep. They may withdraw from friends and want to be alone with their thoughts. By this phase they are exhausted with all that has happened and in a time of dark despair because physical and emotional defenses are seriously diminished. You may find yourself getting physically ill with the flu because your immune system is in a weakened state. Your body has used up by now all of your physical and emotional energy. You need to take care of yourself and begin your grief work to get over the hump of this phase. Decide who are you now and what you are going to do with the rest of your life? I was not in this phase a long time. Although I was lethargic and didn’t care about anything now that my daughter had died, I did not get physically ill. After a while I began, regrettably, to get back into a pattern of living a different kind of life without her.
The fourth phase is HEALING. In this phase you begin to take control of your life. You realize your old life is over forever and you must begin to find a new path, in essence form a new identity. You will probably lose some friends who can’t deal with your loss but in the process find new ones who have experienced the loss of a child and want to share their thoughts and feelings with you. You may find a grief group in your area to join or grief recovery books to read. Healing comes slowly; sometimes you don’t realize it is happening. You may discover an interest in something new, you may feel more energetic, you may have to restructure the person you were before. When you finally let go, your identity shifts and you will be able to see your new life for what it is.

The last phase is RENEWAL. Those who have lost a child have to learn to live without them. Turning to the future you realize you are not the same person you were before your child died. You have new priorities and new goals and new compassion to share with others. The phase of renewal provides the opportunity to develop new self-awareness as well as emotional independence. Take charge of your life. What did I do? I became very involved with helping others who are grieving, by speaking to groups and letting them know they are not alone and that they will find their way eventually. I fulfilled an inner need that I had and it gave me both happiness and satisfaction knowing I could be of help to others.

There is no way to predict how long your recovery will take. We have to learn much along the way before we can move through the process. And we have to believe the better times will come. I can personally tell you that they did for me as I’m sure they will for you.

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