It is widely assumed that, with the shock of death, the surviving spouse collapses in grief and falls into a deep crevasse of depression and despair. This is probably more Hollywood than real but for most, an initial numbness prevails, you are barely aware of your surroundings, but through some act of supreme will, or cultural expectations, or a very helpful family friend, you make all the arrangements and you get through the funeral.
Then you fall into the black hole of grief.
But is that really how it works?
Lexicologists treat grief and mourning as synonyms, though with subtle variation in meaning. I prefer this distinction: mourning is a deliberate, often public effort to acknowledge and deal with grief. Grief on the other hand is a state of being, an emotion that grips the heart, wastes the will, even overwhelms. The rituals of the funeral and the burial are acts of mourning. Grief persists and debilitates. The casual mourners send condolence cards, the bereft is left to languish.
We human beings have been dealing with the emotions associated with grief for our entire human history. There is extensive archaeological evidence of the efforts our forebears made in honouring the dead, going back at least 10,000 years; and for hominids probably a million years. Humans may be unique in this respect; there is no such evidence for honouring the dead in any other species, though some may manifest signs of grieving: whales and dolphins; wolves; dogs. Hallelujah seemed morose for weeks after brother Max made his last trip to Lynwood Animal Hospital. She may not have understood he had died, but she could feel the loss.
Whether or not there is explicit display of emotion, humans feel the loss. The feelings may be transient, or they may last for some time. Even in today’s hurried secular western world the Judeo-Christian cultural meme still prevails – grief over the death of a spouse will last 12 months. In actual experience it can be less; often it is longer.
Many are familiar today withthe model on stages of grief developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross observed that grief was not a singular emotional event, nor even a long amorphous journey to healing. She postulated that a person facing a terminal illness, or that person’s close loved ones, typically experiences five stages of emotional distress, progressing in this order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally, Acceptance. Some scholars have since argued that preceding denial is shock at the initial news. In my experience, except in an unexpected accident or crime, the notice is rarely a surprise. There are usually many signs the event is coming. The actual announcement is merely confirming what we already anticipated. Another problem with the Kubler-Ross model is, what comes after acceptance? For the afflicted, the last stage is death, but for the survivors, what?
Many others have offered extensions and embellishments on the original model. Here’s one I came across in my grief studies: The Seven Stages of Grief https://www.recover-from-grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html. It seems more a model of 14 stages rather than the seven claimed but this may merely reflect the reality that each stage is not really discrete but a series of blurred boundaries, complementary characteristics shared. Stage 1 is Shock and Denial, and I agree that there are emotional states that come before denial, though shock may not be one of them, exactly. Stage 2, Pain and Guilt, are powerful responses in my view and very important additions to the K-R Model; Stage 3, Anger and Bargaining, a very interesting combination of linked emotions. Stage 4 is Depression, Reflection, Loneliness: just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you; this may be a necessary stage, but it isn’t really productive, you’re not ready to re-enter life. Many try to escape, or skip, this stage: drinking, drugs, love affairs. Then comes the Upward Turn, eventually, followed by Reconstruction and Working Through and finally, Acceptance and Hope, but real hope, not false hope. I will talk of these stages in later blogs.
Peter Block, and others, adapted Kubler-Ross’s model to Kurt Lewin’s ideas on change management because he realized that human beings respond emotionally in a very similar way with any major change, not just the news of a death or imminent death. He realized that there may be other stages in the response curve and the afflicted will manifest energy in varying ways through these stages: Shock (Immobilization – sudden drop in energy) at the news comes before Denial; Anger and Bargaining (high energy but beginning to decline into Depression) follow. He inserted Testing in the [often] long phase between Depression and Resolution, (a term I prefer to Acceptance). In fact, testing may be an essential step towards Resolution as the aggrieved begins to explore what life might be like after the change.
I use this model whenever I am coaching clients who have lost their jobs and are struggling to reinvent themselves. Loss of a job, death of a spouse, the end of a serious love affair, are major disruptive life events and our despairing emotional responses quite similar. They are losses, not only for the way of our lives, but in our very identities.
(I wrote a blog about this parallel experience (loss of job and loss of a spouse) a few years back. You can read it here if you are so inclined. I used to explain to my job loss clients that the emotions they were experiencing were very like the emotions experienced in death and dying. The irony of my lecture was not lost on me when we faced Marlene’s imminent death from cancer.)
I added the jagged line in the Testing phase to indicate this stage is not a smooth transition but beset with many disappointments and setbacks; I added the relapse loop to indicate that each time we experience a ‘failure’ in possible solutions to our change crisis we have a relapse to the denial/anger/depression phases. And the cycles may repeat any number of times.
In the case of the death of a spouse, the time line may seem interminable. Anger may linger, below the surface, and flare at any time, many times. Depression can grab hold and not let go. Testing can feel so futile.
The more I thought about grief, and experienced my own journey of now more than two years, the more it seems to me these five or seven stage models (and the many variants of it) may be misplaced. Maybe the ancients had it right, grief is one continuous blur with no clear steps or stages, and no certain period, only a gradual diminishing of pain.
Maybe it’s time for a new model. And wouldn’t you know it, someone has thought of that too: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-journey-ahead/200804/stages-grief-time-new-model