A friend of ours died recently. Suddenly, without much warning.
Grief holds many stages. Sometimes people in different phases can feel they are at odds, unable to understand where another person is coming from. A person still in denial can be shocked at the degree of anger someone else is showing. Another’s grieving feels distinctly uncomfortable for a person who is still in denial – or bargaining. We can rub each other the wrong way as we transition through the phases. Only when we get to the final stage of acceptance, having moved through all the other phases can we settle down and just be with the whole experience.
How do we distinguish between acceptance and denial? A person in denial may feel they have accepted the whole experience. The best way to tell the difference is to sense if there is any emotional “charge” left on the death itself – or other people’s reactions. If so, then something remains to be processed.
A friend brought up another distinction which is worth mentioning. Through her work she has found that people feel two kinds of anger. Both need to be processed. The first is anger at the situation: possibly at the doctors or the friends who didn’t show up, at ourselves, or the family who did inexplicable things. The second and hardest to acknowledge, is anger at the person for leaving us. No matter how irrational, the emotional body is its own realm, not governed by the intellect, and it demands its due. We are mad at being abandoned – our dreams left in a heap at the door when the person had the gall to up and die. Here was one reaction of my own: “what do you mean, you died? How could you? You were only 63, younger than me! You had so much to offer! You added such joy to our lives! And you just up and die, leaving the rest of us still stumbling around?!” Yes this is selfish – but we have to feel it anyway and let it have its say. Otherwise we risk taking it out inappropriately. The emotional side of ourselves is primitive but it’s part of us. Only when we acknowledge the baser feelings can we pass to the next phase.
When we don’t allow ourselves to feel such things, we stay stuck, replaying old tapes and feeling emotion that seems out of place. We can lash out at others. Or, by intellectualizing the whole event, we can have little empathy for others who are feeling the softer emotions.
Grieving is a long process and the phases can be intermixed and in a different order for each person. No one processes in the same way or at the same pace. We all need to give one another a lot of latitude around these phases. This is one place where compassion makes a big difference.