If you have ever lost a loved one, someone has probably explained to you that you’ll experience the five stages of grief—a model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying. When my husband died by suicide after a long battle with clinical depression coupled with steroid abuse and prescription drugs, my well-intentioned friends said I would feel denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally, acceptance.
So you can imagine the frustration I felt when my grieving process didn’t seem to fit the model I was expecting. Years after her book, Kubler-Ross acknowledged that there are no stages — that grief is neither linear nor predictable — but the model is so well-known that it’s been impressed onto the minds of many. There are numerous elements that have an impact on how a person experiences and handles grief: spiritual belief, social support, emotional intelligence, personal history, and much more. Simply put, no two individuals grieve the same way.
I can vouch that the grieving process isn’t made up of stages, but instead it’s comprised of periods of certain emotions that come and go without much rhyme or reason. They come around enough to remind you of your loss, but the intensity and duration often lessen in time.
I can’t tell you when exactly the deep-seated grief lessened dramatically for me. However, it wasn’t as if I worked through five stages, graduated from the school of grief, and was free from heartache forever. I spent a great deal of time facing my grief, and I still do feel sorrow, but I own my life again.
Just last week I went for a morning run, and passed a man who looked exactly like my husband. The resemblance was so uncanny I couldn’t help but stop and stare.
He asked if I was OK, and I stuttered,
“You look just like my husband.”
I forced myself to look away and continued running, but instead of bursting into sobs as I would have a few years ago, I felt a mixture of emotions: sadness but also pleasure remembering what my husband looked like in the flesh. I was able to enjoy the rest of my run.
Since my husband’s death, I’ve completed the pain associated with the loss, done the work of my grief recovery, and said my goodbyes—but I accept that the roller coaster of the following emotions will always continue:
Disbelief. I’ve never been in denial about my husband’s suicide, but there are still some mornings I wake up alarmed that he’s really gone. But those next few minutes of sadness pass, and I’m able to shake it off and start my day.
Devastated and overwhelmed. Initially I was crushed having to go on without him, but I’ve proven to myself that I can move forward. The hard part comes when I realize he’s not around to celebrate accomplishments with me; then I’m momentarily hit by waves of sorrow, but I’m thankful they’re just momentary.
Guilt. I felt wholly responsible for not getting my husband the right help that he needed to overcome his mental illness. Although now I understand that I could only do so much with what I knew then, I’ve become much more educated, but I’ll always regret that I wasn’t empowered with knowledge sooner.
Yearning. He was the most important person in my life, and I still miss him every day, but the yearning no longer holds me back from socializing, trying new things, and enjoying the life that I’ve had to build without him.
Fatigue. I experienced a low level of emotional and physical energy that wasn’t depression—it was more like borderline apathy. I had to muster all the strength I had just to complete simple tasks that previously wouldn’t have required any thought. (Who knew showering could be so exhausting?) Even now there are a handful of days a year when I feel lethargic and I know I am grieving—and that’s perfectly OK.
I still have moments of longing and sadness, but they’ve lost their power and come and go only briefly. I can now think of my husband and reminisce about the good times we had together with happy tears. I know I’ll never be the person I was before his death, but I’ve grown in ways I could never have imagined as a result of my grief, and I’m using these newfound lessons to help others. Grief for me became a gift and a teacher.
When I council people who have experienced a loss, I explain that if we try to define and simplify the grieving process in steps or stages, we’ll limit our expectations on dealing with our broken hearts. Our grief is as individual as our lives, and eventually, the pain will change and lessen, and a new normal will emerge.
As a grief recovery specialist, I understand that life is filled with losses, and as someone whose husband completed suicide and who has experienced the death of a father and sibling, I know what it’s like to grieve. If you’ve experienced the death of your child, you know your life will never be “normal” again. But it’s my hope you’ll find some solace in what I’ve learned as a grief counselor and through my own journey to find peace after loss.
For many, the death of a child is unimaginable. That said, it’s important to note that there are no “levels” of loss. No two relationships are the same, so it’s important not to compare one person’s experience to another’s. With that in mind, the following candid, honest, no-nonsense lessons are those that I have found most important and helpful to my clients grieving the death of a child – and to anyone who has experienced excruciating loss.
Grief is personal
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already heard of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But in my experience – and in many others’ – grief doesn’t conform itself into a neat, linear pattern. There are no stages to grief, but there are common responses. When you experience the death of a child, that trauma manifests itself in countless ways – and perhaps several ways at once. A 2015 Psychology Today article demonstrates how the “stages” of grief can vary widely, citing that one mother who lost her 20-year-old son never felt denial – only nothingness. This feeling of numbness is just as normal – and valid – as any other. Don’t hold yourself to a standard of grief. Grief is, above all else, personal.
It’s not just sadness
I already mentioned that grief manifests itself in many ways. For many, post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is a real and even natural byproduct of the death of a child. According to Carol Kearns, PTSD can manifest itself through recurring recollections of the event, distressing dreams, flashbacks to the event, and intense psychological distress and physiological reactivity when exposed to internal or external “cues” of the death. This might seem like a normal psychological reaction to anyone who experiences such trauma. That said, parents can experience PTSD even if they weren’t present at the time their child died. You might experience flashbacks to happy or sad times with your child, regret and reliving of past events and dreams or recollections of the death as you imagine it.
Trust is everything
In my book, What I Wish I’d Known: Finding Your Way Through the Tunnel of Grief, I speak openly about my faith. I’m Christian, but honestly, that doesn’t really matter. Learning to trust in a higher power is a critical part of grieving. Spirituality as we know it is really a manifestation of what or whom you trust, and it influences your fundamental views of life. This trust is a source of strength and support, and can be a powerful antidote for the loneliness that accompanies loss. Trust doesn’t immunize you from pain or grief, but can offer peace, comfort and clarity – welcomed friends at a time of loss. If you have faith, trust in it.
It doesn’t get “better”
I don’t write this to be pessimistic. In fact, I believe there is hope in accepting the fact that your heart will always ache for your child. When your child dies, there is no “getting over it.” You’ll laugh again. You’ll enjoy life again. You’ll love again. But you also might cry every Christmas morning, every birthday and sometimes just because. That’s okay. You’ve experienced a wound that doesn’t ever fully heal. You loved with your heart and soul, and your grief is simply a manifestation that your love is still alive – forever.
Age isn’t a factor
Losing a child – whether that child is a child or that child is a grandparent – is a traumatic event. It goes against life’s natural order. I experienced this firsthand when I witnessed my mother grieve my brother’s death. Scott wasn’t a teenager. He was a 60-year-old grown adult who died unexpectedly last year. The death of a brother is a difficult experience, but for my siblings and me, the most heart-wrenching part of the process was witnessing our 84-year-old mother’s complete devastation. My mother buried her son, and it didn’t matter that he had lived a full life. In that casket –or urn, in this case— he was still her child. After Scott’s death, my mother beautifully expressed her journey through grief in a poem I hope will offer you solace.
Ode To My Son
You are gone.
My body aches.
My heart is empty.
My soul seeks yours in despair.
No joy is mine.
Then hope appears, grows into faith, transforms into truth…
We are one.
Your warmth heals my bones.
Your memories fill my heart.
My soul embraces and releases yours.
Joy is ours.
by Kristi Hugstad
Each of us has attached ourselves to something or somebody, and when you lose that special thing or person, you grieve. Always. You can try to run from it all you want, but it will always find you and tackle you when you’re not looking. My blogs, along with my books, will give you the tools to help you learn to live with your new self as you journey through your grief.