Three Key Benefits to Understanding the Stages of Grief
There have been a number of things in our society and in our world lately over which many of us are grieving. A year that started with such great promise brought things like fires in Australia that brought destruction, a global pandemic that brought illness, death, missed opportunities, business closures, loss of livelihood, a disruption in the supply chain, a change in the way we worship, a change in the way we connect with others, and an ever-increasing chasm between political parties and people. And when grief was already a top-of-mind topic, this past week has seen a national outpouring to a life being taken. There are innumerable reasons to grieve.
Grief is a hard topic to discuss, but it’s worthy of discussion. First, grief is something we all experience at one time or another, and second, grief has the potential to impact our interactions with one another.
While there are a number of aspects of grief we’re not equipped to cover, there is some level of the conversation around grief that ties to our mission to help people have better workdays so they can co-create better communities, and that’s where I hope to offer some insight today.
One of the places we experience grief is in times of change – we grieve the loss of one thing and move on to another – and our classes and resources around change management point to the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross who developed the stages of grief and loss. Her book On Death and Dying continues to be one of the most-used resources on the grieving process. Originally written as an explanation of the common experiences of patients with terminal illnesses, where the stages of grief (originally described as five and expanded to the seven stages: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance) described the experience of those patients grieving the loss of their own lives. It was eventually applied to the family and friends of those individuals, and then many other places.
Here are three key benefits I see to understanding the stages of grief:
- Having words to help describe our feelings helps us name them, manage them, and process those emotions.
- We will not all process that grief the exact same way, so recognizing what someone else might be feeling can help us connect with and relate better to others.
- It is likely that the grieving process includes some shock or denial (this can’t be happening), some sadness (this breaks my heart), and eventually, some level of acceptance (this is how I will move forward), and recognizing those stages can help us co-create better environments around us.
So how does that work, really? What can we do?
There is a lot to grieve right now, from the deeply profound all the way to the smaller scale. Keeping in mind how powerfully grief can impact each one of us, here are some things we can do.
First, familiarize yourself with the process of grieving and how it often manifests itself in our words and our actions so that you can recognize and help people through grief. If you or someone you work with are behaving in a way that’s out of character, ask yourself if it’s grief. Perhaps you’re observing in yourself or others the paralysis that comes from shock, the inability to talk about a given topic that can come from denial, the actively negative emotions that come with anger, the overwhelm and sadness that can come from depression – are these signs of grief?
Take a moment to recognize grief to help people better.
Second, recognize that our feelings are our feelings. It is not up to me to determine the validity of your feelings, just as it is not up to you to determine the validity of my feelings. If you or someone you know is grieving, that is not a reason to judge that person; it’s a reason to care for that person. Avoid hinting or indicating that someone’s grief is unjustified. Instead, offer words that indicate you sense they are grieving and that you care about them.
Let them feel what they are feeling and show them you care.
Third, Remember that there is no one way to grieve. There is no “checklist” or “schedule” for the stages of grief, and descriptions of the process are not infallible. We can’t predict which stages a person will experience, how long they will experience them, or the order in which they will experience them. If you didn’t observe yourself going through denial, that’s not a clue that you need to demonstrate denial right now or in the future. Avoid judging your own grieving process against someone else’s, or judging someone else’s process against your own.
Use the “stages of grief” as a resource, not a prescriptive manual.
Fourth, Keep in mind that the grieving process takes time. When someone is grieving, that person and those around them cannot expect instantaneous normalcy. Grief is disruptive. Grief changes shape from day to day. Grief lasts an unknown duration. When faced with a future sad moment, “pre-grievers” experience some of the stages of grief before the moment comes, while “post-grievers” experience much of the grieving process after the sad moment. That means if two or more of us are grieving the same thing, our collective journey through grief will begin with the first tear of the earliest pre-griever and will end with the last tear of the latest post-griever. Grief is a journey, not an moment.
Demonstrate patience and let grief take the time that it will take.
Fifth, and most importantly, because grief is very personal, it is a powerful chance for us to connect as humans. As people, grief gives us an opportunity to connect with others. If someone you know is grieving, asking about their grief helps you understand what is important to them, what matters to them. Quietly sitting beside them as they grieve lets you connect with them and show them that they matter to you. As they continue through the grieving process, you can look them in the eye and be the person who sees them, who encourages them, who cares for them. If you are the one going through the grieving process, reach out to connect with others and let them sit beside you, encourage you, care for you. When we deepen our connections with others as humans, we enrich the lives of everyone around us.
Allow grief to be a reason to connect more deeply with others.
How do you show sensitivity toward grief?