Stages of Grief

stages-of-griefBefore the dawn of the internet, AAA (American Automobile Association) used to offer its “Trip Tiks” or helpful booklets that would detail one’s journey.  In addition to providing the best route to a given destination, it would also suggest places to stay or visit along the way.  At the time, they were very popular and I suspect their popularity was related to the human need to know beforehand about a journey’s particular details such as what to see, what to avoid, and most importantly, what to expect.

If we adopt the journey metaphor to describe the phases or stages of grief, we recognize that we may do so in order to understand a little of what is to be expected.  In such knowledge there is a measure of comfort.  However, as we will discover in reviewing the stages of grief, there are variables and “x” factors for which a handy triptik is of little use.

Most of us are familiar with the rudiments of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). First, on learning the news the person experiences shock and may deny that anything is wrong. Next, the individual becomes frustrated and angry with others, blaming them for the loss. Afterwards, a person tries to bargain or negotiate with friends or God. This stage is then followed by emotional withdrawal, sleep disturbance, and feelings of depression. Finally, one accepts the finality of death and continues with life.  Another variation on these stages views grief as a progression through four phases from a period of numbness to a period of yearning and protest followed by a period of disorganization and despair concluding with a period detachment and reorganization.

The popularity of these theories has led to some unfortunate and often unhelpful misconceptions and oversimplifications of Ross’ work.  In the popular rendering of these stages, they are often presented as linear, i.e., the grieved person moves neatly from one to another until finally acceptance is reached.  Yet, human experience and further studies have demonstrated that this is far from what actually occurs in the grief process.  Stages may actually be combined (one may experience both anger and depression at nearly the same point of time) or a regression to a supposed “earlier stage” is experienced.  In his doctoral dissertation, James A. Houck, Jr. writes, “Despite the popularity of the stage approach, Worden (2002) agrees with Kubler-Ross in that a major limitation of ‘stages’ is that people do not pass through them in a neat, sequential order.  Many times, people who mourn fluctuate among the stages before coming to acceptance or resolution.”

Whether we prefer to use stages or phases to describe the process of grief, one thing is consistent: grief is a journey that if it is successful is resolved in acceptance. The fathers also use the metaphor of a journey referring a longer, spiritual journey in which the briefer journey of grief can be situated. Thus, Saint Basil the Great writes, “in this life we are all like travellers on a journey, hastening on to the same shelter. While one has reached his rest another arrives, another hurries on, but one and the same end awaits them all” (Letter 5 to Nektarios). In fact the basic processes of repentance, purification, and sanctification can also be understood in terms of a journey as Saint Augustine notes, “the soul needs to be purified, so that it may have capacity to perceive that light, and to rest in it when it is perceived. Let us look upon this purification as a kind of journey or voyage to our native land, for it is not by change of place that we can come nearer to Him who is in every place, but by the cultivation of pure desires and virtuous habits.” (On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, chapter 10). Certainly within the stages and phases of grief, virtuous actions and pure desires can bring comfort and provide movement both towards the beloved and towards God, movement that is healing and brings acceptance, for those virtuous actions and pure desires can also be a testimony to our love for the departed.

Sometimes, we may be lost in our grief, feeling alone and abandoned in a distant, foreign land. We may feel as though we are like a sheep that have strayed from the company of others, “wandering among mountains and in valleys, that is to say, on some long journey, far distant from the right path.” What we do not see, but nevertheless try to believe, is that the Christ the Good Shepherd is looking for us faithfully and bringing us back to the fold as a Shepherd would do so with a precious lamb, “neither driving it, nor beating it, but taking it upon his shoulders” (Saint John Chrysostom, Letter 1, Exhortation to Theodore after his Fall). And that belief strengthens us to continue on our way.

Grief indeed is a journey but the holy fathers demonstrate that if we can learn to open our spiritual eyes, we will see that it need not be a solitary journey filled solely with darkness and pain, but it can also be a passage of transformation from death to life. After all, for the fathers, “death is not death, but only a kind of emigration and translation from the worse to the better, from earth to heaven, from men to angels, archangels, and the One who is the Lord of angels and archangels” (Saint John Chrysostom, Letter to a Widow). Somehow the stages of grief, whatever they may be or in whatever order they may occur, need to be situated within the greater journey from earth to heaven, the journey that the departed in Christ have already completed. We are all “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). The experience of grief brings this truth home. When we accept it fully, we can look to “a better country, that is heavenly” (Hebrews 11:16), to “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews  11:10), to that Jerusalem on high that has “no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof” (Revelations 21:23). That is the place where stages and phases are past, where acceptance is complete, and where we are truly at home with those who are departed, there where “Christ is all and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

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