March 11, 2019
When you hear the word “grief” what comes to mind? Also, what comes to heart? Not just what do you think about grief, but how does the word or concept make you feel? I ask this question because of funerals that I have done over the past 34 years. I’m going to guess that most of us don’t want to think about or feel grief. As a matter of fact, we run from it! There is a growing trend that I suspect is very unhealthy. Allow me to comment on “grief” first and then I’ll note the trend.
No doubt we all know that Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her 1969 land mark book entitled “On Death and Dying” outlined what she observed to be the 5 stages of grief. The stages were initially observed in terminally ill patients after diagnosis. These same stages apply to those experiencing grief over the death of a loved one, the loss of something important etc. The stages are: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’m guessing that most of us have some idea what each of these mean but with the help of Wikipedia I have copied a brief description at the end of this post.
What many of us may not know about grief is this: For the most part it cannot be avoided, abbreviated, skipped, shortened, redefined etc. It can however be extended.
Back to the disturbing trend. Most of these comments are related to funerals. I have run across many, many families over the years who want to make funerals “as short as possible.” The thinking goes something like this: “We have decided that there will be no viewing. We are going to have (the deceased) cremated and then have a VERY short (emphasis on short) service at the funeral home. We are not going to the cemetery and there will be no luncheon or gathering afterward.” Other than in some unique circumstances, many make these decisions because grieving is hard and they think that this makes everything easier. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Did I mention that NOTHING could be farther from the truth?! Ignoring the need for a time to recognize the life and death of a loved one and a time for family members to take part in that recognition (and that can be done many ways) causes families to get stuck in “Denial.” Since grief WILL run its course whether you like it or not, then getting stuck in any of the 5 steps makes the process take much longer. Also, refusing to “view” the body of the deceased because, as some naively say, “it’s morbid”, adds to the “denial.” There must be “visual finality,” i.e., “seeing” that your loved one is gone. If not, our minds play tricks on us. Ask a mother or wife whose son or husband went MIA. Or a family who’s loved one was terribly disfigured and there was no opportunity to see them. They grieve for years because in the back of their minds they are not totally sure that their loved one is really gone.
Another principle of dealing with grief goes something like this: The more intensely the grief is experienced, the shorter and more complete is the process. Trying to make a funeral “easier” does exactly the opposite of what is intended. Not long ago I was sitting with a family and one of the members said this: “Grief is hard enough as it is, so please keep this short.” It wasn’t the occasion to give him a lecture on enduring grief. But he was WRONG! The more tears and sadness that flow from our bodies and our minds initially as mentioned above, the more “efficient and effective” the grief process. (Someday I will write about my experience when I did not shed a tear at my own mother’s death when I was 14.) I, of all people, know the embarrassment, lack of control and humiliation of crying in front of others. Those who think they are “strong” by holding back their tears are fooling themselves. They are only prolonging grief.
One last thought not directly related to grief. On occasion I will be asked: “Grandma wanted us to do _____________ at the funeral. Or grandma didn’t want us to do _____________. We don’t really feel comfortable with those things. What should we do?” You may not like what I say, but I tell them that funerals are for the living not the dead. I then ask them if grandma would have wanted what was best for her family or if she just wanted what she wanted. If you think that she would have been more concerned with her family than herself, then do what is best for your family. That being said, if you cannot deal with the guilt produced by that then you probably should do what grandma wanted. I also don’t think funerals are a time to insist on getting our way, so if some family members want what grandma wanted and other don’t… do what grandma requested.
Few of us deal with these things on a regular basis so we are likely just doing what makes sense to us. I understand that. With grief… what makes sense is not always the healthiest thing for us or for those we love. The words “Just keep this simple and short” likely do a total disservice to you and those you care about.
Remember these stages are focused on those who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses. But the same principles apply to grief over the death of a loved one.
- Denial – The first reaction is denial. In this stage, individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.
- Anger – When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, they become frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”; “Why would this happen?”.
- Bargaining – The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise. Examples include the terminally ill person who “negotiates with God” to attend a daughter’s wedding or an attempt to bargain for more time to live in exchange for a reformed lifestyle.
- Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon, so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one; why go on?”
During the fourth stage, the individual despairs at the recognition of their mortality. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
- Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it; I may as well prepare for it.”
In this last stage, individuals embrace mortality or inevitable future, or that of a loved one, or other tragic event. People dying may precede the survivors in this state, which typically comes with a calm, retrospective view for the individual, and a stable condition of emotions.
In a book co-authored with David Kessler and published posthumously, Kübler-Ross expanded her model to include any form of personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or income, major rejection, the end of a relationship or divorce, drug addiction, incarceration, the onset of a disease or an infertility diagnosis, and even minor losses, such as a loss of insurance coverage.