I read a very helpful article on the stages of grief written by Susan Anderson, a psychotherapist specializing in abandonment and loss, who experience both a divorce and then the loss of a second husband through death. Her perspectives are well researched and the result of her observations and personal experience. She found the death of her second husband to be a completely different experience from her divorce, and chronicles the stages she saw herself and others in her grieving group pass through. As I read them, I realized that they are the same patterns I have seen in my grieving process.
Phases of grief in dealing with the death of a loved one
When we talk about grief phases people most often refer to the phases described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Unfortunately, these were developed to describe grief pertaining to the process of dieing. Most people who have experiences the death of a loved one find that these phases do not correlate. Anderson identifies five new stages that appear to be relatively universal to the process. These phases are not necessarily sequential and isolated. Grief phases are more of a cyclical or ‘flowing process;’ nevertheless, everyone experiences them differently.
“In the early phases my group mates and I cycled through these phases so rapidly, they were nearly simultaneous. We swirled through them within an hour, a day, a week, a year – cycles within cycles – until the hurricane finally weakened and we began to emerge out the end of the funnel in a place of greater peace, acceptance, and renewal.” – Anderson
1. Shock and Numbing
Shock and numbing are intense during the first few months after the death then they less through the first year. I refer to this as Widow’s Fog. Life seems surreal and at times you stop and question if you are just living in a bad dream. Mental capacity, memory and reasoning skills are diminished in an attempt to protect the mind from stress overload. Your emotions can vacillate between intense devastation and emotional numbness. You go through the motions of life with a form of vacancy and meaninglessness.
“We all seemed to be in an altered physiological stage, at least during the first year. [It is my belief that] it lasts for several years and leaves permanent markings on physiological response. The haze I felt in my head had not been there during my abandonment. The entire experience felt different hormonally.” – Anderson
Besides the mental and emotional protection that numbness provides, another tender mercy of this phase is that many people feel or sense the presence of their spouse. Anderson reported of her findings, “Not uncommon were spiritual and emotional visitations from our partners. We reported feeling their presence in the room sometimes, thought we heard their voices, or saw their faces.” Numbness perhaps allows us to be partial there as well as here, allowing additional time for good-bye and closure. Also there often appears to be enabled strength to do and endure difficult things. Even though we may not recognize this strength from our robotic functioning, Friends do and often comment, “I can’t believe how strong you are!”
Some of the other symptoms of shock include:
- Anxiety – especially upon waking and rediscovering our reality
- Survivors guilt – questioning why we were allowed to continue living, or mourning what they are missing.
- Physiological disturbances – including sleeplessness, appetite changes and exhaustion
Understanding this phase can bring purpose and acceptance to the numbness and can help you to navigate better through your feelings, allowing you to feeling less disoriented and bewildered.
As the anesthetic of phase 1 wears off, acute pain is felt. The craving, yearning and missing feelings take the center stage. Intense memories of the past and longing for their touch and presence makes their absence all the more heartbreaking. This part of grief is something that will resurface from time to time even years down the road.
You find yourself expecting them to walk in the door, or wondering if they are the one calling, only to be smacked by the realization that they are not coming home or calling again. These lapses of memories send new pangs and waves of anxiety that cause physical distress. With time your mind will begin to expect them less and less.
“Grief proved to have a mind of its own – its own rhythm. It came in waves which washed over us and sometimes swallowed us whole, leaving us beached and dazed, sending us back into the numbing fog to start the cycle over again.” – Anderson
Withdrawal can take on forms of abandonment depending on several factors characterizing the relationship including the degree of love felt, length of time together, degree of independence, and life stage. Some may mourn the love they feel they never received, while others mourn the love that they feel will never be replaced.
Many begin to question “Why me?” and become enveloped in waves of anger and self-pity. Emotionally we feel overwhelmed, anxious, and exhausted. Mentally we are trying to come to grips with reality. Physically we have trouble sleeping, some people begin to fill the void with food while others remain without appetites. In these stages of acute grief we dig deeper and find emotional reserves and hidden strengths that amaze us at times.
For help in dealing with this phase see the post Taking Control of Your Grieving
3. Identity crisis
When my husband died I said that I felt 2/3 of me died with him, the 1/3 that was him and the 1/3 that was us. This is a period of self-relection where we pull the “I” from the “we” that previously existed. This means a funeral for all of “our” future dreams and plans and a complete restructuring of self and the future. We mourn much more than our spouse; we also mourn our identity and future.
Feelings of loneliness surround us. We feel insecure about ourselves and abilities without the support of our partner. Many people are filled with such anxiety that they struggle to see any hope at the end of the road. There are tears of frustration now. We find it difficult and uncomfortable to listen to other’s future plans with their family, feeling a sense of limbo with our lack of companionship. We fear the future as it seem bleak and our life-spans, all too long. Depression may set in.
To lesson our isolation we may turn to family and friends, but are reminded that they do not share our void in their full and normal lives. We want to be needed and recognized, but we don’t want to be a burden. Many of our friends do not know how to fit us into their busy, ‘coupled’ lives and so we slowly drift away from all but our most devoted of friends. The absence of former relationships make our attention starved souls all the more lonely. We feel pathetic and needy and at times desperate.
In this phase we begin to internalize the pain of grieving. Those around us continue life as if nothing has happened and do not even recognize our inner pain. Self-esteem suffers because we may feel that there is something wrong with us, that we should be handling things better. We feel insignificant and inadequate, especially in comparison to our partners that we begin to idealize.
Those around us may start to become impatient with our grieving process, and make insinuations or give advice that suggests that we need to “get on with it” or find the solution to ‘”fix” our problem. There is a feeling that our friends do not accept us or want to be relieved of the reminder of our grief. We understand that they just “do not get it yet,” and this increases our isolation.
Memory deficits as well as difficulty focusing, problem solving, concentrating, and following through may still continue to plague us. Yet in this phase we begin to discover a new level of independence as we take on new things for the first time. Those small successes are often followed by relapses into the former phases.
Despite our loneliness, our focus begins to shift to the reality before us and we begin to face challenges head on. For many this shift begins sometime in the second year, although that can vary.
“Society gives mourners about a year to grieve a death, and afterward, expects us to get on with our lives. Yet here we stood amidst the ruins of our former lives, still stunned, still wounded, still lonely, expected to have it all together, [yet] we put similar pressures upon ourselves ” – Anderson
We feel guilty for giving ourselves permission to grieve at this point. The expectations, lessened support and the work of putting life back together are what make the second year so difficult for many.
We find every aspect of our lives and person changed. Restarting our lives is emotionally turbulent, but our experiences vary due to personal circumstances. We desperately want to fill some of the void left by our spouse, but struggle to find things that are meaningful or fulfilling. We often feel thwarted in our efforts to rebuild as if we are still cleaning out a demolition job while trying to put up a new wall. We may become resentful of our new circumstances if we are not careful. This process takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and courage.
With our partner, we seek to resolve regrets, to gain better understanding of our relationship with them and to resolve former conflicts. Some may attempt to relocate, partially to escape memories or for financial reasons, yet we find our new home empty without our spouse. We reincorporate old memories by reliving them with new friends. We try new things, make new relationships and personal changes all in an attempt to reinvent our lives, but we may find willpower (especially in dieting) difficult to summon due to the ongoing emotional turmoil of this phase.
We may suffer guilt from moving on and a sense of disloyalty even though the job of the living is to keep living. The battle to change our lives is interconnected with the grief cycle. Finding a support network through this phase is important to keep the momentum for change and to foster encouragement. Understanding that that the upheaval felt during this stage is being caused by the pain of loss can help you make sense of the emotional struggles and can prevent you from being overly hard on yourself during setbacks.
5. Lifting and Letting Go
Earlier we experienced moments of lifting, yet as we move through grief the lifting periods expand and extend beyond the second year to encompasses the process of acceptance, letting go of the the past and leaning to accept and make due with life’e new terms. True lifting comes when we feel the spirit enter our lives because we are doing good and thinking positive things. We cope with loneliness and count the blessing in our lives. We feel more peace and begin to have more good days than bad. Memories begin to make us smile instead of cry and we fell moments of joy and laughter again.
We can still cycle downward with triggers, but we can quickly pull ourselves back into this anchor of peace. If we have not found a central purpose for our life, we continue to search for it with greater intensity. We find unexpected adventures and some even find they are ready to love again.
Summing it up
This has described the cycle that I have experiences as I have moved through grief and begun my healing. In the begining Anderson says,
“We cycled from the numbing fog to the acute grief of the withdrawal phase, then to the painful self-doubt and soul searching of the Identity phase, then to feeling dread over the extra burdens ahead of us in the Reorganizing phase, and finally to Lifting where we felt momentary lapses of grief, only to be smacked in the face again by the sudden realization of our loss which would send us cycling right back to home base – the numbing fog.”
By learning , acting on and sharing the values, principles and methods outlined in our healing section and grief program, I found that I was able to resolve issues in the Identity phase, chip away at obstacles in the Reorganizing phase, and over come the negative emotions of the Withdrawal phase, allowing me to spend more time progressively in the Lifting phase. From experience I can testify that acting on true principles will lift you.
As you look back on your experiences we hope that you can identify these cyclical phases and feel hope in the journey through grief. Remember that no one phase will last forever. We also invite you to join our Grief Program to find a more direct path to healing.
“Grieving a Death.” Anderson, Susan. Date last modified <2006>. Available at: http://www.abandonment.net/articles. Accessed <03/25/2015>.