You’ve probably heard about the five stages of grief…
…originally talked about by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. She labelled five distinct stages that people who are coming to terms with their own death generally seemed to go through: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. The five stages of grief model was an incredible breakthrough at the time because it identified a lot of what grieving people go through as being normal and healthy.
Kübler-Ross never intended those stages of grief to be used as a model for how people ought to approach their own mortality, or how we ought to experience grief for someone else’s death. As human beings, we so badly want to be certain about things, don’t we? We often think, “if I just knew how I was supposed to do this, then I could work really hard and do it right.” The reality is, the process of grief isn’t a tidy series of steps or stages that we can do once and be done with it. It’s really important to remember that we all grieve in our own unique way. That way is impacted by our personality, our situation, our relationship with the person (or pet, or job, or role) that we have lost, and many other factors.
Other grief experts later identified specific needs that all people seem to have during the grieving process. An author I very much admire is Dr. Alan Wolfelt. He has written a number of very helpful books addressing griever’s needs in all areas of life, from the physical to the mental and emotional, to the social and spiritual. He focuses on our human needs for recognizing the reality of our loss, feeling the pain and other emotions associated with it, remembering the person who died, adapting our self-identity to our new situation, searching for meaning in our life, and accepting the help of others. When I first read his work his thinking really resonated with me, and it still does.
In my own work with people who are grieving, whether they are working through the death of a loved one in their life, or coming to terms with a major life transition that results in a sense of loss or overwhelm, I’ve noticed another thing that seems nearly as universal as the needs of grievers. It has to do with the way we imagine and talk about ourselves in grief. The process of loss or change often leaves us feeling lost ourselves – adrift on an unknown sea, perhaps, or wandering in an unfamiliar and harsh landscape. The words that my clients and I have used to describe our own various experiences of grief have so often been ones that bring up images of a place: sometimes terrible, always strange, and often frightening or lonely.
In short, it’s not so much that we need to know the names of stages of grief, it’s that we need a map of our grief, and a compass to guide us. It’s pretty common for a while at the beginning of grief to want to find THE map – something to tell us exactly where we are, and how long it’s going to take us to find our way back home again, and which road to take. Oh how I wish there was just one!
What eventually has become clear to me is that the best grief maps are those we have made ourselves. Maps we’ve drawn of the contours of our own lives and what we know about how to navigate our own challenges with the tools we have and know best. In order to make an accurate map, up until mapmakers could access a real-time satellite photo of a place, you needed to be in the place itself, tread the ground, and measure carefully. This is doubly true of geographies of feelings and relationships. There are no satellite cameras or Google Maps for this. The mapping of grief is a process that takes time and care, and needs a lot of support. I won’t try to stretch this metaphor any further or it will fall apart – but remember how many ships all those historical explorers used?
Your path through grief…
…will depend a lot on what kind of terrain you’re trying to navigate. In the next few weeks, I’m going to write more about grief maps, and the kinds of helpful signposts we’re likely to need as we make them for ourselves. For now, if you find yourself struggling and feeling lost as you grieve, I hope you’ll remember to be kind to yourself, and accept as much support as you possibly can. One place you can start is by downloading my e-book, Finding Peace In Your Grief, right here, for some practices from Art Therapy to help you create the calm space to nurture yourself during this time.
And of course, you can contact me for a personal conversation about working together on mapping your path through grief.