“Name a baseball player…who is dead.” This was my 4 year old son’s second contribution to a campfire game we played on a recent camping trip. This followed shortly after he simply posed “Name someone who is dead”. Most people were picking light topics such as name a Disney World attraction, a fruit, or a musical. Yet, my son went with death. I suppose it could have been worse. He could have gone with something poop-related…
The game went like this: Pick any two people from the circle, pose a topic, count down from three to one, then both players try to say the same response to the topic at the same time.
My husband and I were head-to-head in the “Name someone who is dead” round. I went with “Uncle Joel”, my brother who passed away suddenly 5 years ago. This was the most significant loss that impacted this group of family who sat around roasting marshmallows that crisp summer night. I thought my husband might be thinking the same, but he went with “Chuck”, my sister’s father-in-law who died a couple weeks earlier. We lost that round. Too many loved ones from which to choose.
The reality is about 10 deceased people flipped through my mind in that moment. Coping with death has been a much more prevalent part of my personal life then I ever expected. If I’m not careful, it can start to feel really heavy and a deep sadness can creep in making me very irritable and gloomy. It gets especially bad if I watch the news too much and lose myself contemplating the world’s deep suffering. Seeking support, talking it through, exercise, and prayer help. But, probably the most important thing for me is to spend time with people who bring joy, loving the ones who are still with me.
My son was very matter-of-fact about the topic of death, too young to connect emotionally with it the way older children and adults might. Sadly, it has become a normal part of our world and we probably talk about it more than we realize. We hear about it on TV and the radio. Characters in stories die (a surprising number of children’s stories and programs seem to have this theme). Members of our church have died. Aging aunts and uncles have died. A few friends have died. Especially when young lives have been cut short, where young children are left without fathers, and dear friends left without their husbands…ouch, those hurt deep to my core. My throat tightens instantly at the thought of the pain that death has inflicted on so many who are dear to me.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who studied death and dying, developed a theory with five stages of grief. I find it helpful to reflect on these stages when trying to understand my own grief processes, or when supporting others personally and professionally. They are useful for any kind of grief process including experiences such as job loss or relationship break-ups.
The acronym for the model is DABDA.
Denial is the first stage. Especially when a death is sudden, it is common for people to be in shock, unwilling or unable to accept that someone has truly died.
In many cases, anger quickly follows. Anger can be directed at the person who died, especially if the death was by suicide, alcohol or drug-related, or an at-fault accident. Anger might also be directed at others, particularly in instances where someone else was at fault for the death such as a homicide or car accident. Sometimes the anger is turned inward, as people look back on their relationship with the person and have regrets over things that happened. God can also be the target of anger, as survivors look for something or someone to blame for this unfair, unjust event.
Bargaining is the third stage. In this stage, people may question why this person had to die and try to make a deal with themselves, others, or God in an attempt to get their loved one back. Desperate for a different outcome, they try to imagine how things could have been different if only someone had done something different.
Depression is the fourth stage. As the reality sets in that the loved one is really gone, a profound sadness can envelop a grieving person. Persistent sleep and appetite disturbance, withdrawal from social activities, inability to enjoy activities that used to bring pleasure, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and thoughts of death or suicide are symptoms that can present in this stage. A person might physically feel weighted down by the weight of the loss. The emptiness or loneliness can feel unbearable.
Acceptance is the final stage. This is when the survivor is able to accept the reality that a loved one is gone. They are better able to cope with their new circumstances and feel more in control of their thoughts and emotions. They begin crafting a new life.
It is not always a linear journey through these stages, and some people skip some of them all together. Sometimes there is backward movement and a person needs to move through some or all of the stages multiple times. Ultimately each person’s grief process is unique and there is no one right way to grieve. It’s a model, not a rule book.
Grief can be a trap that breaks your heart so badly it feels impossible to think of anything but your loss. I’ve felt that kind of grief and I’ve seen it in others. People can get stuck in any of the early stages of grief without ever really moving to acceptance. Without acceptance, people lack the freedom to live the life they still have with the other people who are still alive with them.
Grief changes over time and sometimes in unexpected ways. Keep moving through your grief process, trusting that nothing ever stays the same. Sadness lifts. Anger dissipates. Time changes things and sometimes they get worse before they get better. Moving through your grief process is always better than trying to go around it. There is great wisdom and strength that rises from suffering when you muster the courage to storm straight through it.
One of the biggest lessons in death is how short and precious life truly is. Enjoy the people you still have. Get to know them and their stories, ask questions, make new memories, live each new moment with them. Do what you have to do to not have regrets should someone’s life end suddenly. Ask forgiveness, forgive others, let go. Seek support and find outlets for your grief such as writing, prayer, art, exercise, or music. And be ready for anything when playing campfire games with kids.
Jen S. joined Empathia in 2001 and has worked as a counselor, coach, management consultant, trainer, and account executive. Prior to working in the EAP industry, she taught psychology courses and worked in the managed care field. Jen has a bachelor’s degree in biology, an M.A. in health psychology, and is a Certified Employee Assistance Professional. She enjoys yoga, spending time outdoors, traveling, and spending time with her family.