Death is the great leveler. The death of a loved one changes everything: our relationships, our support bases, our own concept of life, and how we live and love.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a grief specialist, argued that loss is usually followed by five phases of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We initially find it difficult to accept the facts and reality of our loss. This denial is a natural response, an in-built defense mechanism that allows us time to digest the sudden and tragic change in our life.
Once we move out of this first stage, we experience concentrated emotion, that of anger. This anger is expressed as an anger towards one of three agencies: the self (I did not do enough for the person before they died), others (Why did they have to go and die on me), or God/life/destiny (Why has God done this to me? or Why is life so unfair?). It is in this anger that we find the reason why it so difficult to forgive a loved one who has died. Forgiveness is difficult when we are still angry.
The third phase is that of bargaining in which we negotiate for a decrease of the negative feelings that we are experiencing. For example, God, if you make my pain go away I promise that I will go to church more often. When this bargaining fails, we enter the fourth stage that of depression. In this phase we feel the intense sadness of the loss, and many aspects of our daily life take on a negative slant. This stage is characterized by helplessness and hopelessness.
The final stage is acceptance. In this stage, we are able to accept the loss to a degree that the loss no longer interferes with our daily functioning at home and work. Acceptance is not a permanent state of being but something that we move in and out of depending on external and internal vulnerabilities that we may experience, for example, stress, illness, and anniversaries of the loved one’s death. Grief is hard work, and it comes and goes for the rest of our life.
Grief requires time, support, and courage. We need time to go through the above five stages. We require support from our loved ones: support that is gentle, quiet, and respectful. We need courage to accept the death of our loved one and not personalize the loss. A person’s life and death is much larger than its effect on us.
Allowing ourselves to grieve properly provides the opportunity for acceptance. Once we have worked through the feelings and accepted, we can forgive. We can then be grateful that we have known the deceased person. We can celebrate their life and give thanks that they have touched our lives in meaningful ways.