Grieving is the name we give to the ways we respond to change and loss in our lives. We can’t stop change and loss from intruding into our lives, so we can’t not grieve, but we can learn to grieve well and healthily.
Our first response to loss or trauma is often denial. If we get the help we need to move from denial to reality, and if we deal with ourselves sympathetically and gently, we will succeed in breaking through the wall of denial.
Once we break through our denial we often become aware of anger. Anger provides us with energy to push back against harm and danger. When faced with a prospective loss we say, “I don’t want this to happen!” Sometimes we feel anger towards those around us who aren’t cooperating with us as we’d like them to, to help prevent the loss from occurring.
And sometimes our worst fears are realized, and the loss really happens. Then we might feel anger toward those around us who aren’t suffering, or aren’t suffering as much as we are. Sometimes we’re angry with ourselves, for not having been smart enough, not having tried hard enough, or not having planned well enough to foresee every eventuality. Sometimes we get angry at God. Sometimes we even get angry at our loved one herself or himself – “How could they do this to me?!”
In this excerpt from her poem “Dirge without Music,” Edna St. Vincent Millay captures the protest of the grieving person:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and laurels they go; but I am not resigned.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
On the heels of anger often comes the bargaining phase – “I’ll do anything to prevent this!” We make deals with ourselves, with our loved ones, with God – but sometimes the loss happens anyway.
The bargaining that is most poignant, I think, is the bargaining we do after the loss has occurred. “If only we had gone to the doctor sooner …” “If only I had been watching the road more carefully …” “What if I had called her one day earlier …” This type of bargaining allows us to have in fantasy, at least momentarily, what we can’t have in reality.
Our minds are endlessly creative in their ability to prevent, postpone and soften the impact of pain and loss. We deny, we get angry, we bargain … because we fear losing what we love. Thank God for our adaptive mechanisms, which preserve our sanity in the face of our fear and pain!
But we must process our losses fully in order to experience the new life that awaits us on the other side of the valley of grieving. Sometimes it’s hard to process the anger-piece and the bargaining-piece by ourselves. Please don’t think you have to go it alone!