5 “stages" I didn’t expect to deal with while grieving
Yes, Kubler-Ross had some of it right.
And people often mistake her “five stages” as being a hard blanket rule for all grievers (though this was not what she intended). But I’ve found that the biggest misconception about grief is that it is moved through via any number of structured steps — as if we move from one to another, checking them off of a list, onto the next, finally at “acceptance” and “moving on”.
In response to that, please imagine me violently shaking the index finger of one of my hands, flipping the bird with my other hand, and screaming at the top of my lungs, “WRONG!”
That’s how I feel about this idea, and the various conversations I’ve had to deal with in just a year and a half, explaining that this is not how it works. Grief is fluid, grief is complicated, and (most importantly) grief is an experience that’s unique to every single person going through it. As unique and complicated as our relationships are, so too is our way of dealing with loss.
Personally, I’ve felt lots of the things on Kubler-Ross’s list: anger whenever I think about the fact that my mom was ill and high on pain meds the last time I talked to her; sometimes I’m accepting of the fact that she’s physically dead, though I can’t accept that it’s forever my reality.
But I’ve felt a lot of other things too, all of which have had significant impacts on how I grieve, why I’m grieving, and when I’m grieving.
If you’re curious about what else people feel, or what you should be sensitive to when you’re dealing with someone grieving, here’s five experiences (not “stages", as they come and go) that I didn’t expect or think about before my own loss. They’re all very valid parts of my grief, but not part of the picture many of us have.
Yes, sometimes I look at pictures of my mom and feel like my eyeballs are going to explode like geysers. Yes, sometimes people say irritating stuff about celebrating “the woman that gave you life!” and I have to remind them that mine’s no longer living. But I also felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest when I watched Black Panther meet his dad in the after life. I tear up when I find a random perfume at Old Navy that smells just like the one my mom wore. And I broke down the first time I saw a newborn baby after my mom died (I usually looove new babies).
Triggers aren’t just wrapped up in specific names, holidays, or anniversaries. Triggers show up in places that are unexpected, seemingly inconvenient, and sometimes really frustrating. This doesn’t mean you have to tip toe around grieving people — it should be understood that if you’re considerate and kind, we’re all just doing our best to respect each other. But it’s important to know that these things may come “out of the blue” or at “random times”, and that they’re not random or ridiculous to the person dealing with them.
My mom died two weeks after my younger sister’s wedding. And lots of people pointed that out at the funeral. “Isn’t it great that she could be there to see Katherine get married?” I even mentioned it in the eulogy I gave. But since her death, this is one thing I’ve been extremely jealous about. I spend time talking to my counsellor about this, trying to shed some of the “shame” I feel about this jealousy, because at the end of the day, I realize that this (and other forms of grief) are just pointing out to me how important my mom was in my life.
I find myself jealous about my sister’s wedding, other people spending weekends with their parent*s*, and the fact that my dad gets to help plan my cousin’s baby’s birthday party, considering he might not be around to help me plan my kid’s. Admitting that is enough, for now, and finding ways to honour my mom during those milestones is my goal for the future.
Y’all… death. can. be. funny. I’m not talking Darwin Awards funny (though I can appreciate the concept). But when you’ve spent decades with someone — a mother, a sibling, a grandparent, a friend — I hope you had some laughs with them! It can be funny memories or things that you made fun of them for, but these things don’t die with them. They’re unique moments that you shared and can remember when you need a "pick me up” moment or time spent reminiscing without crying.
The first time I laughed *hard* was at my mom’s ash spreading ceremony. We’d dumped her ashes in a lake, said a few nice things, and to cap it all off, someone made a joke about how great it was that my grandpa would be lookin’ up at my mom… (from Hell). I don’t know why I expected it all to be sadness, tears, and solemn meetings with family. In reality, It’s more comforting and freeing to know that we can still laugh, whether through tears or the hard shit that you’ve just got to accept sometimes.
There are so many things to be exhausted about after someone dies. Not just for the first few weeks when you’re planning, consoling family and friends, dealing with your own issues, in and out of work, trying to cope. But in the months and years to come, as well. It’s exhausting being sad. It’s exhausting explaining to people why you’re sad. And it can be exhausting wing exhausted.
Exhaustion also comes in the form of physical manifestations. About every six months I seem to hit a wall. Things pile up — anniversaries, frustrations with people around me, work, life, stress, anger — and my body starts to tease, “Stop pushing through or we’re gonna hit a wall, woman.” Then I keep pushing and stressing, losing sleep and a little bit of my sanity. Then my body screams, “K cool here we goooo!” and it shuts down. Then comes the tears, the headaches, 14 hours of sleep straight, and a release of all the things that I just can’t and shouldn’t hold inside anymore. It’s just plain exhausted.
As exhausting as all of this can be, surprisingly, I’ve found great relief in being open about my loss. Of course, I expected to talk to family members, friends, and members of the Dead Moms Club about the things I was experiencing. But I’ve also found peace in being able to connect with people who are going through their own grief. Because this “work” is hard, it’s important to share so that we all feel supported.
And it is just that: work. I work hard to tell my story and be open with people who want to learn. Those of us grieving work hard to stay present, we work hard stay true to what we need, and we work on one of the hardest things of all: taking care of ourselves and our families.