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Living through stages of grief

For so many, this year has been one of loss and substantial grief. I keep looking for someone to address psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. In that vein, I offer this.

More than 240,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19. Many were alone in death — without the comforting presence of family members. How do those family members deal with the grief they felt?

In all likelihood, it started with shock, and what is often the first stage of grief — denial. “How can grandpa be dead? When I took him to the doctor this morning he seemed fine — just the headache and that cough?”

The stages of grief ebb and flow and come in waves, not always in orderly fashion. But the second stage is often anger. Did the grieving family who lost their home and all their belongings to the surging wildfire feel anger? Of course, they did. “Damn it, God! We didn’t have much, now we have nothing.”

Individuals who have lost health and homes and their lives and lifestyles often resort to a stage of grief called bargaining. I can relate. My husband’s only brother, 10 years younger, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia a year ago and has gone through a challenging stem cell transplant process with graft/host complications — all during a pandemic. He was placed on a ventilator last week. Throughout the past year, my bargaining into the air sounded like this: “Please let Jim live for another year, even a few more months, and I promise I will ”

Bargaining can often meld into a fourth stage — depression. The loss hangs heavy — it can be completely mind-numbing. It permeates your whole being. You feel overwhelmed and helpless.

Through the years, experts have added stages. There can be as many as 12. But these are the basic five, and the fifth is acceptance. It is not about feeling OK about a significant loss, it’s about accepting reality and moving on — being ready to explore new options.

There is another kind of loss that deserves comment. Loss of power. Elections are such a public loss — so hard for some people. As one journalist worded it in a harsh tweet, “Dude, you lost.”

In the case of loss of power as it exists in today’s dueling political climate — and according to comedian Jimmy Kimmel — there are several additional stages in the grieving process. They include “blame, delusion, litigation, discombobulation, more delusion, incoherence and hallucination.”

With public loss, it can be easy to get stuck in denial. Columnist Sarah Lyall has cataloged graceless public figures over the centuries who have “refused to go.” King Lear, Ethiopia Emperor Hallie Selassie, the Japanese army officer Hiroo Inoda, who refused to surrender after World War II and spent 29 years living in a jungle in combat readiness. Acceptance eluded him until “his elderly former commander arrived and rescinded the no-surrender order.”

With any kind of loss, especially when the grieving process drags out, it is because the final stage is particularly difficult to reach. When acceptance is finally in play, I am told it can be “a glorious feeling” because it means “embracing the present — both good and bad — in order to shape the future.”

It is powerful.

Sharon Johnson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.