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Grief: Stages ebb and flow

More than a year ago I wrote a column about death and dying and the grieving process, referencing the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. A week later I received an email from her grandson. He offered me a compliment, saying I had accurately captured her approach to the five stages of grief.

Today, in the middle of my own grieving, after the recent death of my husband, I find myself revisiting her work. It is strangely comforting to be reminded there are specific words for what I am feeling.

In the time of COVID, many were alone in death, without the comforting presence of family members. I was fortunate to be surrounded by family members, supported by the presence of children and grandchildren — however, not all of them.

Our oldest granddaughter lives several states away, and her reaction when we called her indicating her grandfather’s death was imminent was complete shock, which often is the first stage of grief: denial. “How can Grandpa be dying? I just talked to him a few days ago, and he said he was feeling fine.”

The stages of grief ebb and flow and come in waves, not always in orderly fashion. But the second stage can be anger. I found myself angry that we had only just begun the hospice experience when my husband died. I naively I thought we had several months ahead of us.

Truth be told, I also felt something akin to anger at my husband for telling me he left me a letter about our life together but not telling me where he left it. Still looking ...

Individuals experiencing loss often resort to a stage of grief called bargaining. I can relate. Please rally, my love — we have an anniversary to celebrate next week. But then I reverted to worrying that my plea was prompting him to hang on when he was clearly ready to pass.

I do not like the word “passing.” Let’s just say: “He died.”

Bargaining often can meld into a fourth stage: depression. The loss hangs heavy. It can be completely mind-numbing at times. It permeates your whole being and wells up at unexpected moments.

I wept when I found a half-empty container of his preferred food in those final weeks, cottage cheese, in the back of the refrigerator.

I am buoyed by the loving people in my life, including all the readers of this column who sent me thoughtful condolences after reading last week. Those messages were incredibly comforting. Thank you.

Through the years, experts have added stages to better define grieving. There can be as many as 12 on record. But Kubler-Ross calls out the basic five and the ebb and flow of the process.

The fifth and final stage is “acceptance.” It is not about feeling “OK” about a significant loss; it’s about accepting reality and moving on, ready to explore new options.

Not there yet, but I know I will be. 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.”

Standing ready.

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