Recently when chatting with a friend about her grief journey, I was reminded again how very differently each of us process grief. Some widows go through the stages quite systematically; others drift in and out of each stage many times. A few widows I’ve known pass through one stage quickly but take months, even years, to process a different stage. I believe, however, that most of us pass through grief spasmodically. We think we have processed our pain, but months later we realize we have not dealt with a certain phase quite as well as we thought.
The stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—have been studied and written about for nearly four decades. Now David Kessler, an authority on grief, and famed psychiatrist Elizabeth Kuber-Ross are including a sixth stage—finding meaning—in their new book, which will be released this September. The book will share the benefits of remembering our spouse with more love than pain. I’m sure it will help us to understand the grief process more.
It’s important to continue learning about the ways grief affects us, but it’s also beneficial to share with other widows our grief journeys. This helps to solidify the progress we’ve made, and at the same time encourages other widows to be transparent about their challenges.
While I was taking courses on counseling about 10 years before my husband’s death, the professor told me that I had already been dealing with the grief process. He was right, although I had not realized it. At the time Tony was coping with end-stage renal disease. He lived longer than doctors thought possible, but the diagnosis was terminal.
After his death I was certain I was ready for the acceptance stage. He had been ill for many years; hadn’t I dealt with denial, anger, and bargaining? Now it was time to build a new life and forget the past pain. But I was wrong! A friend was honest enough to tell me that I had not dealt with many phases of Tony’s illness and death. We had been a young married couple with two children under age three when he became sick, and his illness radically changed our present and our future. In many ways, I had denied my emotional pain while dealing with his physical challenges. This helped me survive all of those years of struggle, but now the pain had to be faced.
I had to deal with the deep disappointment of what could have been had Tony been healthy. Other widows must confront challenges they perceive only occurred because their husbands died young. One widow shared with me, “I stood at his gravesite years after his death and said, ‘I’m angry. This would not have happened if you had been here to help me.’”
Depression, considered the fourth stage of grief, is overwhelming for some widows. A sense of helplessness, emptiness, loneliness, and loss of control often accompany or define this phase. Life is meaningless; the bed is empty; the house seems too large. Cooking and then eating alone are grueling. A widow said, “I can’t eat by myself at a restaurant. Everyone is looking at me with pity.” This probably was not true, but this was how she felt, and those emotions are valid.
I can’t think of anyone who expresses grief better than the Psalmist David. He cried out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” (Psalm 13:1). In Psalm 71, David tells us he had seen many bitter troubles. But David also declared, “He [God] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm147:3).
This grief process is arduous, but God will see us through each stage regardless of the time it takes us to process every hurt, every disappointment, every angry feeling, every sorrow, or each lonely moment.