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Understanding the unexpected phases of grief

By Emily Christensen, KSL.com Contributor  |  Posted Jan 10th, 2013 @ 8:29pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — My grandmother passed away when I was in college, and I thought no experience would be more difficult. I relived that traumatic experience a few years later when my other grandmother passed away while I was in graduate school.

I was wrong, though. There were more difficult experiences with grief. It was harder, much harder, when my father died last year.

And then it was different-hard when my husband and I miscarried our little honeymoon baby, with waves of grief rushing over us almost as quickly as had the nausea that brought our initial joy.

Grief is brutal.

Most of us honor the dead at funerals, or on special days we remember them in special ways. Some of us grieve by crying, taking time alone or looking at old pictures. Religious perspectives and doctrinal understandings make a significant difference, and this is one of the things I am most grateful for since my own conversion began.

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Grief is hard. It is hard because it hurts, and it hurts because there was so much love.

Sometimes it is hard because we do not know how to grieve, or because grieving is hard work. It is hard to maintain a normal “real life” at the same time as grieving. We sleepwalk through our day to day functioning while the world swirls around us. It is hard because the world seems to be no different but also completely changed.

After the marvelous work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross, we understood that grief comes in stages. The stages of grief she outlined were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We learned later that those are stages that people who are dying go through, and that the people who grieve have a different experience of "phases" instead of stages. Instead of moving from one stage to the next, like a checklist, we flop around like a fish in a puddle, bouncing from one phase to another and then back again.

Denial is being in shock about what happened. From the initial protests against reality to the waiting for a text or email that you know isn't coming, denial is a way to keep us breathing while our minds process the news that we have lost someone we loved. After I miscarried, I wanted to think my body was just cycling through normally rather than feeling the loss of a child just discovered. It took me some time to connect my pregnancy I had experienced to the loss I was now feeling.


Grief is hard. It is hard because it hurts, and it hurts because there was so much love.

Anger is being mad about any aspect of how your life has changed. We might feel angry at the person who died, or the people who tried to rescue them, or the circumstances that caused it, at ourselves, or even at God. This is our response to the injustice that has happened, and the pain we feel at our separation from those we loved so much. I was at first angry about some of my father's suffering. There were layers of emotions to feel as I found my way to the place where I could see clearly his contributions to those around him during that time.

Bargaining is making promises or trying to “make a deal” to undo what happened and get life back the same as before. This is the shoulda-coulda-woulda's that often begin with "if only." We think of what we could have done differently, what they should have done differently or wonder why nature didn't choose differently. We confuse covenant keeping with deal making, and are resentful when it's ineffective. My mother's side of the family had taken turns visiting my grandmother each day to check on her, visit, make sure she was eating and check her medications and vital signs. When she passed, many of us struggled with what more we could have done, even though each of us had been diligent in caring for her.

Depression is the sadness of grief. It doesn't have to mean a clinical depression, though sometimes that happens. It just means depressive symptoms like feeling sad, crying, withdrawing from normal activities, isolating, and struggling to function at the same pace and in the same way you were before grieving. In each of my grief experiences, I was able to take a few days off work to take a time out from functioning. When I had to function again, it felt like my body was physically too heavy to lift off the bed. Sometimes waves of emotions washed over me without warning, and other times I could feel it coming and escape to a private place to cry.

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Acceptance is awareness and fully understanding the ways your life has changed, and continuing to live your life. Those waves of emotion got better over time, especially as I learned to recognize the waves coming and what I could to do to help ride them out. I learned to breathe so I wouldn't drown, and exercise outside when the weather was nice enough seemed to really help me specifically. Talking with others who had grieved didn't help initially, but I came to appreciate their wisdom, strength and support. I like talking with my family about good memories we have, spiritual gifts we were given and the positive things passed down from those we love and miss.

Research now says what many have experienced: that grief has other stages as well, and that people can skip stages or go back and repeat stages several times as they grieve. There is no “right way” to grieve, as long as you are not “stuck” in one stage. But, it does take time. We grieve people, changes in relationships, pets, letting go of grown children, changes in responsibilities, graduations, retirements, and any major life changes. Grieving takes you from the moment your life changed to a place of understanding your new life as it will be from now on.

Grief is the internal experience of our loss and the emotional response we experience. Mourning is the external expression of our grief. When my father's mother was dying, we each cried and reached out to each other as we grieved. But we mourned together, surrounding her with old hymn songs, sharing family meals and camping out in the living room.

Your style of grief is unique to you. Maybe you find comfort in spiritual beliefs. Maybe you have special memories. Maybe you share stories. Maybe you take deep breaths or go for a walk. Maybe you laugh, maybe you cry, maybe you smile in the rain.



Emily Christensen, PhD, lives with her husband Nathan in Owasso, Oklahoma. Her doctorate is in marriage and family therapy. Her blog is www.housewifeclass.com, and she can be contacted at housewifeclass@gmail.com.

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