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Stages of Grief

The other side of joy is sadness or grief. It is the emotion that arises from a loss, either real or imagined. When someone special, or something important, or some cherished belief is lost, you feel a gap or a hole in your internal reality. This may lead to a variety of physical symptoms, from loss of appetite to tightness in the chest to insomnia, fatigue, or even hyperactivity. Loss also affects your thinking and ways of behaving.

Since the 1970s, supported by the pioneering work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, and the growing popularity of the hospice movement, a greater understanding of the nature of grief and loss has pervaded the culture at large. The psychology of grief and loss informs us that grieving is part and parcel of life as much as it is of death. Kübler-Ross, in her classic book On Death and Dying, indicated that there are identifiable stages in the grief process - whether we are grieving the loss of a job, a loved one, or our dreams. Knowing the progression of these stages can be a great help in moving through them and building some sense of security, since there is frequently a tendency to fear that you are going crazy; that you are all alone; that no one else has ever gone through this before; and that there will be no end to it. Realizing that these are very natural responses to loss can provide much-needed encouragement, a tiny ray of sunlight in the midst of so much darkness.

Denial is commonly the first stage in the grief process. You hear yourself or others saying, I can't believe it," or "This can't be happening to me." When facing loss or death, the organism's natural balance is challenged. It's normal, in the early stages of grief, to go into shock, withdraw, become numb, or act feverishly to block out the harsh reality - these reactions give the body-mind some necessary distance from trauma. They can offer a chance to awaken more gently to a difficult truth. When the world has been temporarily turned upside down, it naturally takes some time to adjust.

Anger follows denial. People get angry at the employer who fired them, the husband or wife who left them, the God who permitted this tragedy to happen. Since anger may not be an "approved" emotion, it is often swallowed and stored away. This can be harmful for both physical and psychological health.

After denial, and along with anger, many people go through a stage called "bargaining" in which they try every strategy they can think of to change their situation. They try to make bargains with God, the fates, or the supernatural, either directly or implicitly, in which they promise to be good or perform some heroic deeds if only their sentence of loss can be removed. Grieving people may undertake a pilgrimage, become extremely religious, make donations to charities, start new health regimens, write letters of apology in which they beg a separating partner to return, and so on. Such bargaining is a last-ditch effort to avoid immersion in the well of deep pain that accompanies facing the loss head-on.

When these strategies fail, the real grieving usually takes place. Sadness touches you at the very core of your being and from that place you mourn the loss. The deep sighing or primitive moaning sounds that come with crying are healthy indications that you are confronting the pain right down to its roots. It doesn't mean that the pain goes away, but that you are doing the grief work necessary to healing.

There are two ways of dealing with grief - "hard and fast" or "hard and slow." The healthiest way you can heal the wound created by your loss is to face it squarely - to cry through the pain you feel and to tell the story of your loss to caring listeners. Allowing yourself to swear or scream is OK too, if that would feel good to you. Such energetic expressions can help some people to loosen the floodgates that hold back tears. However, approach extreme catharsis (like screaming and swearing) with caution, as for some it can intensify a state that is undesirable, possibly causing even more harm.

All of these stages lead to the final phases - at the least, resignation, and at best, acceptance. Sadness and grief, like other deep emotions, stir up internal waters that may have grown stagnant; this can be cause for profound celebration, since they call for a reassessment of life values, and they raise questions that might otherwise have gone unasked for years.

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