Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

As a writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction (and as a widow who has networked with thousands of other bereaved individuals) I cheered — and jeered — over one trade article’s treatment of grief.

I applaud Danny Manus for writing “Notes from the Margin: Five Stages of Grief for Your Character,” in which he urges fellow writers to infuse their characters with “fully fleshed out” emotional reactions by having “them go through the Five Stages of Grief.” Too many writers (and friends of the bereaved) appear unaware of the the life-altering impact of loss (whether that loss relates to health, relationships, employment, or other serious changes — including, of course, death).

Manus’s article and attached illustration might provide an initial working framework, but as one among many grief-related writers, I must disagree with the shape of the ribbon as well as the opening lines of the article!

The true

Although the loops acknowledge there are turns along the way to “recovering” from grief’s impediment, I disagree with the shape and “stages” of this image linked with Manus’s article at http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character.

“When something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.” – See more at: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character#sthash.jNiDqsod.dpuf%5D

I groaned — aloud — as I saw the lovely, neatly looped ribbon illustration and read the words “the five stages” and “the same steps.” 

Not again!

REAL people experience REAL grief in messier, less linear, and far less predictable ways. Every loss is different, because every relationship is unique. Realistic fictional (and nonfictional) characters should be presented accordingly — and living, (barely) breathing, grieving friends should never, ever, ever be pigeonholed into expectations of predictable, orderly patterns of grieving through “stages.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself explained that her “Five Stages” of grief applied specifically to people’s confrontations with their own impending mortality — and that they did not always line up in this neat little order. As another Elizabeth put it (though regarding the admittedly different topic of pirate laws), “They’re more like guidelines.”

A more accurate “ribbon” would show these “stages” appearing at uneven intervals and with skipped and irregular repetitions. Instead of a loosely looped U shape, the ribbon would be knotted in places, torn and shredded, and positioned in a wobbly spiral like a warped, stretched, squished Slinky.

For me (and for most of those I know who have lost loved ones, the so-called stages look more like the figure on the right:

Grief is messy. The “stages” look more like the figure on the right. (Image found at http://www.ywam-fmi.org/tl_files/ywam-fmi/images/articles/2015/Stages_of_Grief.jpg)

Consider realistically portrayed grieving television characters. Let’s look at the early guest appearances by the divorced Lorna/Lana Gardner (played by Jean Smart) on Frasier and the eight seasons of widowed Adrian Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) on Monk.

When former high school classmate Lorna/Lana is reintroduced to Frasier, she thought she was already “over” her divorce. She’d “moved on” and was happy with her life — until her ex remarried on her birthday. The writers successfully (and comically) revealed her ups and downs along spirals of “stages” as new life circumstances forced her character to revisit past emotional reactions in her present life. In subsequent episodes, Lorna (by then called Lana) continued to carry her “anger” and “bargaining” stages with her (as parts of her personality that crept in) even as she moved along in her “meaningful life.”

In the series “Monk,” the title character was beautifully, tragically flawed. His lifetime of coping with OCD was thrown into non-coping chaos after his wife’s murder. Even though Adrian Monk managed (with heavy support from understanding though sometimes impatient and exasperated friends) to “return to meaningful life,” that life was always in flux with the “earlier stages.”

When also-widowed Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard) becomes Mr. Monk’s assistant in the third season, her character has “already” returned more fully “to meaningful life” than her employer, yet throughout the remaining seasons there are moments the writers reveal the ongoing impact of grief in its recurring stages. For Adrian, the Slinky of stages remains tightly compressed as he moves forward; for Natalie the Slinky is stretched nearly — but not quite — into a straighter line.

Grieving is messy and complicated and non-linear. If you’re writing about characters whose losses have impacted their “normal” lives, be aware that realistic portrayals reflect the chaos of returning, churning emotions they thought they’d already put in the past.

If you’re supporting friends who’re mourning, please, please, please don’t tell them, “You may be depressed now, but as soon as you go through bargaining you’ll be ready for acceptance and then everything will be okay.” (Trust me on this — I’ve heard it. It doesn’t help, and unless you can bring back the dead, to the recently bereaved that will never be okay.) For many, grieving a loved one is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and sanitizing it into simple stages implies it should be easier. They will not appreciate you minimizing their emotions.

If you’re grieving a loss of your own, I’m sorry. It hurts. Sometimes all you’ll see are the suffocating scribbles in the “My experience” illustration above. It won’t always be this hard, and in time the dark lines will fade as you work your way forward, but for now, be patient with yourself. Please.

Grief Reboots after Holidays

(Please forgive the shouting capitals that follow.)

The tinsel and lights are down, the trees await recycling, and the yearly battle (or pretense) to lose holiday pounds has begun. Around the globe, people brush hands together in satisfaction (and relief) that “the holidays” are past while life slips back into normal routines. Except … In the post-holiday “normalcy” of decorations coming down and social calendars clearing, the emptiness of bereavement surges.

Have you ever unwillingly started over? Imagine access to NONE of your personal or professional contacts or calendars, property, medical records and appointments, project files, programs, passwords, accounts, or data? Multiply that by at least a thousand and you may begin to imagine the rewriting that occurs in the hearts and minds of the bereaved. (In many cases, when a loved one’s or business partner’s death left unknown account passwords or non-transferable titles, this rewriting is not only in emotional and mental processes but also in practical matters.)

For those whose loved ones have died, “normal” no longer exists. (So please, please, please, NEVER tell a mourning friend that “life goes on.” Never ever. It is NOT comforting! Ever.) It’s true that in the earliest months after my husband’s death, I observed that (A) other people’s lives “went on” exactly as they had before, and (B) I was more-or-less alive, so in some fragmented slivers of my soul I (eventually) saw for myself that life continued. I didn’t want (or need) to hear “life goes on,” because life for my family and me was FOREVER ALTERED. Our lives did NOT “go on.” They shut down without warning in an agonizing rebooting that left no backup files and required each of us to learn unfamiliar operating systems in a foreign language not compatible with our hardware.

I’d like to thank you if you were among the neighbors who dropped off casseroles, the friends who attended funerals, or the well-wishers who sent notes of condolences to coworkers, family, or even acquaintances who lost loved ones in the past year. Well done. (And on a personal note, I’m forever grateful to those of you who have comforted me and my family by mourning alongside us in both trials and triumphs through the years!) Thank you all for “being there” at the beginnings of friends’ grief journeys.

Now, whether you did or didn’t step up at that time, pardon me for sounding bossy, but GET BACK TO WORK at it. (Please.) Your grieving friends probably need your support more now than they did in the earliest days, weeks, and months after the deaths.

For those whose loss(es) occurred recently, the blurring fog of shock obscured traditional transitions from the old year to the new. As they reawaken to the disorienting world around them — life as they did NOT know it before — caring gestures of friendship and concern may help them reorder their surroundings. They won’t be ready to rebuild yet, but gestures of kindness (whether messages of ongoing awareness or invitations to interact) will help newly bereaved friends begin to feel the ground under their feet, even if they aren’t yet strong enough to stand upon it.

For those approaching anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths (whether in the first year or beyond), such demonstrations of caring and commitment are just as important. People need to know their beloved departed aren’t forgotten. Let them know that you know it has been a year (or two) since their dear ones died. Let them know that you are thinking of them on the birthdays their loved ones will not be present to celebrate.

Let your friends know you respect their grieving as acknowledgment that love lives on, even past death.

Bereavement and the Post-Holiday Blues

After the holidays, when parties are over and visitors have stopped dropping in, someone who has recently lost a loved one may face new lows of loneliness. While some may find the new year an open gateway to a fresh start, others may find it a slammed door of separation from shared experiences and future dreams with their deceased dear ones. For some, the post-holiday blues may reflect the bereavement faced not long after a death.

How long has it been since your friend’s life changed forever? A few days? A couple of weeks? Half a year?

In the beginning, a newly grieving, raw-hearted mourner may be nearly as overwhelmed by outpourings of support as by the loss itself. Picture a parched child trying to sip from an open fire hose. The analogy is imperfect, but I hope it conveys the idea. By all means,  do offer your support and your presence! (But be understanding if your friend “backs away” at first — or even after repeated gestures on your part.)

Later, the initial shock of death wears off and day-to-day realizations and adjustment difficulties set in.  Sadly, as friends and loved ones return to their “normal” lives, their life-sustaining (though drenching) support often wanes to a trickle. Picture the same open-mouthed child now waiting beneath a stalactite for quenching water — one drop at a time. The mourning soul still thirsts, but expected sources of hydration have all but dried up.

Just as the post-holiday ebb of socializing may leave you feeling the loss of interaction with your friends and coworkers as your life gets back to “business as usual,” the decrease in holiday-minded activities can usher in a newly darkened period of social “dehydration” for those in mourning.

Here are some ways you can offer life-sustaining, soul-quenching “water” (in manageable quantities) to your friend whose loved one died:

  • Acknowledge the absence. (“I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re missing her today.”) I appreciated (and still do appreciate!) expressions of acknowledgement.
  • Be dependable. (If you say you’ll call Friday at at 8:00 p.m., be sure you call Friday at 8:00 p.m. — no matter what.) When everything in my life seemed upside down, having friends follow through on promises kept me anchored.
  • Invite interaction. (It doesn’t matter whether you ask your grieving friend over to play with your new holiday pet, meet for lunch, or take a walk around the block, as long as you act to include him or her.) I turned down far more invitations than I accepted, but I needed to hear each one — even those I wasn’t able to accept.
  • Think about your friend — and share that you’ve thought it! (Text, private message, email, write, call, or speak face-to-face to say, “You’re in my thoughts,” or “Thinking of you today.”) You may think it silly to send such simple words, but it’s not! Your message doesn’t have to be eloquent. Just heartfelt.

Don’t Say “Happy New Year” after a Death

Do I wish my grieving friends “Happy New Year?” There are more helpful things to say, depending on how long it has been since their loved ones died.

If your friend’s loss is recent (and by “recent” I mean within a year or even up to 15 months), then no. “Happy New Year” is probably not the right thing to say in the first year (or two), even though you do wish your friend to be happy. Grief is not a happy feeling, but when it is new and raw it is the feeling your friend needs acknowledged. More thoughtful responses will be better received. Some things I appreciated hearing as a “new” widow of three months:

  • “I wish you well in the year ahead.”
  • “I know it is difficult starting this new year without him. I miss him, too.”
  • “Would you like to talk about how you two usually celebrated New Year’s Eve together?”
  • “We’d love to have you welcome in the new year among friends. Would you like to join us?”
  • “I’m sorry he isn’t here to begin this year with you.”
  • “You’re in my thoughts this New Year’s Eve. I know it isn’t the same.”

If the loss is more recent, the bereaved may not want to be included in “party” atmospheres — they are hurting too much to celebrate — but it is essential to invite them! Whether they accept your invitations or not, it is better for grieving souls to turn down a dozen invitations to social gatherings than not to receive them at all. Even if they repeatedly refuse your invitations, KEEP ASKING.

As the world celebrates moving forward from one year’s date to the next, those mourning the loss of loved ones who died in the “old” year face the devastating reality that their dear ones will never “touch” the new year. Even those who have already spent nearly a year adjusting to their changed lives will face a new 365-day period of acknowledging their lack. For weeks, maybe months, every time a widowed spouse pens the year onto a check or a parent-bereft child painstakingly pencils the date on a school assignment, a grieving soul feels the “betrayal” of hand and tool writing a time their loved ones will not experience with them.

If your friend’s loss struck longer ago (and by “longer ago” I mean at least a year or more), then “Happy New Year” may be a welcome greeting. If your friend is moving forward,  taking steps geared toward the future, finding joy and fulfillment in life again, then by all means say “Happy New Year!” But be sensitive to how your friend is really feeling. Some who mourn lost loved ones may “look” like they’re “doing better” through the holidays — at least in public — but even those who’ve “gotten used to” their losses find holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries to be difficult times.

Console the Bereaved with Concern, but Curtail Curiosity

Showing heartfelt concern when someone dies offers comfort and consolation. Exhibiting curiosity does not.

“The Curious” are more interested in displaying their own pain (or discovering that of the bereaved) than they are in relieving or lightening the mourner’s load. They may say things like:

“Tell me how she died.” Surviving loved ones should never be pressed to discuss this most personal, devastating event. Whether the passing was a bittersweet, peaceful, expected transition or a wrenching, abrupt and untimely, traumatic cataclysm, these details–even if made a matter of public record on the evening news–are intensely private.

“When are you going to move?” No matter how well-intended, this question assumes and imposes the burden of considering yet another upheaval in an already overturned life. Ideally, those who grieve should not make major life decisions within the first year of their loss–and when they do, those decisions are theirs to announce only when and if they wish.

“The same thing happened to my third cousin’s neighbor’s ex.” The grief-afflicted soul thinks, “So what? I don’t know them, and I’m hurting worse than I’ve ever hurt before.” The worst and most relevant grief is a person’s current grief.

“What kind of life insurance did he have?” or “What are the terms of her will?” Unless you have an already established relationship as the survivors’ attorney, accountant, or certified financial planner, questions such as these are off limits! Period.

“When are you going to stop being sad?” Even happily remarried widows and widowers “still” feel sadness over the death of their late spouses. Bereaved parents will “always” mourn the children they’ve lost. Love–and grief over lost love–has no expiration date or timetable.

“What are you going to do now?” The newly bereaved are already overwhelmed. Don’t point out the need for them to make further decisions–which aren’t your business anyway.

In contrast, “The Concerned” set aside their own importance, remembering the goal is to help their grieving friends. They interact to witness and validate the pains of the bereaved survivors they would comfort. Their words sound more like:

“Do you  need to talk about how she died?”
“Is there any way I can help you with any planning you need to do?”
“I’m so sorry for what happened.”
“Can we help you meet any immediate financial needs?”
“Would you like to talk about your feelings?”
“I’m here to support you in whatever you decide.”

Go ahead and show your friends the concern you feel for them in their grief, as long as you aren’t indulging your curiosity to do so.