People die. Relationships end. Jobs are terminated or downsized. Habits must be quit. And most of the time it fucking sucks to go through it. Your life, what you knew to be your life, is ripped away like a scab, leaving you raw, bloody, and exposed. What do you do? How the hell do you go on?
Well, you have to get over it. The best way to do that is to go through it. But how do you willingly go through the pain of loss?
The way you do everything — one step at a time, or in this instance, one stage at a time.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book called On Death and Dying. It was a bestseller and landmark academic study of the process of death and grief. If you haven’t figured it out yet, that’s what you’re dealing with — the death of what once was, and the grief you feel about that loss. Thanks to Kubler-Ross, we have a road map so you don’t get lost, stuck, or keep doubling back and repeating stages.
We’re gonna get you through this — one step at a time.
There are 5 stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. You may not go through all five stages. You might not go through them in this exact order. But generally speaking, when a person is burdened with grief, or brought low by loss, they will travel the road that passes through these five stages.
Whether it’s a divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis, or a really bad break-up, you usually start out at Stage 1: Denial.
“No! This isn’t happening!”
“I don’t believe you really feel that way.”
“We don’t have a problem.”
“Can’t they run more tests, you’re fine!”
It can come out in so many ways, but it’s all the same message. “No! I refuse this as my reality!” Oh man, if only that worked. But, sadly, no we can’t shut out reality. No matter how hard we try to make the words mean something else. We can’t really change the meaning when they say, “I don’t want to know you anymore.” In that moment there really shouldn’t be any confusion. It’s over. And just as it is with a terminal diagnosis, there’s nothing you can do about it.
This often will lead to Stage 2: Anger. Now, this can get embarrassing for the grieving person. Consumed with thoughts of fairness, only at the cosmic level, raging at the notions of God’s will or personal fate, furious at the rigidity of spiritual laws and the determination of the nature of reality, a person can burn with feelings of injustice. “Why me?! This is total bullshit! I don’t deserve this!” are all common thoughts to have in this stage. However, not all anger is spoken. Some people will crush inward and become a silent roiling sea of anger hidden away beneath skin. But whether expressed or not, the anger is real and it rushes through a person as they move from Denial into the initial form of acceptance: Anger. You see that it’s over. Yet, you still think, “This is not right! Someone must be to blame.” It might be your former partner, perhaps yourself, your friends, neighbors, co-workers, city officials, or even God. But someone did this! They made it happen.
If you’re dealing with someone in the grip of anger, whether it’s you, or someone close to you — it’s key that you attempt to be as non-judgmental as possible, do not assign any great meaning to the flashes of their anger. That’s not to say, you should allow them to destroy everything around them and excuse it as part of their grieving process, but you should endeavor to be as patient as possible with them, or you, or whoever it is. Personally, I take a lot of long drives when I feel anger flaring. That way, if need be, I can cuss at myself, out loud, all I want, and no one has to hear it or react to it, and more importantly to me, I get it out. Cussing is like a laxative to get that bad shit out of you faster.
After your rage begins to cool, after your initial emotional response, your rational mind returns to the fore and begins to do what it does best – it argues and pleads, it attempts to cut a deal with reality, as if that were possible.
Welcome to Stage 3: Bargaining. This is often the most embarrassing stage. This is where you get down on your hands and knees and beg forgiveness. You swear on all that matters to you that you will change. If you’re facing a terminal diagnosis, you offer your life-savings in exchange for more time on Earth. If it’s the end of a relationship, you promise you’ll do better, be different, you may ask to remain friends. None of these are healthy options, and likely, none of them will work.
Look, when I saw the hammer drop on a recent relationship, I did all the bargaining time would allow. I asked to remain friends with her. I attempted to label my behavior as lessons learned. And luckily, for my dignity, she didn’t allow me to entertain much of a chance to have a future hope, or really, to even remain active friends. I say “luckily” because I would’ve likely continued to negotiate my way back into a chance to be with her. It still feels so close, like with just the right effort you could once again be where you so desperately want(ed) to be. And there it is, the real magic word of the spell you cast on yourself: desperate. You must recognize that in all of your bargaining, you are motivated by desperation. Pro tip: one of the ugliest looks you can wear is desperation.
According to the Kubler-Ross model of grief, this process isn’t always a linear and step-by-step progression. Sometimes, you might repeat a stage, if it remained unresolved. Like, perhaps, you might lapse back into Anger. That’s what I did. I grew up seeing the anger of a father who had a temper. Since I was a small boy I worked to learn how to deal with my temper before it ever became a problem. When I feel emotionally raw, and heating up, headed towards anger, I walk and talk myself out of it. But as soon as my anger dissipated, I promptly returned to bargaining. Without anger to keep me away from her, I contacted the woman I cared for and asked to redefine our relationship as friends.
She said no.
This brings us to the fourth Stage: Depression. This should not be mistaken for clinical depression, but rather a depressive state, something I prefer to call the blues. And brothers and sisters, at first, I had the blues bad. I didn’t eat for two days. My stomach is always the first place I experience strong emotions. Feeling that emptiness, food seemed like a bullshit replacement. This is the hallmark of the blues. You will feel it in your body. Perhaps you will feel lethargic and sluggish. You might curl up in the fetal position and sob. I spent my time driving around Southern California. Tears rolling out from underneath sunglasses is also not a good look.
But the thing about emotions is it’s best to embrace them, experience them, let them crush you, and you will spring back up like grass. It won’t feel like that, instead you will just feel trampled and crushed, but trust that you are a blade of grass, ever-resilient. When a person has the blues, it’s perfectly normal to become highly withdrawn, distant, sullen and uncommunicative. Like, for days I didn’t answer my phone, most of my emails, or most of the texts I received. It happens. Sometimes, when faced with the overwhelming feelings of loss, you need to disconnect so that you can have the space to embrace all the shitty things you feel when you’ve reached the bottom of your personal emotional well.
But do not linger down there. Eventually, you have to shake the blues.
Do you know why buffalo have all that fur up front and none of it on their ass?
They say that of all the other animals that call the prairie their home, the buffalo are the bravest. You see, when a thunder storm sweeps over that flatland, and it’s a big one, the kind that, if you were there, looking toward the horizon, all you would see is the approaching storm, from the ground to the heavens it would stretch like a thunderous wall of darkness. When one of those rolls over the heartland, all the animals of the prairie will run for cover and hide. But not the buffalo, they run at the storm. They charge into the darkness. They know if they run at the storm it will pass over them more quickly. And that’s why they have all that fur up front. Otherwise, they’d have a hairy ass.
When faced with a storm of my emotions, I buffalo through that darkness. I’m not masochistic. I know that shit’s going to hurt worse than carving my name in my flesh with a thousand salty razor blades. But I do it. And I recommend you do, too. Charge into your darkness and you’ll get through it sooner.
And once you do, as long as you don’t backslide into anger or bargaining, you will move into the last Stage: Acceptance. This is when you finally allow that this is really happening, or it’s happened, and not only is there nothing you can do about it, but you must agree with it and if you’re smart you will pull some value from it. You will gain wisdom from your pain. A good way to know that you’ve reached Acceptance is when you can laugh about it. Laughter is cathartic. Laughter is healing. Laughter is a way to love yourself. And laughter means you accept what is and are willing to laugh about it.
Plus, there is some ethereal connection between the Haha of laughter (or Jaja for our Spanish-speaking friends) and the A-ha! of wisdom. Haha and A-ha are flip sides of the same coin of recognition. “It’s funny because it’s true,” is the comic version of philosophy. I did not invent this notion. Many folks, like the novelist Tom Robbins have played with this comic nature of wisdom. And I firmly agree, you laugh because you see truth.
That’s your new goal. Learn to laugh at your pain and you are well on your way to full recovery.
If you go through the five stages of grief, this healing process will restore you to a place where you can once again enjoy whatever it is that you do have. Whether it’s the last days of your life, the fact you are once again single and free, the fact you are able to re-imagine your career arc in a way more suitable to you, or that you accept that you’re now a divorcee and ready to love again.
The end doesn’t have to be the end. It can be a new beginning. Good luck, you’ll be fine!