Reflections on Grief and Grieving

By Adam Heldibridle, MSW, CSW

“Companioning (grief) is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being…”

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

I believe loss to be one of the most shared experiences that we have as human beings. We are all touched by it in some way throughout our lives: loss of dreams and goals, loss of jobs and careers, loss of connection and relationships, loss of love and loved ones. Nevertheless, despite every one of us sharing the experience of loss at some point, we are often left alone to deal with the grief and fallout that comes after loss. I think that part of the reason for this sense of isolation is that, even though we all understand what it feels like to be in pain, we don’t grieve in the same way. Grief is hard and it’s uncomfortable and, no matter how much of the pain might be shared, it is a process that is as individual as we are.  

This past year I have spent a lot of time thinking about loss and about grief and grieving. I know I’m not alone. Outside of my own experiences with grief and grieving recently, it seems many people in our world right now are hurting and struggling with some type of loss. Among the people who come to Legacy for help, I believe most of are dealing with loss and with grief and grieving. As individual as the process is, this is a journey that we do not have to make alone. There is no one way, or right way, to grieve and there are many concepts and models that we can use to guide us through this process. 

In 1969 Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her book “On Death and Dying” which marked both a cultural and ideological shift in how we approached loss, death, and grieving. In her original writing on the subject, Dr. Kubler-Ross suggested that there are five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Dr. David Kessler, who worked with Dr. Kubler-Ross, recently added a sixth stage to the Kubler-Ross Model of Grief: Finding Meaning. These six stages were only ever meant to provide a framework for our understanding of grief and grieving. They were meant to be descriptive not prescriptive. However, over the years there has been a lot of misunderstanding about these stages. The most common misunderstanding is that this process is linear. No matter how much we all want this process to be something with a starting point and a definitive end, it’s not. THIS PROCESS IS NOT LINEAR! This is not a cycle! Alas, grief is not something we just can get through and then we’re done with. 

I want you to imagine a pinball machine. You’re standing with your fingers on the flipper buttons. The bumpers, kickers, slingshots, targets, and holes are the stages of grief. The ball is your heart and loss pulls the plunger. You frantically smack the flipper buttons, trying to keep the ball moving, while you ricochet off and crash into the stages. You go from denial to depression to finding meaning to anger to acceptance to bargaining and then smash into depression again. This is the most painful pinball game you will ever play. You want it to end but there’s no one that can tell you when that’s going to happen or how long it’s all going to last. This is grief. This is Dr. Kubler-Ross’ incredibly awful messy painful worst pinball game in the world ever and, unfortunately, we will all get to play it at some point in our lives. 

Beyond being the worst pinball game we will ever play, there are some important things to understand about the stages of grief and about grieving. Again, the process is not linear, it cannot be rushed, and no one else can push us through the stages (especially not ourselves!). As there are so many things in each of our lives that can cause us to feel loss and grief, there are equally a myriad of ways to consider and reflect on what the stages can mean to us. Over the past several months I came across some new ideas that challenged my own thoughts and beliefs. As such, I wanted to take a moment and share a few of these concepts here:

Denial: Denial doesn’t mean that we are avoiding the acceptance of a loss. It can be a conscious, or even subconscious, coping mechanism to pace our feelings. It can help us to only allow in what we can immediately handle to prevent emotional overload. 

Anger: Anger can be a “Gas Gauge” for our loss and can help us measure how much the loss meant. Anger provides structure and voice for our pain, the more we are struggling with anger the more we are hurting.

Bargaining: Bargaining can be as simple as getting lost in a maze of “What if’s”. Sometimes we can get stuck, holding on tightly to the past, and focus on what might have been rather than be in the present moment.

Depression: Depression is a necessity in grief. Depression is an indication of being present with what we are feeling and where we are in our process.

Acceptance: Acceptance is not an indication of being done with our grief or even of being “OK”. Acceptance may be as simple as recognizing that we are gradually having more good days than bad days.

Lastly, I want to discuss the concept of Finding Meaning. Dr. David Kessler introduced this sixth stage in his 2020 book Finding Meaning. Through his own work with grief and grieving, Dr. Kessler came to believe that there was a need for more. He felt that, not only did we need to move through and deal with the pain of our loss, we also needed to make sense of that pain and of that loss.  Finding meaning is not just about not shying away from sadness and hurt, it’s about posttraumatic growth. It’s about accepting that our lives are different, that we are different, and that there is significance in our experience no matter what type of loss we’re dealing with. 

Author Esfahani Smith identifies four things that human beings use to create meaning in our lives: Belonging (connection to a larger community), Purpose (a sense of accomplishment), Storytelling (sharing our personal narrative), and Transcendence (feeling connected to something greater than ourselves). It is remarkable to me how easily these Four Pillars of Meaning translate to the work we do here at Legacy and how much of the work we do here is about helping people try to understand and navigate their own loss and grief. While our pain and our grieving process is individual, we can still help each other. We can help each other find ways through the pain, through the process, and maybe we gradually start to see that there are more good days than bad ones and that there is meaning in all of it.