We ALL Grieve
We all grieve! Yes, I used an exclamation point to draw attention to this idea. We all grieve; sometimes we grieve small things, sometimes we grieve significant losses in our lives. Grief and depression are common and “normal” responses to loss. Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ book, On Death and Dying, describes a cycle of emotional states that are often characterized as the Grief Cycle. At some point in our lives, each of us faces the loss of someone or something dear to us. The grief that follows such a loss can seem unbearable, but grief is actually a healing process. Grief is the emotional suffering we feel after a loss of some kind.
Dr. Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief people go through following a significant loss. Sometimes people get stuck in one of the first four stages. Their lives can be painful until they move to the fifth stage-- acceptance.
Five Stages of Grief
1. Denial and Isolation. At first, we tend to deny the loss has taken place, and may withdraw from our usual social contacts. We may think, “This isn’t happening,” or “I can’t believe this is happening.” This stage may occur for only a few moments but often lasts much longer. We may be numb to what happened, and may respond by isolating ourselves from others.
2. Anger. As we begin to face what happened, reality and pain re-emerge. The grieving person may be furious at the person who inflicted the hurt (even if they are dead), or at the world, for letting it happen. They may be angry with themselves for letting the event take place, even if, realistically, nothing could have stopped it.
3. Bargaining. Now the grieving person may make bargains with God or others or the world, asking, "If I do this, will you take away the loss?" Bargaining or negotiating is a way to regain control of a situation in which we feel powerless.
4. Depression. The person feels numb, although anger and sadness may remain underneath. Sadness, regret, and rumination can be powerful aspects of this stage.
5. Acceptance. This is when the anger, sadness, and mourning have tapered off. The person accepts the reality of the loss. Emotions began to stabilize, and you come to terms with the reality of the loss. You may still have good and bad days, but the “fog begins to lift” as you take steps forward and engage in life more consistently.
When we grieve, it is common to have many conflicting feelings. Sorrow, anger, loneliness, sadness, shame, anxiety, and guilt often accompany serious losses. Having so many strong feelings can be very stressful. When people deny these feelings and do not work through the stages of grief, their body and mind are affected in significant ways. When others suggest that they "look on the bright side" (or other ways of cutting off difficult feelings--which can minimize their emotional experience) the grieving person may feel pressured to hide or deny these emotions. This causes the process of healing to be delayed or lengthened.
While these stages seem simple and matter of fact, they are actually quite complex. Young people I work with sometimes see these stages as steps in a process. Yes, these steps are all important, and no, they do not occur in a linear fashion. Sometimes we begin with depression, then go to anger, and then to denial. We sometimes spend more time in one stage than another; we may visit depression or anger more often than the other stages. You may not even experience all of the stages. There is not one way to grieve, each of us will grieve in our own way and experience the aspects of what it has to teach us.
There are many aspects of wilderness therapy that beautifully support young people who are experiencing grief. We stress the importance of the “I feel” statement, wherein participants learn to identify and express their emotions, as well as learning how their thoughts relate to their emotions. They spend time being present with their emotions, identifying multiple times a day their emotions in the moment. This regular practice of identifying emotions, helps them see and better understand what they are feeling. Many young people minimize and dismiss the importance of emotional awareness, yet this emotional awareness helps them heal and begin to grieve their loss or emotional distress. Sitting with emotions is another common wilderness skill, and group members learn the meaning of not rescuing someone from their emotions. As their peers let them sit with things, they learn the value of feeling what they are feeling, in a safe and supportive environment.
Beyond the individual identifying and better understanding their emotions, the group milieu plays a powerful part in the healing process. Sharing and relating to others during the grieving process is an important step; group mates relate to each other around similar challenges in their life. The tendency to find commonality across similar challenges, provides awareness that you are not alone, and that others have a sense of your pain. Young people feel seen as they navigate sharing their story in the face of the loss they are experiencing. When they experience others as understanding or “getting them,” they are able to find resolution and meaning as they work through their emotional upsetness or steps in the cycle. They experience hope and clarity, as they begin to consider their loss through the perspective of others and through the challenges of living in the wilderness.
Finally, we ask the young people in our program to read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In it, he speaks of his experience of living in a concentration camp, and how he found meaning in such a horrific situation. The meaning he makes, the lessons he shares, and the courage he demonstrates are powerful considerations for all of us facing grief and loss in our lives. This quote from Frankl is often cited by the young people I work with as one of the more profound aspects of the book:
Those who have a “why” to live, can bear with almost any “how.”
Finding meaning in your experience of loss and grieving is a part of the healing process. It is not easy or simple, and takes significant work in therapy and in your life to achieve. Oftentimes we will return to the loss, and often we will retreat to negative coping skills as we deal with that loss in our lives. As we make meaning of it, as we begin to find shadows or aspects of our “why,” we will begin to cope and take steps in our healing process.