Grief is rarely as simple as Kubler-Ross and various other internet articles would have you believe. Even Kubler-Ross at some point said that her “stages of grief” (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) should not be assumed to be experienced in that order.* Some people might, some might not. Some might finish one stage, skip forward, then track back.
There is something clinical called “complicated grieving” and that’s not what I am referring to. I’m simply talking about actual grief regarding a loss of a person, pet, relationship, job or other large thing in a person’s life.
I took a class called “Death and Dying” in college. It was a freshman level course, intended as part of the Psychology major or minor. As I recall, it was also cross-categorized at my school as something my university called a “capstone”, which meant that I could use it to apply to my BA for English. (At my school, to have a BA instead of a BS, you needed 2 semesters of a foreign language, 2 capstones, and I think 1 “art” type class, but it might have been 2. It’s been a while.) Since I thought that psychology was vaguely interesting, I took it. It was a fairly boring class, really. Parts of it were interesting, but it was probably one of the easiest I took and mostly passable by simply memorizing large chunks of text.
It has ended up being more useful long after the fact. Quite a bit of it stuck in the recesses of my brain so that when I would run into a situation, I could make myself stop, take a breath and say “Ok. Self, you are pissed off because you can’t do anything more to help your cat who is dying… you are angry because cancer is a bullshit disease and you feel helpless and you’re scared your mom is going to die… This person is lashing out at you because they are angry and scared. This person is wheedling and whining because they’re bargaining for anything they can get, in an attempt to make this death thing go away.” Oddly, my youngest sister took the course around the time my dad had cancer and has reported having a sort of similar clinical detachment and awareness of reactions and other things.
In other words, several of us in my family cope with knowledge. The amount of medical crap in our collective brains is probably extremely odd for a lay person who is more or less healthy and has taken the bare minimum of biological sciences. My vet gave me an odd look the time I expressed concern about a cat because I asked “his lymph nodes are extremely pronounced… is that normal for a cat, or should we be worried they’re that easy to locate?” during a visit. For us, it’s a sort of support structure to maintain a semblance of sanity and calm. Weird things knock it down.
I am still just as likely to start crying at the sight of a rainbow, as I am to smile and wave my fingers hullo to my dad. He’s been gone for almost 9 1/2 years now. Movies with awesome dads playing with their kids? Teaching their kids how to change oil, check a spark plug gap, use a square to mark off a 2×4? Yeah. Those get me too. Sometimes, I will see a man walking down the street and… something about him will just remind me of Daddy. The beard, the hat (I don’t hate fedoras, trilbies, or several other hats with a crease in the bowl and a ribbon above the brim. I kinda love them… because he wore them), a sweater, a way of holding a coffee cup, and my throat tightens up and I wish… y’know, that he could be around to hug and see us all now.
I have moments like that about mom, about moments in my life that I wish had gone better (but not always differently – that’s for another post), and about my dear Domino. Dad’s been gone the longest, so most people would say “You should have accepted his death by now. Why would you still cry?” or “He’s gone to a better place. He’s not suffering.” or, depending on how one views the afterlife, “Think of all the yummy foods and drinks he can enjoy now! His voice is back!” And all of those things are true, to the degree that we can know them to be. I have accepted that my dad died. I don’t expect, realistically, to wake up to a phone call from him.
That doesn’t mean I don’t miss him. That doesn’t mean I’m not sad he’s gone. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes desperately wish I could give him a squeeze ’round his middle and get a really good hug back. That some people manage to get through life and have grief fade to the degree that they don’t cry or continue to think about loved ones who are gone … well, I have a hard time imagining that. Or, better said, I simply don’t relate to it well. The only relatives of mine I have reached that level of acceptance of death with were relatives I didn’t particularly have a close relationship with to begin with.
I don’t nurture my grief. I function fine. It’s not even something I think most people would think of as active.
But when I hear people say “…you know, you should maybe move on, So-n-so has been gone a while now…” or “…s/he lived a full life… can’t we just celebrate that?” I get angry. Because they are attempting to live in a linear black and white world, and the real world I know doesn’t work that way. Also, it compounds sorrow with guilt. “Why do I still feel this way? Do I miss my dad too much? Am I broken? Do I need to see a doctor?” Maybe. Maybe it is complicated grief and a doctor could help. But maybe the person grieving just feels more sensitively and while they are coping, and getting through okay, they also need that release of crying.
If we don’t allow each person to grieve in his or her own way, I believe that people start to have other problems. They doubt themselves, and their own coping mechanisms. They start behaving like victims, with scars to be hidden. And then they are NOT living life fully, and not coping well. They become less likely to reach out and ask for help. People don’t always need a thing fixed, when they’re upset. Sometimes, they just need an ear. A person on the other side of the cell-phone screen to read their texts. A shoulder to turn into and hide from the world so that they can gather themselves up and take another step again and keep progressing.