Blog: Thinking about Grief

Blog: Thinking about Grief

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

When I first read On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the early seventies, I was thrilled that someone was actually talking about death. I had just moved to the United States, after having spent most of my early years in other countries. As I was trying to orient myself to the American culture, I had become acutely aware of the way no one around me really wanted to talk about things that I thought were pretty important – death, for example. I had resigned myself to watching television just so I would have something to talk about with the other teenagers at school, but it was not really that interesting to me.

When I found On Death and Dying on a bookshelf in the local library, it was a huge relief and a welcome diversion from trying to adapt to the superficiality of other aspects of the American culture. I was fascinated by Kübler-Ross’ explanation of the five stages of grief that she describes in the book. You may already know these stages:

Denial: E.g., “My mother isn’t really gone. Somehow, I’ll be able to speak with her if I really have a problem.”

Anger: E.g., “How many times did we all tell her to change her diet!? No wonder she had a heart attack!!”

Bargaining: E.g., “If I go back to school, the way mom would have wanted if she were still alive, maybe I won’t notice she is gone and it won’t hurt so much.”

Depression: E.g., “Well, wow. I can’t change anything that happened or how I feel—and I feel terrible.”

Acceptance: E.g., “Sometimes I really miss my mother, but I am able to move forward with my life.”

At first, I took this description of the experience of grief as a Holy Grail. But as I grew older and began to experience the death of loved ones, and watched the way those around me responded to death, and volunteered in different hospice environments, including the Zen Hospice Project, I had to admit that no one was proceeding dutifully through these five stages in the orderly way Kübler-Ross had presented them. In fact, some people did not seem to go through any of these stages in response to a death or their own impending passing.

In the end, I have come to understand that everyone’s response to loss is entirely unique. Everyone grieves in very individual ways. And, as difficult as the experience of grief and loss is, the pain of it is often compounded by our own or others’ expectations of how we should be experiencing the loss. In my Depth Hypnosis practice, I often sit with people who are experiencing loss. One of the most common things I hear people say is, “I should be over this.” Or “Why is this coming up again? That person died years ago. Why am I crying about him now?”

The same issue I confronted in my teens – the fact that no one really wants to think about death, loss, and grief – still seems to hold true. People who find themselves in the throes of unresolved grief feel like there is something wrong with them because they “can’t get over it.” And worse, they feel they can’t really talk about their experience because they feel – often correctly – that no one wants to talk about it. Or, if someone does want to talk to about it, they want to talk about their own experience rather than sit with someone else’s experience.

I have found that the most helpful thing we can do for someone who is dealing with grief or loss is to simply sit quietly and offer a non-judgmental space for people who are suffering to explore their experience. They may be angry or they may be depressed, or they may be completely unable to express their experience. It is important that people hear the message that whatever they are experiencing is the right thing for them at that moment. The last thing that people need to be doing is checking to see if their own experience matches others’ expectations or the expectations of a potentially flawed theoretical paradigm.

We will be exploring grief and loss more extensively in the four-week teleclass that begins on June 28. Among other things, we will be learning how to create that space for ourselves and for others to understand grief and loss more fully.