How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

What to do when, after a severe loss, the black hole of sadness and despair draws us ruthlessly into its embrace? How can we experience mourning to really come to terms with what has happened to us? See how changing the way you think about grief can help you accept what seems unacceptable.

How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death


Already at the very beginning of our 3-day workshop, Monika (name changed to protect privacy) announced that she lost her husband 4 years ago. His departure was a shocking experience for her. One completely normal day, her chosen one found out that he had cancer and that he had only half a year to live. Half a year to say goodbye to someone you love so much.


Monika was calm about it. She clearly indicated that she had already dealt with grief and that she returned to normal life soon after her husband's death. She came to the workshop to explore completely different areas of her inner world.


At the next stages of our group work, Monika tried to stick to the chosen direction of work on herself. But something inside still drew her attention to events in the past. Emotions came to her that she believed had long since abandoned her.


Often, while conducting my workshops, I encourage my students to allow themselves to do whatever comes to them. Asking this rational part of our personality to step aside during such a process allows us to follow what our psyche needs most. Our subconscious mind knows exactly what we should focus on at the moment in working on ourselves.

During the next exercises, Monika announced again (not hiding a large dose of surprise) that she was constantly receiving emotions related to her husband's departure. There was a hint of frustration there - it was probably not a place she wanted to visit yet.


How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

A few days earlier, I was reading about the psychological aspects of mourning, and when I listened to Monika's account of one of the exercises, a thought from this article came back to me. Its author wrote that sometimes out of fear of overwhelming emotions related to loss, we run away from mourning and freeze it in our body. We distance ourselves from these feelings, not allowing ourselves to experience deep sadness after the departure of a loved one.


The problem is, the sadness doesn't go away. We lock it in the deepest recesses of our psyche, where it constantly influences our everyday life beneath the surface of our consciousness. Like water boiling in a covered pot, sooner or later it will start to make itself known. Often such emotions frozen in the body can be the source of various diseases, depression, or addictions.


I decided to find out about Monika's mourning. I asked if, due to the fact that her husband's emotions naturally and spontaneously come back to her all the time, she would like to talk about it for a moment and see why. She readily agreed to my proposal. So I asked her to tell me about her mourning. What did she look like? How long was it? How did she handle it?


Without thinking, Monika replied: “My mourning was very short-lived. When my husband was dying, he asked me for one last thing. I promised him that I would grant his request, whatever it might be. So he asked me not to cry over him. Let me not despair and destroy my life with this sadness. To get me back to normal as soon as possible. That I would make my life and not waste it with mourning it. And that's how it happened. As soon as he passed away from this world, I suppressed those emotions, and not long after that, I started living on. "

It became obvious to me that Monika had not dealt with her grief at all. She has not lived it yet. As a result of the promise she made to her husband, she froze these feelings in her body in order to return to normal life as soon as possible.


What is mourning?

Some time ago I came across a quote that particularly caught my attention:


"Mourning is the price of love."


When I read them, I felt like it dawned on me. It's so simple and so obvious. The more we attach, the more grief we experience. Wanting to know the author of these words, I reached a British psychiatrist, Dr. Colin Murray Parkes, who is an expert in mourning. In one of his books, he wrote: "The pain of mourning is as much a part of life as the joy of love: it is probably the price we pay for love, the price we pay for attachment."


One thing about grief is that it cannot be simply "cured". You have to go through it. Survive. Deep sadness after the loss is a completely natural and adequate reaction to a difficult situation and running away from this pain only postpones it in time.


The more that mourning is not only sadness. It is also anger, denial, guilt, and despair. Everyone goes through grief in their own way, and most often it is a mixture of emotions that make grief an even more difficult experience to live. So the biggest challenge in dealing with grief is allowing yourself to experience all the emotions that arise within us.


It is also worth noting that grief does not only apply to situations in which you lost your wife or husband, father, or mother. Mourning is part of our life, and we all deal with it, without exception. Inherent in our nature is the need to attach. We connect emotionally with people, animals, places, and objects. Therefore, grief can be related to other difficult situations that we experience throughout our lives:

  • Divorce or breakup,
  • Loss of job or retirement,
  • Miscarriage,
  • Death of a pet,
  • Losing the possibility of making a dream come true,
  • Sale of a family house,
  • Losing an engagement ring handed down from generation to generation,
  • End of a long friendship.


All these events involve losing something, and it is this loss that begins the process of regret - experiencing a deep sadness that is like a big black hole that pulls us mercilessly into its embrace.

How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

The neuropsychology of avoidance of mourning

To learn more about situations like the one that happened to Monika, I consulted the latest research related to how we deal with loss. Last year, psychologists understood what processes in our brain are responsible for the phenomenon of "postponing grief". Although it was obvious for researchers that people avoiding mourning control their external environment so as not to remind themselves of the loss (e.g. by hiding all photos that remind us of the person who passed away) - so far no one has been able to show whether such persons are capable of controlling their inner world.


A study by Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Irving Medical Center (published December 7, 2018) sheds new light on the phenomenon of deferring grief. Study author Noam Schneck summarized the results as follows:


“Our findings show that mourning avoidance is associated with attention control, the purpose of which is to reduce the likelihood that the mental representations associated with loss reach our full consciousness. Without being aware of it, bereavers actively control their mental states so that no spontaneous thoughts of loss reach their consciousness.

Such subconscious influencing of the flow of our thoughts usually depletes our mental energy resources and leads to situations in which unwanted thoughts still enter our consciousness. It's a bit like an ineffective pop-up blocker that runs in the background while we're working on the computer. You are not aware of its continuous work, but its activity slows down the performance of the entire computer, and every now and then such a window breaks through the blockade and appears on your monitor screen. "


The psychologists involved in this study suggest that one way to deal with grief may be through actions to let go of conscious and subconscious control by trying to avoid thinking about loss (for example, meditation or relaxation exercises can help).


How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

Sometimes, however, we are not ready to face the despair that lurks in the recesses of our psyche. Postponing mourning is then a necessary defense mechanism thanks to which we are able to function on a daily basis.

Despair can be so overwhelming that when we do not have adequate support and space to devote ourselves to it, it can be a traumatic experience for us. Therefore, in grief, it is essential to reach out to people who can help you. Who can be there while you cry forever. Who will hug you and not say things like "It's time to move on" or "It's not like that happened." You have every right to feel the way you do when you experience loss. If your suffering is too much for you, before you open the door to the place in you where you hid your mourning - make sure you have someone to turn to in the most difficult moments.

When you allow yourself to mourn

What can the death of a loved one look like if we allow ourselves all the feelings that accompany it? In order to answer this question, I am going to quote here the content of the e-mail from Ania.


I met Ania during my workshops on working with parts of our personality. Talking about how some of them protect us from buried deep pain, I told the story of Monika quoted at the beginning of this article. I told you about how she avoided her grief thinking she was over it. I also mentioned how important it is to allow yourself to experience all those feelings of losing a loved one - so that all this suffering is not frozen in our body for years.


Ania, who was a participant of these workshops, did not know then that the idea of ​​allowing herself to mourn would become so close to her less than 3 months later. Here is the text of the message I received from Ania less than two weeks ago (Ania agreed to publish this text). Fasten your seat belts, take a deep breath and start reading:


“Two days before Christmas, my father-in-law had a heart attack suddenly. As we ran into the room (my husband and I) saw him unconscious lying on the floor. He didn't have a pulse.


My husband started giving him a heart massage. I tried to call an ambulance. My hands were shaking as I checked to see if he was breathing. This thought occurred to me: now we are fighting - breathe, breathe, breathe ... When I consciously turned my attention to my breathing, I finally managed to call an ambulance. The lady from the dispatcher (I am very grateful to her) spoke in a calm and matter-of-fact tone. We did what she told us. Her composure, calmness, and factual information helped me a lot to focus on what I was doing.

I repeated the words of this woman to my husband. When my father-in-law regained his pulse, we put him on his side, when he was losing it, we resumed the heart massage. My father-in-law lost his breath and pulse alternately, then regained it for a moment. This thought occurred to me: he is dying, and there is nothing we can do ... And this feeling came again: overwhelming helplessness. This is what I cannot control and the only thing I can do now feels... powerless and out of control. It fucking hurts ... in this situation.


Then a "tornado through our house" passed. The fire brigade (the nearest rescue unit) arrived, one ambulance, the other ambulance. The house is full of people. My mother-in-law in shock. We moved aside - the rescuers took over the action. It took several dozen minutes. I took turns holding my mother-in-law's hand and running to my children who were in another room. I watched all the noise. I was looking at my husband who was standing over my father ... I knew he was dying and there was nothing we could do.


Now it plays back to me like in slow motion. When my father-in-law died, I was with my children. I told them what had happened and asked them not to try to keep the sadness in themselves, but to let it flow ... I myself was not able to cry then. I think the adrenaline was still working.


The rebound came the next day. Many more moments happened later, which I call magical. For example, a scene where Grandpa is lying on the couch, and we are in silence after all the tornado that passed, we are just saying goodbye to him. I thought then that such moments actually happen very rarely. Most often, people go away in a hospital or some hospice and we don't experience moments like this anymore. This prevents us from meeting death and recognizing it as an integral part of life, and yet it is the only certain thing that will happen to us. Only one for sure ...

All this history and what happened next put me in touch with my suffering, sadness, longing, helplessness, fear, and anxiety. We allowed ourselves to experience it without escaping, not hiding, not suppressing it. We simply mourn him, we actually continue to do so. Our life consists of various parts of joy, happiness, but also suffering and sorrow, fear, and longing - these are inherent elements of ourselves. It's good to just allow yourself to experience it, to feel joy, but also other feelings - including those that cause suffering. "


The first time I read this email, it was as if the world had stopped for a moment. I read every word feeling the tension growing and I had the impression that I was there with Ania ... Reaching the end of the news, all this tension gave way to admiration that saying goodbye to the people we love can have so much beauty in it. I am very impressed with Ania's maturity and courage to accept all these difficult emotions. I would also like to thank her at this point for allowing me to publish her message because I know how much it can help people who will face loss in their lives.


While all these emotions of losing are undoubtedly extremely difficult and can be very overwhelming, it is often fear that has huge fangs. We have the impression that when we open our heart to mourning, we will be lost forever, we will be consumed. We fear that this despair will consume us and that we will never see the light again. The truth is, the worst thing about mourning is the fear we have in front of it. The grief that we fully consent to is difficult and hard, but we can all survive it, and each of us can truly come to terms with the loss.


For some, the story of Ania mentioned above is enough to take on this challenge and, when the time comes, to face mourning in the eye. For some, however, this is not enough, and what can help is understanding the mechanisms behind the regret process. So let's see what goes on in our head when we experience loss.


How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

How does our psyche deal with grief?

Now we look at the process of experiencing grief from the point of view of the treatment system Inner Family (Internal Family Systems), which assumes that our personality is made up of parts (the so-called. Subpersonalities, eg. Inner critic or inner child). I had the pleasure to read about how different parts of our personality react to loss in the book Innovations and Elaborations in Internal Family Systems Therapy, in a chapter by Derek Scott, IFS therapist. Below is a summary of his work.


1. Group of parts responsible for the first answer


When we lose something or someone that has been an important part of our lives, we are initially shocked. We reject and deny what has happened. The parts of us that protect us from the pain that at this stage are already present under the surface of our consciousness are responsible for this. In a way, negation holds back the activation of those most suffering parts whose pain and despair would be too overwhelming at this stage.


Notice how often people who have lost a loved one say something like, "It's not getting to me yet." This is because we have parts of our personality to keep it from reaching us. They keep us from being hit by difficult emotions until they are sure we are ready to tolerate their pain without being overwhelmed. After a few moments, days or even weeks, these parts will begin to give way slowly, giving us difficult emotions hidden in the basement of our subconsciousness.


2. A group of mourning parts


When the above-described parts are ready to make room for mourning, the subpersonalities that experience mourning (in English it is called the "grief cluster") enter the stage. These are the sad parts that they protest, miss, regret, and feel guilty about. They carry all this suffering within them. They help us on the inevitable path after losing what we need and love.

These are the parts of us that are held in limbo, to begin with, so that their experiences can be assimilated gradually. Their goal is to internally integrate the meaning of loss.

3. Group of parts responsible for returning to normal


At some point, we are ready to start thinking about returning to our normal lives. We begin to focus on things that we have long forgotten. Thoughts about the future appear in our heads. We feel the urge to move forward.

Of course, this readiness never comes right away, ending all mourning in one moment. People oscillate between mourning and wanting to move forward. In other words, in our inner family, there are active parts of mourning and sometimes parts responsible for returning to normalcy. This mechanism gives us periods of relief in a process that is often long and very painful.


When the parts responsible for integrating the meaning of loss have had enough time to process what happened, the part group responsible for the return to normal begins to dominate and become more and more active. However, even this does not mean that the mourning is over. From time to time, we may still experience “bouts of mourning” - intense bursts of pain that begin weeks or months after the loss.


Complex mourning

The above description is for mourning that has a natural course. Unfortunately, sometimes we don't allow ourselves to experience difficult feelings (remember the story at the beginning of this article?). It happens that the parts that care for us excessively protect us from sadness and prevent us from experiencing mourning long after painful events for us. Here are the most common strategies for these parts of our personality:


Minimizing - that is, reducing the weight of the loss. "After all, we were not so close to each other", "Who saw it, to cry for a cat like that".

Somatization - Converting feelings into physical symptoms such as migraines.


Substitution - Avoiding mourning by creating a new attachment, such as starting another relationship immediately after losing a partner, or buying a new dog right after losing a previous one.

Postponing mourning.

We usually deal with complex mourning when the loss is sudden and unexpected (e.g. suicide, homicide, tragic accident). However, there are many reasons why we do not allow ourselves to experience sadness. Sometimes it is related to social expectations or to the influence of people close to us (“It's been so long, you should be over it!”).

When for whatever reason we criticize ourselves for experiencing grief, we will not allow ourselves to fully experience grief, thereby avoiding it and freezing it in our body. Sometimes for years.


How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

Now think for a moment if you find anything similar in your experience. If you have had the opportunity to experience grief during your life, what was it like? Do you feel like you've really let it out? Or were you running away from her, hiding those feelings deep within you? If you hid them, do you still have access to these feelings?


If you are avoiding mourning, you should seek the support of a psychologist or psychotherapist. Working through the internal mechanisms for escaping suffering will allow you to enter the grief process. It's a process that cannot be bypassed - so the sooner you let it go, the sooner you get out of it.

If you experienced a loss not too long ago, ask yourself, "Am I allowing myself to feel this sadness?" Consider whether you are avoiding your mourning. This is important because if you do, it will likely have a big impact on you for months or even years to come. You are preventing yourself from achieving full emotional health.


In a sense, I had the opportunity to experience mourning, which can be called complex, although it was not entirely my mourning. 4 months after my conception, while I was growing politely in my mother's belly, my grandfather, my mother's father, died. My mother was very attached to him and his death was something unimaginably difficult for her. Worried about how her despair might affect her child (that is me), she tried in various ways to contain her grief… choking a cry that wanted to take over her body. Of course, this could have had an impact on both her mourning and the development of the baby she had in her belly (which is me). Now, more than 30 years after that event, my mother is at peace with her loss, and I am still exploring how that experience might have affected me.


I also remember the enormous sadness that came to me after my beloved dog died. He was hit by a car and he was dying in our showroom. We were all next to him and witnessed his last breath. The feeling of emptiness after this loss was unbearable, but I allowed myself to experience the mourning.


5 stages of mourning

A deeper understanding of the grief process can help us cope with what we experience after a severe loss. That is why I decided to present here one more model that sheds a slightly different light on mourning than what I have written about so far. These are the 5 stages of mourning according to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She described them in the 1969 book On Death and Dying. You will probably find some similarities to the mechanisms I described above, but you will certainly find something new for yourself.

Negation

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance

Let's take a closer look at each of them.

How to experience mourning - 5 stages of death

1. Denial


The first reaction to the loss of a loved one (or something important to us) is usually negation. “This can't be happening”, “This can't be true”. The information about the loss at this stage does not reach us yet - we are in such shock that we are not able to digest it.


The more difficult it is for us to accept information about the death of a loved one, the more strongly we deny the situation. Here I am reminded of my grandmother who, after my grandfather's death (he was sick with cancer), did not accept the fact of his departure for several days. She was convinced he was alive all the time and kept asking when she would be back from the hospital.


2. Anger


At this stage, we feel angry, we look for the guilty, we wonder why it happened to us. Our anger seems endless, but it's important that we allow ourselves to fully experience these feelings and not block them in any way. Anger has great power and can act as an anchor for us in the great void we experience. Sooner or later, this condition will pass, making room for another stage of mourning.

3. Bargaining


At some point, in response to a feeling of helplessness, we want to regain control. So we start to "bargain", creating questions like: "If only I had called the doctor earlier ..."; "If only I were a better person to him ...". In a sense, we are looking for a way to bring our life back to its former state and we turn to a force majeure. This may be accompanied by guilt - we start to think about the fact that perhaps there was something in our behavior that contributed to this loss.


4. Depression


Once we move through the mind wandering stage to alternative scenarios of our past, our attention is focused on the present. We are ready to meet our pain. Deep sadness finds room for it to be fully expressed - we feel it more than ever before. Again, here, too, we have the feeling that this state will continue indefinitely. However, it is important not to view this stage as a sign of mental illness. Depressive states are a perfectly adequate response to the loss of someone important. If we allow ourselves to fully experience this state, it will pass away sooner or later. It is an integral part of the healing process.


5. Acceptance


As sadness diminishes, we are ready to accept what has happened. That doesn't mean we're comfortable with it. It just means that we stop fighting reality. We learn to live with it.


Everyone will experience their grief in their own way, and the process may not always be as described above.


Sometimes the order will be different and sometimes steps may be skipped. Everyone is different, and there is no "correct" way to go through mourning. The duration of this state depends on a multitude of factors, and we cannot predict when such mourning will end. It's important that you give yourself space to feel what you're feeling without evaluating your emotions.

Also, remember not to be afraid to reach for the support of your relatives or friends. What you need is a person who will stay with you, spend time with you and let you cry. However, avoid people who minimize or deny what you are experiencing ("It hasn't happened," "Stop despairing, it's time to move on").


As you grieve, make sure you accept the ups and downs that go on. It's perfectly natural to oscillate between difficult feelings of sadness, anger, longing, and despair, and the willingness to move forward, plan your future, set new goals for yourself. Over time, you will experience more and more of these positive emotions.


If you feel ready, feel free to share your bereavement experiences in the comments. Just like the story of Monika and Ania quoted in this article, I am sure that your story can also be a support for people who are just going through mourning (or who will experience it in the future).


If you know someone who has recently experienced a loss - please send him a link to this text. Perhaps it will become a guide for that person through a world that now seems strange, hostile, and full of sorrow to them.


And if you ever have the opportunity to be with someone who is grieving, help that person feel what they are so afraid to feel. Support her and take all her emotions with open arms. You will thus contribute to a healing process that, while not pleasant, leads us to accept and come to terms with the fact that everything in our lives is changing.


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