Good Grief: On the Five Stages

by Paul Cantrell

Disclaimer: In light of my recent post in praise of science and expertise, I should point out that I am neither a medical expert nor has any of my academic training been in the medical arena. So please take the following musings with a grain of salt, if not a whole shaker’s worth.

I recently reached out to a friend of mine to see how she’d been doing. She said she’d been through all the five stages of grief and settled somewhere between insecurity and acceptance. I was so grateful for her framing it that way. It hadn’t even occurred to me, but I had been pinging and ponging and all around richocheting all over these stages those last weeks, lighting up the pinball machine of grief in whatever is the opposite of the Reward Center in my brain.

As a recent Harvard Business Review article rightly stated, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” It is important to call a thing by its proper name. Or, put another way: “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” Albus Dumbledore said that. (Or Hermione, depending.)

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross coined the “five stages” in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Not long afterward, she expanded her ideas to encompass loss and grieving in the broader sense. It is still the prevailing paradigm for understanding how we process grief, and as the saying goes, If it ain’t broke, stick with Kübler-Ross’s grief paradigm.

Incredibly important to note: though these “stages” appear in this list sequentially, that is not whatsoever how they will appear in each of us emotionally. They are not “steps,” or “stepping stones.” We do not get a cookie or a trophy at the end, once we beat the game and save the princess. Still, maybe there’s peace in the process.

Denial. I recently quoted Michael Stipe’s advice to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke: “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.” This is the very quintessence of denial. It goes so far as to double down: not only is the event not occurring; I’m not even present. It negates and denies the self altogether. Simply put: not good. As coping strategies go, I’m giving this one a C-minus. But that doesn’t make it any less tempting at times.

Denial can manifest in any number of ways. It could be not wanting to wear a mask in public because it’s uncomfortable or just makes it all “feel too real.” Well I’m sorry, but for everyone’s sake, it is time to get real. Quite past time, in fact. Remember that old David Cross bit about all the things done post-9/11 in the name of “not letting the terrorists win?” Well, this isn’t that. You know what lets the coronavirus win? Transmission.

Of course, denial takes on milder, even more seductive forms as well. So, you know that feeling you sometimes get when peering over a high balcony or down a long stairway? The French have a phrase for that feeling. They call it l’appel du vide: the Call of the Void. I’d like to explore the Backyard Barbecue version of that: let’s call it The Lure of Normalcy.

It starts with a simple, “Hey, you know what? Screw this. We’ve been home on quarantine for a month now. Why don’t you come over and we’ll all just sit apart from each other?” Cut to three hours and however many drinks later, with inhibitions lowered and our natural human instincts as social creatures heightened, and Denial kicks in, looking an awful lot like its partner, Bargaining (more on that later). The slippery slope goes predictably as follows.

We think, “Eh, I know they say six feet, but this is Bob! Six feet, schmix feet!” We think this because we like Bob and don’t want to offend Bob. Moreover, we are hard-wired to want contact with our fellow humans, which is ordinarily a beautiful thing. Here, however, the good thing about us is also the bad thing about this. Stay strong. Bob will understand.

Anger. A therapist friend of mine recently told me about the Anger Iceberg. At the very top, or “tip,” we only see anger. But 90% of the iceberg is below water, containing countless other emotions—feelings like embarrassed, scared, anxious, depressed, worried and so on. You’ve likely already noticed what these adjectives all have in common. That’s right: all passive words. We are embarrassed by someone, scared of something, worried about someone. These all place us squarely as the object, not the subject. (For any Latin scholars playing along at home, they are ablatives striving for accusatives.) They put us on the receiving end, never on the offensive.

But angry? Ooh boy, angry puts us right back in the driver’s seat. That’s because we get to be angry at someone. Power of the preposition. Toward. All else is directed inward. And all those other emotions, all that emotional energy can get released in one giant, screaming fireball of anger. I imagine all those other emotions dressing themselves up to look like anger, masquerading, virtually indistinguishable from the actual emotion, willing to do anything for a chance at release. That release, incidentally, is precisely what catharsis is, a purging of emotions, a cleansing. That does not make them any less impostors. (You can also imagine them all stacked up inside one giant overcoat, being smuggled out of some room if you like. That bit never gets old.)

Bargaining. I have given the coronavirus something of a rolling deadline. I draw a line in the sand, intone You will wrap up this virus nonsense by next week or your goose is cooked. I dish out exacting ultimatums, decree A fortnight then, for you to get all of this out of your system, or so help me God. I reason, cajole, sidle up to and ingratiate and finally demur Well maybe just before the big event next month, agreed? Fine? Fine.

To be clear: this virus does not give two shits, zero fucks, or a good goddamn about my social calendar. It wants to survive and propagate. That’s it. There is no reasoning with it. You know that well-worn phrase, “this country does not negotiate with terrorists?” Well this virus has made it abundantly clear that it does not negotiate with us. The metaphorical, imaginary negotiating table has been emptied—and disinfected. The only way to improve our odds is to stay at home. As anyone who saw the classic 1983 film WarGames knows: “The only winning move is not to play.”

Depression. A good friend of mine was once arguing in favor of using Art Deco lettering for a project we were working on. He said the thing about Art Deco is that it’s all about what people thought the future was going to look like but never did. It’s a future that never was. It’s the same thing when you lose someone. The worst part of that loss is often simply the absence itself: the plans you’d made, the trips you’d take, but not anymore.

It is pure, actual disappointment. I mean this literally. We thought we had an appointment—be it an appointment for lunch, an appointment to chat, an appointment with destiny. Instead we are literally dis-appointed: stripped, bereft, lost and losing. Sometimes it’s just good to let it out. Put another way, as Chunk from Goonies says whilst taking a hit off the whipped cream nozzle, “Oh God am I depressed.”As with anger, this energy needs an outlet, be it a hard run, a nice laugh, or a good cry. “Depression is rage turned inward,” Dr. Jennifer Melfi of The Sopranos repeatedly counsels. The two emotions are sides of the same coin.

It is no coincidence that the fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno contains both the Wrathful and the Sullen. Dr. Teodolinda Barolini explains this combination by way of Aristotle: a spectrum ranging from “melancholic tristitia” on one end to “rabid wrath” on the other, with “righteous anger” situated firmly in between.

“Righteous anger”—that sounds about right. Indignation at the sheer needlessness of so much loss. Indignation at the indignity of it. And sadness at the necessity of feeling that anger.

Acceptance. We all know the serenity prayer by now. The one about asking for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Oddly enough, the first two parts of that prayer were originally flipped. The serenity part used to come in the middle. Odd too that we don’t refer to it as the Courage Prayer, or, even still, the Wisdom Prayer.

I believe we all eventually gave Serenity top billing because deep down we know just how hard acceptance can be. It feels like giving up, like we are giving our consent to something dreaded, giving permission, granting access, even offering our blessing. These are all away words: giving, granting, offering. All these words start with me, then move away from me. Acceptance also means the opposite: embracing, welcoming, bringing into the fold. It is both passive and active at the same time. Acceptance can be difficult precisely because of this seemingly contradictory, double motion that is somehow both away and toward.

One thing is for certain: it is not the same as giving up. If “the world is all that is the case,” as we recently discussed, then to refuse to accept or believe that puts us right back at Denial’s doorstep. And round and round it goes.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Plato said that. Some say he didn’t. Poor Plato, who is mostly known for his thankless, faithful transcriptions of conversations that Socrates did or didn’t have with so many people other than Plato; then when he finally gets a quotation of his own, it gets thrown out. I’m letting Plato keep this one.

Whoever said it, it nonetheless is true. Wherever you are in all of this, please be kind to others and to yourself. You are doing enough. You are enough. There is no one-size-fits-all playbook for us all to follow in dealing with this situation, but any game plan has to have that basic fundamental compassion and empathy at its nucleus, its core.

Or, put another way: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” Kurt Vonnegut said that. Or who knows? Maybe it was Plato. Take care, stay safe, and be well.

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