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The Sixth Stage of Loss and Grief – Transformation

Grieving is a part of life. Grief is not only something we go through when we experience the death of a loved one, it is what we go through when we experience any significant loss or change. In her exploration of the grieving process, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross broke down the grieving process into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These stages represent how we incorporate loss into our world view and how we feel as we learn to live with loss. Although the stages are presented as a progression from denial to acceptance, as we grieve, we move back and forth between the stages and can even experience them all at once.  If we really want a sense of progression in our grief, we need to be aware of a sixth stage, transformation.

By focusing narrowly on the five stages, we lose awareness that our grief is a part of our human growth process. When we remember that these painful feelings and experiences are a part of our overall transformation, we can find a sense of purpose, even in the depths of depression.

Knowing the five stages of grief and loss is a helpful mindfulness tool. We may not even know that we are grieving, but we find ourselves angry or depressed. When we are aware of these moods, we can recognize that we are grieving some kind of loss and we can remember that we are in a transformative process. In that moment, we can find acceptance of our mood, experience and circumstance. Although there is a certain amount of peace that comes with acceptance, transformation takes the loss and turns it into a deeper sense of peace infused with wisdom.

Because life is constantly changing, we are constantly experiencing some kind of loss. As we mindfully observe our experience, we can use our understanding of grief and loss to recognize where we are in the process and we can have the courage to be where we are. With the courage to be where we are, we can work through any loss and actively participate in our own transformation.

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Life and Grief

The final stage of grief is acceptance. The first stage of grief is denial. Anger, bargaining and depression fall in the middle. Moving from denial to acceptance is the path of life. Nobody has to die to begin the grief process, we just have to be born. We are born with our original nature, which is inseparable from the universe. This original nature is not concerned with life and death or good and bad, it is only concerned with being. As we grow, we learn to see ourself as an independent body with its own name and separate existence. When we wholeheartedly believe that that is the way things are, we are immersed in stage one, denial. In Buddhism, this is called ignorance.

When you experience your original nature, you recognize that you are connected to everything, from the beginning of time to the far reaches of space. That bag of blood and bones that was born and will die and seems to stand alone in the world is not the most pertinent part of you. There are logical ways to recognize this, such as imagining your life without the sun and seeing that it sustains you as much as your heart does. To fully accept this, and move from a state of denial, requires that you experience your connectedness directly. In Buddhism, this is called enlightenment. Until you experience that, it’s nice to imagine that it is there for you, whether you realize it or not.

Between denial and acceptance there is anger, bargaining and depression. In Buddhism this is called suffering. There is also happiness, joy, love, comfort and pleasure. These are not mentioned in the stages of grief, because they are not states that persist for long when you are grieving. In life, they occur in the midst of the suffering. If it were otherwise, nobody would survive long enough to recognize their original nature.

Through life, as we struggle with depression, anger and doubt, we can be patient with ourselves. As we wander through darkness, we engage our attention in all the concerns that seem far more pressing than realizing our original nature. Suffering is tiresome though. It is helpful to take a deep breath every now and again, listen to the soothing sounds of nature, feel the wind on our face and check in with our original nature. It’s always right there for us, because it is us, more than we know.  

As we observe our experience and practice accepting each emotion as it comes, we will learn to move quickly from denial to acceptance, from ignorance to wisdom.  The intermittent stages of anger, depression, doubt, peace, joy and love will come and go quickly enough that they won’t cloud our original nature with their residue. When we are the sun, things burn up when we touch them and we live in a blaze of glory. 

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