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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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Stages of Grief

In case you have suffered a loss, it is good to know about the stages of grief.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross nicely described the points on the emotional roller coaster you experience when you grieve.  Grieving is not only about death. In fact, it is rarely about death.  It is usually about life changes.  You may grieve when you lose a dollar or when your relationship ends.  You may grieve the loss of an idea about how things were supposed to be.  We grieve various things all of the time.  

These are the stages we go through when a relationship ends:

1. Denial

This is how you think when you suspect you may have a problem. This is when things aren’t working but you are trying really hard to convince yourself that everything is fine.

2. Anger

Now you know things aren’t working out.  You get mad at yourself, your friends, that other person, the world, or anything.  You just feel anger.

3. Bargaining

Here you are thinking “what if”. You wonder what you could have done differently and you imagine that maybe you can do something to salvage the relationship.  You may decide to give it another try.

4. Depression

Now it’s really over and you are sad. You are more than sad.  Your world is shattered. Nothing matters. Life sucks. Your only ever hope for happiness is gone for good. You experience pure misery.

5. Acceptance

Finally the rubble has stopped falling and the dust has settled and you realize that you are fine and that life goes on.  You see the relationship for what it was and see that it is no longer part of your future.

It would be nice if we all went through these stages like clockwork.  We don’t.  Two people in a relationship will go through these stages at different times.  If you’re depressed and the other person is bargaining, they may suck you back into bargaining.  If you rekindle the relationship, you may go right back into denial.  You may go back and forth between depression and acceptance. You may feel depressed from the beginning, even before the relationship ends.  That’s why these neat, clean, stages are misleading.

They are helpful though, like a tour guide map is helpful.  They point out some of the scenes you will see on your journey.  As you feel yourself grieving, or feeling sad, you can look for these emotions in yourself, and you will recognize that you are just going through a process.

Being mindful of your experience will move you to a place of happiness. When you recognize your range of emotions and moods, you can practice acceptance in the midst of the other feelings.

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