It's a Journey, Not a Stage

Young OnesOften times I hear people say “the stages of grief”. I believe that using the word “stages” infers that once a person goes through a “stage” they aren’t supposed to go through it again. It seems as though the grief process is more of a journey, filled with hills and valleys, triumphs and challenges that can feel like they are continuous, sometimes with no end. To restrict oneself with the notion of “stages” can be counter productive, as then grieving people tend to focus on how they “haven’t moved on” or “haven’t grieved well enough”.  This is not the case at all.

            Although there are not stages, many grieving people have talked about different parts of their grief to me in session. For the purpose of this chapter, I will segregate them, but just because they are segregated for the purpose of discussion, does not mean that once one goes through it, that they will never experience it again. Many of these emotions and reactions can be felt multiple times in a multitude of varieties.


            Often times, clients would come in to see me about 3-6 months after they lost a loved one, claiming “I thought I was fine at first and then it just hit me”. I consider this the shock and disbelief parts of grief (please remember that there is no particular order, and there isn’t something ‘wrong’ with you if you did not experience all of these thoughts and/or emotions). The brain is very interesting when it comes to shock. Even in times where a loved one dies slowly or in an expected manner, shock can still exist. The amygdala in the brain produces excess of a chemical called cortisol. This is a stress hormone. What this chemical does is put the brain in a sort of fog. Think of it like this: when grieving, the brain doesn’t think it is important for you to remember where you put your keys, or where you parked your car, just the necessary tasks to help you exist (eating, breathing etc.). The fog cuts off some access to the frontal lobe, which is in charge of impulse control, personality, short-term memory and even language. Many clients mentioned having difficulty “finding the words” and in actuality they really were having trouble accessing the language needed to explain themselves.  It is my belief that when the brain thinks that the person is ready to deal with some of the harsher aspects of the grieving process, that this fog begins to lift, leaving difficult emotions behind that need to be dealt with.  Depending on the type of grief, this process can be anywhere from the 3 month to 8 month mark (after someone has died). This process can be longer when there is an aspect of traumatic grief (discussed more in previous chapters).  During this time of shock, people can feel more “out of control” with their emotions. Basically the brain shuts off the “filter” and people may find themselves snapping at a friend or family member, breaking down for “no reason at all” (even though of course there is a reason) or being uncharacteristically out of sorts.  Many clients also described this time as being “numb” or what was mentioned earlier “in a fog”.


            After the shock starts to dissipate, the bereaved may find them filled with all sorts of emotion. Some of these emotions can be described as anger, disbelief, relief, rage, loneliness, fear, etc. There are many more emotions that can be categorized in this chapter, and please note that ANY emotion you feel is natural and normal. These emotions can surface anywhere from 3 months to even over a year later depending on the person and the circumstance. During this time is when I would get the most phone calls from potential clients, stating that “I was fine but now I just can’t function”. The most important thing I would work on with my clients during this time is identifying the feelings and helping them be in touch with them.

          While that may sound very simple, relationships are complicated, and so can be the grief process. Many times, caretakers don’t even have time to let themselves feel because they are constantly taking care of others. When they actually stop and feel, it can bring up old feelings that they have buried for a while or feelings that they have never identified before in their lives. This realization can feel scary, sad and even out of control. Not many people enjoy feeling out of control, and the natural response is to try to bury or avoid the feelings. Who wants to feel pain? Angst? Anger? Frustration? Not too many people. However, being in touch with these feelings is key to working through grief in a healthy way.

I often encourage clients to journal during this time. Having a place to put the feelings when they are outside of the therapy session is key to not only helping clients identify what they might be going through, but having a healthy place to put the feelings, thoughts and emotions to reflect on later or to bring up during sessions. I encourage my clients to “free associate” with their journal (meaning they do not go back and edit, or critique what they wrote). I usually suggest to them that they go back a year later to reflect, but not before then.  I also encourage clients to have something tangible to remember their loved one (unless there was a case of extreme abuse, in which the entire therapy process would be different). There is something innate about needing a tangible part of that person with us, whether is be the gravestone, a trinket given to us, or a tree in a park that our love done would enjoy. Even clients that do not have the ashes, or who live in a different state than where their loved ones are buried can still identify something tangible in their own lives that can serve as a symbol of their loved one. 

--Larissa Humiston, MSW, LCSW  

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