If you have ever lost a loved one, someone has probably explained to you that you'll experience the five stages of grief--a model developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying. When my husband died by suicide three years ago after a long battle with clinical depression coupled with steroid abuse and prescription drugs, my well-intentioned friends said I would feel denial, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally, acceptance.
So you can imagine the frustration I felt when my grieving process didn't seem to fit the model I was expecting. Years after her book, Kubler-Ross acknowledged that there are no stages -- that grief is neither linear nor predictable -- but the model is so well-known that it's been impressed onto the minds of many. There are numerous elements that have an impact on how a person experiences and handles grief: spiritual belief, social support, emotional intelligence, personal history, and much more. Simply put, no two individuals grieve the same way.
I can vouch that the grieving process isn't made up of stages, but instead it's comprised of periods of certain emotions that come and go without much rhyme or reason. They come around enough to remind you of your loss, but the intensity and duration often lessen in time.
I can't tell you when exactly the deep-seated grief lessened dramatically for me. However, it wasn't as if I worked through five stages, graduated from the school of grief, and was free from heartache forever. I spent a great deal of time facing my grief, and I still do feel sorrow, but I own my life again.
Just last week I went for a morning run, and passed a man who looked exactly like my husband. The resemblance was so uncanny I couldn't help but stop and stare.
He asked if I was OK, and I stuttered,
"You look just like my husband."
I forced myself to look away and continued running, but instead of bursting into sobs as I would have a few years ago, I felt a mixture of emotions: sadness but also pleasure remembering what my husband looked like in the flesh. I was able to enjoy the rest of my run.
Since my husband's death, I've completed the pain associated with the loss, done the work of my grief recovery, and said my goodbyes--but I accept that the roller coaster of the following emotions will always continue:
Disbelief. I've never been in denial about my husband's suicide, but there are still some mornings I wake up alarmed that he's really gone. But those next few minutes of sadness pass, and I'm able to shake it off and start my day.
Devastated and overwhelmed. Initially I was crushed having to go on without him, but I've proven to myself that I can move forward. The hard part comes when I realize he's not around to celebrate accomplishments with me; then I'm momentarily hit by waves of sorrow, but I'm thankful they're just momentary.
Guilt. I felt wholly responsible for not getting my husband the right help that he needed to overcome his mental illness. Although now I understand that I could only do so much with what I knew then, I've become much more educated, but I'll always regret that I wasn't empowered with knowledge sooner.
Yearning. He was the most important person in my life, and I still miss him every day, but the yearning no longer holds me back from socializing, trying new things, and enjoying the life that I've had to build without him.
Fatigue. I experienced a low level of emotional and physical energy that wasn't depression--it was more like borderline apathy. I had to muster all the strength I had just to complete simple tasks that previously wouldn't have required any thought. (Who knew showering could be so exhausting?) Even now there are a handful of days a year when I feel lethargic and I know I am grieving--and that's perfectly OK.
I still have moments of longing and sadness, but they've lost their power and come and go only briefly. I can now think of my husband and reminisce about the good times we had together with happy tears. I know I'll never be the person I was before his death, but I've grown in ways I could never have imagined as a result of my grief, and I'm using these newfound lessons to help others. Grief for me became a gift and a teacher.
When I council people who have experienced a loss, I explain that if we try to define and simplify the grieving process in steps or stages, we'll limit our expectations on dealing with our broken hearts. Our grief is as individual as our lives, and eventually, the pain will change and lessen, and a new normal will emerge.
If you--or someone you know--need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.