Grief is Personal: My Five Stages

Just about anyone can Google and find the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What's more, grief can come in many forms as many in this community know, not just at the end of a life. Grief is personal.

It comes at the diagnosis when we grieve the life we had planned in our heads and move to pivot to the life now in front of us. It comes when a train of thought escapes you and that diagnosis washes over you all over again. It comes the first time your loved one asks you who you are.

Personally, I don't hold much stock in the five stages as outlined. And, unfortunately, I'm acquainted enough with grief that I know my own stages. Perhaps they will resonate with you.

Shift into do-mode

My first stage of grief is "What needs to be done?" On hearing the news, I immediately shift into low gear, form a list, and begin the uphill trudge to handle the immediate crisis.

The person who is in the chair receiving a dementia diagnosis and who jumps into: "OK, doctor, what is our next step? How do we fight this?" She is my kinfolk.

Enter the "no feelings zone"

Feelings overwhelm me, so I will stay in this do-mode for as long as possible. When I run out of practical things to do related to the grief, I might come up with a project to throw myself into.

When my Gram died, I was putting together a quilt for my sister, who had accepted her first commissioned officer role in the Navy and would be the farthest away from me she had ever been. I decided to put together a quilt with the help of her loved ones, I mailed and collected pieces of fabric with hand-written notes to keep her warm. One of these stops was at my Gram's. She had a shaky hand, poor grammar and spelling skills, and asked me to write a message out for her, which I did, her diligent eye supervising over my shoulder.

She very much liked this idea. Anyway, a few short weeks later she was no longer with us. I assembled a queen-sized quilt in less than 24 hours, fueled with love for both these awesome women and avoidance of the grief I had yet to feel.

Trigger and deluge

The feelings sneak up on me over the most mundane things. That saying, "No use crying over spilled milk." I would, if all the other things that came before the spilled milk were right.

After an overdose, one of my loved ones was in a rehab facility getting the help that they need over the Easter holiday. I went to Target and packaged up a nice basket, equipped with candy to share. When I got to the rehab, they did not accept 90 percent of what was in said Easter basket, rejecting everything but a book I grabbed on a whim. As I left and got into my vehicle, the dam burst and I was a heaving, snotty, tear-filled mess. My partner was with me and did his best to console me, but it was never about the basket.

I cried big tears of grief that didn't have to fully bloom because they survived that overdose.

Chew on it

Once the feelings come, there's no stopping them. They wash over me like a storm, wave after wave crushing me, pulling me away from all the things that typically bring me joy.

In this stage, I wallow; I spend whole days with a pizza in bed watching the new sci-fi series with a dessert course of home organization television on Netflix until I feel human again. As I emerge from my den of despair, I'm constantly running through what-if scenarios and visceral memories.

I chew on the grief like a piece of tough meat until it has no flavor and is no longer discernible for what it is.

Adjust to the new weight

Slowly, the obsessive thoughts will begin to part and make space for happy thoughts. I'll catch myself making a joke at a work meeting (and not in a dark humor sort of way) and think, "I'm supposed to be sad, right?"

As I let those moments in, they expand. It's not a catch-me moment in a meeting anymore, but whole hours where I don't think about the grief. This is when I find hope - the rays of sunshine through the parting storm clouds.

The waves of feelings that, in the last step, took me out at the knees become instead a deep, calm pool that I can visit when I choose.

In this phase, I make adjustments in my life to accommodate this new weight that I will carry until the end. Maybe it's a self-care practice, like mindful lettering, or a new ritual, like visiting the gravesite on his birthday.

I'm able to find moments where I enjoy the weight because therein lies the first Walk to End Alzheimer's I attended with my Poppop, our working together side-by-side on a woodworking project, and the weekend mornings where the smell of pork roll and home fries lured me out of my room.

Managing the stages of grief

Grief is personal. Work through it at your own pace and stages. Tell us about your experience in the comments below, or share your story with the community.

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