In her book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler Ross introduced the five stages of grief that were first applied to those suffering from terminal illness. Later, these were applied to other forms of personal loss, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, and various other incidences of loss and personal tragedy.After having gone through the pain of losing my husband Chuck, I found that this model didn’t clearly define what those who grieve were feeling internally, coupled with various physical manifestations. I’ve identified five stages of the grief experience based on my own personal experience with the pain of grief and mourning:
- The Tunnel
- Pinhole of Light
The Five Stages of the Grief Experience
In the early days,right after my husband Chuck died, I didn’t feel his presence. I didn’t feel anything or hear anything. I felt completely and utterly alone. I wanted to have a spiritual experience, I wanted to feel something, but I felt absolutely nothing, and the silence was deafening. It was an odd feeling, and I even felt like, well, maybe he would come back. Then there was the flurry and hubbub of the funeral arrangements, people coming and going, preparing the repast, pastoral visits, and attendance to all the details that accompany planning a funeral.
After all the activities died down and everyone left, I felt abysmally sad, afraid, nervous, and numb. I was nearly immobilized by the pain, and also felt so alone.It was a very intense feeling—like being dead and in a vacuum. I felt as if no one else had experienced anything as debilitating and painful as the emotions and feelings that I was experiencing. The outside world seemed foggy and gray, and I became desensitized to everything around me.I’d lost any sense of joy and happiness.Actually those two emotions had been gone for a while, and now alone, I felt the absence of these feelings in an even bigger way.It was during this numb stage that my deep, abiding faith in God began to wane. I felt anger, and I couldn’t understand how God had allowed this to happen to me, to Chuck, to us. Chuck had been plucked from my life in an incredibly cruel way. I felt that I had been cheated out of the life that I’d had with my husband, our future together, growing older together, spending the rest of our lives together.It was during this numb stage that I began to feel that my life at this point was done. Although I didn’t contemplate suicide, I do think that if I had walked out into the street and been hit by a bus or had an unforeseen accident, it would have been okay, as I could have been with my husband again. Life for me,up until my recent tragedy had been better than most—exceptional really. So what was there left for me to do, remain here and be lonely, missing my husband? I just wasn’t sure I could endure the road ahead.The pain was excruciating, and so to cushion that feeling, I existed in a numb state. I could barely eat; I could barely breathe. I felt nothing but heartache; I felt very vulnerable and acutely sensitive. No one knew the depths of my despair. No one knew how grief-stricken I was. For many, many months, I existed like a zombie. People would say things like, “Oh, you will be okay. You’re so strong; you’ll never be at the height of despair.” But they didn’t know,no one knew that I was nearly beyond that point, and I was in a quandary as to how I could save myself.
- The Tunnel
There were many days when I felt like I was in some kind of an altered state. It felt like I was in a tunnel with no light at the end. Oh, how I yearned to be able to move forward and see at least a pinhole of light, but that never seemed to occur. I felt suspended in time in a dark, gloomy state, not able to move forward, left, or right. Sometimes I felt off balance; sometimes I felt as though I might lose control. I felt un-anchored, no longer attached to the moorings—adrift in a tunnel without a guide. It was very scary, but after a while, I would find comfort in that tunnel. It was dark in the tunnel; there was no light, no sound, no emotion, just stillness. I was surrounded by my grief, sadness, and depression. I was truly depressed, and that veil of sadness stayed withme in this “tunnel” experience. If I went out on a beautiful sunny day, the bright sun and the hustle and bustle of people going to and fro were a jolt to my senses. I could not imagine that people were living their daily lives as usual, and my husband had just disappeared from earth. I would soon come to know that that gloomy, dark place would become a comfort,a retreat where I could weep and meditate and talk to God and Chuck.
Dark and gloomy, sad and lonely, my own little safe place.-Life was beginning to feel like just too much for me to handle. There was no light at the end of this tunnel—just a long, dark passageway with no end in sight. This stage occurred simultaneously with my feeling numb.
While experiencing the numb state as well as being in the tunnel, I also felt as if I literally would fall off the planet. This, too, was a strange feeling for I felt unsure and anxious—as if I had been let out of a boat and was now floating in water without an anchor. It was an odd feeling at best, scary at worst. On some days, I felt panicky; other days, I felt alone and afraid; and at other times, I felt shaky, afraid to go out, and safer at home.I didn’t feel surefooted, and it was as though if I had one misstep, I could fall apart. I didn’t feel secure; I felt as if the bottom had dropped out from under me. Sometimes I thought I might break into teeny tiny fragments, like glass, and become jagged and broken. These feelings of being off balance were coupled with the tunnel sensation. Sometimes I experienced each one by itself, and sometimes I had two or three of these feelings all together.
- Pinhole of Light
My husband passed away in January 2009. As the year progressed, I was still struggling with the first three stages of my grief. Eventually, I was able to begin thinking about my entire life with Chuck and my current life without him. I began to wonder how I would go about creating a new life for myself, by myself. I even went through a life review, and I could actually see myself in the present, alone. But surprisingly, one day in early fall of that year, I began to feel slightly hopeful. Soon, I found that I was feeling as though perhaps there could really be a life for me after Chuck’s death. This was when I began to see a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. It was very tiny, but it was there.
By Spring of the following year, I began to feel that I had begun to change. I knew I had to take hold of the reins of my life and move forward. Now, I could actually see myself doing more. Early on the grief was so heavy that thinking about doing anything seemed like an insurmountable task and sometimes I was stuck doing nothing. But now, it was one year since my husband had died and Chuck was still a daily presence on my mind and in my heart. I still wept daily—cleansing tears, I would call them in retrospect—and all this helped me to grieve as I moved toward re-creating my life.I began to wonder if I could possibly ever love again. I felt it was possible, but then there was this fear that if I were to marry maybe the person would die. I didn’t want to go through that again. The thought that I could lose a spouse all over again was frightening, but to love again was really a fleeting thought, which I suppressed as I moved toward the light. Letting go of the grief seemed almost like a betrayal to Chuck in some odd kind of way. I felt if I let go of the grief, I would somehow lose the essence of my husband, or that I wouldn’t feel close to him. I would later come to know, however, that I could still be close to Chuck, without clinging to the grief and sorrow.I was no longer feeling as if I was in the teeter-totter stage.
Soon,I began to see the colors of life: radiant yellow rays from the sun, clear blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and the blue-white of snow, which caused me to remember how Chuck and I loved to tramp around in fresh, new snow. I no longer dreaded nights or being alone. I was able to enjoy my days from beginning to end and found them filled with a myriad of rich activities.
I could actually think about how it felt to be retired (since I retired during the period of my husband’s illness). I could begin to enjoy not having to be anywhere at any particular time, as well as being able to schedule my life as I pleased. I was revived after a long, long sleep. It happened not suddenly, but unexpectedly over time. Then one day, I found myself feeling renewed, alive, and reawakened.
To find out how you or someone you know can get through the grieving process read Brave in a New World: A Guide to Grieving the Loss of a Spouse available on Amazon.