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Darkness into Sunshine: There is No Map

Posted On 8/3/2017 By Admin

If I were to offer you $100 to explain what these five words mean -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- you'd feel richer, right? These are the five stages of grief. Maybe you'd mention their creator, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and how the stages are an easy, helpful step-by-step way to identify how well people are dealing with death, grief and moving forward. Nope.

Kubler-Ross interviewed hundreds of dying people throughout the late 1950s and 60s. During her hospital rounds, the American-Swiss psychiatrist asked terminal patients what they were feeling, what they needed, and how healthcare could be better and more humane. She documented how people, young and old, feel as they die and what they want, particularly from their medical team, as their lives and hopes of recovery dim. Yes, this woman was a bright light in a dark place. Kubler-Ross, who died in 2004, is considered a hospice pioneer.

As a funeral director, I am constantly reminded that when people feel awkward or uncomfortable (i.e., friends and family faced tasked with comforting someone who's grieving), we resort to empty clichés ("He wouldn't give you more than you can handle!") or we focus erroneously on which stage of grief the person is experiencing and whether that stage is appropriate, timely and/or healthy.

Kubler-Ross would spin in her grave if she knew what we'd done to her compassionate and insightful discoveries. Her work was about dying not grief. Yet every day I witness the good intentions of good people bruise the broken hearts of people they're supposed to be helping.  Weekly there's the frail elderly widow told to "keep busy." The middle-aged spouse and father advised to "be strong and keeping going." And then there are the devastated, often hysterical parents told they can "always have another baby." 

There's no playbook, step-by-step, checklist or metric to chart how fast someone is grieving, healing and moving into the new normal. There are days when I wish there was a perfectly drawn map so I could tell that widow, father or blank-eyed parent they're almost through; that they're coming out of the shadows and will soon feel sunshine again. But I can't. Instead I listen and I don't rush.

Grief is a lonely and long journey. Grief is also a personal and private experience that demands expression. As much as our culture encourages us to rush through or avoid painful and uncomfortable feelings, grief takes its time and is an extremely patient teacher. Loss does break us down. But loss also breaks us wide open, better able to give and receive five gifts we all need: love, joy, peace, belonging and comfort.