Flexibility in the Grieving Process

I remember as an undergraduate student speaking with a psychology major whose father recently died. “At the moment I’m in denial, but if I move quickly through the stages of grief I should be done by summer vacation,” she said. Being an English major myself I couldn’t speak to these stages, but as a human being I had a feeling she was in for some surprises.

Grief can be difficult business. In the 1960’s, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. and her colleagues found themselves floundering when it came to patients who were facing death. Kübler-Ross decided to take the time to sit and talk with dying patients. Through these connections Kübler-Ross developed her stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Since the 1960’s mental health care professionals have taken her model and expanded it to include stages for any type of grief or loss. Some of these modified models include intricate formulas for determining how long it will take a person to complete grieving.

Recently I was sitting with a client who was sobbing on the couch. In the midst of very challenging life circumstances he turned to me and asked, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now? I’ve been grieving for 3 months already!” A well-meaning friend of his had passed on one of these formulas to him, and he recently passed the deadline for when he should be done grieving.

Grief, like life, is messy, confusing and surprising business. Some guidelines can be helpful; they remind us that we are not the first, nor the last to be traveling through grief. But as guidelines turn into rules, the grief process can be stunted. As we face our own losses may we find the strength and grace to give ourselves enough time and space to discover our personal grief process.