The stages of grief were first identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying (Macmillan, 1991). We grieve all losses in our lives at some level. Sometimes the process moves quickly. In other cases, the grieving process moves slowly and painfully as we try to regain a solid emotional footing.
Shock or Denial
This is the natural emotional defense mechanism that our mind employs to protect us from something that could overwhelm us. The shock or denial enables our minds to adjust to and absorb our loss slowly, as our mind tells us, “Nothing has happened. My world is still the same.”
As we start to process the loss, we first seek to blame an external source. We become defensive and look to protect our wounded heart—which has closed up to protect itself. In this phase, we are trying to protect ourselves: “This situation is not fair—and it is your fault.”
Here we begin to allow our hearts to open and embrace the pain from our loss. We still employ defense mechanisms by trying to “make a deal” with God as a way to gain control of the situation. The challenge is to accept our helplessness over what had happened. But here is where the Christian has his or her greatest resource—God is in complete control and we can trust in Him.
During this phase, our anger is turned inward. Sometimes this leads to healthy reflection, and other times to unwarranted self-blaming. The grieving person feels guilt—authentic guilt, false guilt, or a combination of the two. We ask ourselves: “How was I to blame?” There is also a generalized sense of numbness and disconnection from the world around us.
Each of the first three stages is focused on the self. As the process continues, we become more and more open to the external resources that are available to us. It is very easy to get stuck in these initial phases. It is easier to blame either oneself or another so that we do not have to relinquish the control and pain. But holding onto losses has a big price. The burden gets heavy. The way it often comes out is depression.
At some point, we become willing to re-focus from the pain and accept life without the person we have lost. We may still go back to reflect upon the loss, but these thoughts no longer consume or haunt us. The void is permanent—our loved one cannot be replaced. But we can reflect back and remember the impact, influence, and legacy that these people had on our lives and thank God for the opportunity of knowing them.