The recent California Wildfires remind me that we have had a series of crisis in our country over the past six years that have impacted many, many lives. The first major crisis occurred on September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people died in New York City, Virginia and Pennsylvania at the hands of terrorists. Many Americans still suffer serious health consequences and even death because of their rescue efforts related to the terrorist attacks. Two years later, in October of 2003, Wildfires in California destroyed over 3,600 homes. After another two years, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and the Mississippi Coast, Seven Cities Virginia including parts of Alabama, destroying approximately 275,000 homes and taking at least 1,800 lives. And most recently, 1,300 more residents of Southern California lost their homes in October due to the fires.
These large-scale disasters have touched many of our lives and leave lasting emotional, mental and financial difficulties in their wake. If we have not been directly impacted, we know and care about someone who has. But, in addition to large-scale disasters like these many of us also experience personal crises as part of our day-to-day experience. Those crises come in the forms of a devastating health diagnosis such as Cancer or AIDs, divorce, foreclosure on our home, death, the serious injury of a child, disability or unemployment.
Whether the crisis is a shared community loss or one that is very private, one thing is certain, crisis and the losses associated with them touch each of our lives from time to time. But because we don’t expect the unexpected, these experiences take us by surprise and we can find ourselves unprepared to deal with the emotional and psychological aspects of recovering after crisis.
Although there are individual differences related to how each of us reacts to loss, the emotional stages of grief and loss are predictable. And because they are predictable, understanding what the stages are can provide some comfort to help you recognize that your response to crisis is normal, expected and part of a process that will, ultimately, lead to healing.
Keep in mind that while I will describe each stage in the order I’ve chosen here, the grief process is not linear. Please, do not expect to move through one stage to the next in a sequential order. In fact, the time spent in any stage of grief depends upon your individual process of experiencing and processing your emotions. And once you have spent time with one stage, that does not mean you will not re-visit the same stage again and again before you complete the healing process. Remember, grieving, like life, is a dynamic process that follows its own course. The best way to heal is to allow the feelings to come and to make room for them in your life. Honor them and take good care of yourself in order to negotiate all the stages of grief and to heal completely.
Almost universally, the initial reaction to a crisis is shock. During this stage, there is an absence of awareness of the extent of the crisis. For example, you will find it hard to believe that your loved one is gone. During this emotional stage, some people kick into gear and become active in dealing with the physical realities of the crisis without allowing the crisis to really “sink in.” A person reacting to the shock of loss in this way will take care of all of the funeral arrangements, shore other family members up emotionally while a loved one is dying in the hospital or begin the clean-up right away when a natural disaster has occurred. Then, when this person is not expecting it, the reality of the loss will descend during a quiet moment. The reality of the loss often takes this person by surprise because up to the point when the emotions descend, this person thinks that they are “doing just fine.” Alternatively, a person may recoil at the loss, withdraw from social contact and become numb in a way that makes life seem surreal — dreamlike in quality. Later in the grief process, the denial stage of loss takes on the same qualities as shock, but with less intensity of emotional numbing.
Another stage of loss is anger. When the reality of the loss becomes clear to us and we realize the injustice of the situation around which the loss occurred, we become angry. This is the time when we blame the government for not stepping in with relief quickly enough, we feel enraged at the medical professionals whom we have trusted but who were unable to cure the difficulty that led to the crisis, we become angry at others who have not experienced the same loss for their well-intended, but naively hurtful comments, we become angry at ourselves for not having done something to prevent the crisis or we become angry at God for allowing the tragedy to touch our lives. During this stage of grief, we tend to be unapproachable to anyone who would seek to help us in an effort to provide assistance and comfort.
Bargaining is the psychological mechanism we use during the grief process to try to avoid the realities of the loss. Recognizing a significant loss is extremely painful and most of us tend to seek to avoid pain whenever possible. Therefore, if we can bargain with whatever power we believe has more control over our situation that we do, we will seek to strike a bargain with that power in hopes that the bargain will bring relief. Most of the time, you will not be able to find a bargain that will be sufficient to stave off the effects of the pain. Bargaining does, however, help us believe we have some measure of control over a situation over which we have none.
When we realize that we cannot find a solution that will allow us to avoid the loss, we experience a sense of depression. In this stage, we begin to experience the emotions directly related to the loss. It is here that we are most likely to cry, even sob. The reality is that intense emotions build up energy in our systems and crying releases that energy in a way that helps to heal the body and the emotions. If depression lasts more than 6 months or if you experience suicidal feelings, seek professional help to deal with the complications of your grief and to be sure you negotiate the process safely.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. Expect to visit this stage more than once and achieve small levels of acceptance before the grief process is complete. That is, expect to move from acceptance back to anger, bargaining or depression, for example. This re-visiting of previously experienced stages does not represent failure or something you are doing wrong as you grieve. It is simply true that you may move through several of the stages over and over again and in random order before the healing process is complete.