Grief is a process we are all familiar with. We tend to associate grief with a major loss such as the death of a loved one or beloved pet. When we experience sadness or depression over other types of loss - loss of a job, a breakup, or fertility, for example, we may actually be experiencing the depression stage of the grief cycle.
The grief cycle is commonly known by its acronym, DABDA. This cycle involves some major hitting emotions - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. While it is commonly referred to as a cycle, one can move forward, backward, stay stuck or start over. Grief can be a complicated process and there is no one right way to process it. It is important to understand the stages of grief to realize why deep emotions may be hitting you.
The denial part of grief can involve some shock to the system, especially if a loss occurs out of the blue. Once the shock of the new information is processed, people often do not stay in this stage for long. Some people do stay stuck by ruminating on the event over and over. Some may take microdoses of denial - daydreaming, watching a movie with a friend, or playing games on the phone. Microdoses of denial help the brain take a breather from the full impact of grief.
Anger surfaces after denial. People may be looking for fault - someone to blame. You may blame yourself, someone else, or a situation. In American culture, we tend to think of anger as a negative place. True, staying too long in anger can be harmful to self and relationships. On the flip side, anger can be used for short bursts of energy to get things done.
Next up, grieving people experience bargaining. It can look like pleading with God, pleading with loved ones or making bets with yourself. Here, one can be desperate for a reset button and have everything go back to how things were. The goal is to move towards acceptance, the last stage of grief.
Depression can settle in for those dealing with loss. It is important to practice good self-care and find supportive friends, family, groups or mental health professionals who will allow you to talk and feel through your emotions.
Acceptance, comes at long last. The longing may never be gone and is accepted as a part of your new normal.
I came across an article posted in Psychology Today called, “Four Types of Grief Nobody Ever Told You About” by Sarah Epstein. In my work as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I have found the following four points of loss to surface often for couples who are experiencing some kind of transition.
1. The first point of grief Epstein considered was the Loss of Identity. Loss of identity can be felt by people leaving a religious faith and its subsequent loss of affiliation or community. In a mixed-faith relationship, the transitioning spouse feels the loss of community identity while the believing spouse feels a loss of a couple identity - where both partners shared the same religious belief system.
Loss of identity can be experienced by those going through a divorce and have moved from the “Married” identity to “Ex-” identity. Another example of the loss of identity belongs to the empty-nester parent who has successfully raised his or her children and feels a bit lost as to what comes next. Divorcing partners and empty nesters may ask themselves, “Who am I, if I am no longer a wife/husband or mom/dad?”
2. Another type of loss Epstein considered was Loss of Safety. This can be observed in those who lose homes to fire, earthquakes, tornadoes or hurricanes. Survivors of sexual abuse very often do not feel safe in public or private settings. A partner who has experienced infidelity from the other in a committed relationship can be left reeling and unsafe.
3. The third type of loss Epstein pointed out was Loss of Autonomy. This can happen for the older person whose body is no longer cooperating or for others who have a neurodegenerative disease. Loss of autonomy can happen for those unemployed or underemployed who need to reach out for financial assistance. Healthy adults are wired to want to be independent and be a contributing member to society.
4. The final loss to consider is Loss of Dreams or Expectations. This can show up for a couple struggling with infertility, the college graduate not landing their dream job or denied acceptance to graduate school or adult children choosing a different path than a parent might envision. This can show up in a mixed-faith relationship when partners need to adjust their dreams and expectations of how their partnership and parenting will work moving forward.
There are expected transitions in life - child to teenager, teenager to young adult, young adult to adulthood, adulthood to elder and finally death. Since we expect these things to happen, we hope to transition smoothly through these phases. It’s the unexpected transitions that throw us off our game: the early death, marriage ending in divorce, a spouse leaving behind a shared belief system, chronic health issues, infidelity, weather-related loss, being unemployed and so on.
The framework of grief can help those with unexpected transitions permit themselves to process the intense emotions people can feel. It can help us identify where we are, why we are struggling and what the end game is - acceptance. With acceptance, we feel free to seek out new identities, new ways of feeling safe, other forms of independence and brand new dreams.
Jenny Elledge, LMFT
Jenny Elledge is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in couples counseling, trauma work, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, faith transitions, mixed-faith relationships, life transitions and parenting issues. She offers both therapy and coaching services in-office and online settings for couples, families, and individuals.