The stages of grief

 A week ago today, I lost my father… He was 91 years old.

As physicians, we diagnose, treat and prescribe medications with the goal to heal and to help prolong life. But one thing we cannot do is give our patients immortality, and it is inevitable that some of our patients will die.

But when the patient is a parent, the paradigm shifts. It becomes difficult to remain objective, and you have to balance between what the patient wants and what you and the rest of the family want. And what we want is for our loved ones to live forever.

The first time I lost a patient, I was overcome with emotion as his family began to cry, and as I hurriedly left them to grieve, I started to cry myself.  My senior later told me, “He is not ours to grieve.” 

It is not that we don’t care, but this detachment is one way that physicians have learned to deal with death because having to tell a family about the death of their loved one and the outpouring of grief that follows can be so overwhelming that to allow one’s self to feel anything could consume you.

Grief is a natural emotion to experience when going through a loss, be it of a loved one or a job.  In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler Ross wrote in her book, On Death and Dying, that grief can be divided into five stages:

• Denial

• Anger

• Bargaining

• Depression

• Acceptance

The five stages have then expanded to seven stages or steps, reflecting how complex the process can be:

Shock and denial. A state of disbelief.

Pain and guilt. The feeling that the loss is unbearable and you wonder if you could have done something else or something more.

Anger and bargaining. Lashing out and thinking that you would do anything to be free of this grief or to have your loved one back.

Depression. A period of isolation and loneliness.

The upward turn. When then emotions of the previous stages have died down.

Reconstruction and working through. It feels like you are able to start moving forward.

Acceptance and hope. A gradual acceptance of a new way of life and looking towards the future with a positive attitude.

Everyone experiences grief differently.  You don’t have to go through each stage in order, or you may go from one stage to another and circle back to a previous stage.  How long each stage lasts also depends on the individual.

Understanding the grieving process can ultimately help you work toward acceptance and healing.  By identifying and acknowledging each stage, it can help you know what to expect and to comprehend what you are feeling.  It can also help you find ways to get help to meet your needs as you go through the grieving process.

It is important to not avoid or deny expression of your grief.  Some feel that by dissociating from the pain of the loss you’re going through will make the pain go away. But holding it in won’t make it disappear. Unresolved grief can turn into physical or emotional manifestations that affect your health later on.

In order to heal from a loss and move on, you have to address it. If you’re having trouble processing grief, talk to someone.  Consider seeking out counseling to help you through it.  There are hotlines to call and support groups who can help. 

Today, we laid my father to rest.  I have not had the time to fully process which stage or stages of grief I have passed through, but I know I am feeling the pain of losing a beloved parent.

I once read somewhere that grief is like the waves of the ocean.  In the beginning, the waves are tall and they come crashing down on you so frequently that you can feel like you are drowning. In time, the waves come less often, and they become smaller.  Sometimes the water is calm and you don’t feel sad at all. But then the waves can come again, in different ways, and it is in this way we remember our loved ones — until we return to the water ourselves and join them again.