The Five Stages of Grief:
Observations of Americans and My Own Experience from Personal Loss
Michelle C. Bonilla
The day after the election I woke up to the most deafening silence. It was familiar. It seemed liked the silence that I have experienced in my home over the past 6 months since the death of my partner back in April. However, this time, this silence, this quiet-ness, was outside. I didn’t hear any cars, although it was 7:30am, peak traffic time in Los Angeles, no dogs barking or collars clanging outside, where there are always neighbors walking their dogs. Curious, I got up and took a look out my front window – nothing, no one, silence.
I continued to do my morning routine, which consists of meditation, feeding my dogs and looking at the morning’s headlines. This is the time of the day that I feel the absence of my partner the most. When she would get up and, almost always, interrupt my quiet morning of reflection with the joy of talking to our dogs, getting them their breakfast, and fixing her own. It was at times an annoyance as she barreled into the kitchen and started her morning but it was always so nice to see her and start our day with the simplest of questions “How did you sleep”? I got used to it and it was a happy habit of ours. And, now, it’s powerful absence, hurts deeply. I immediately feel the heavy weight of grief as it sits on my chest, like an anvil, pressing hard into my sternum. As if I’ve come up for air but am unable to take it – panic sometimes sets in or, inevitably, an emptiness that can only be equated to sadness. Thank goodness for my dogs who remind me, at a paws notice, that it’s time to be walked. Most of my routines are now centered around my dogs because, if anything, they are like my children who must continue to be nourished, fed, loved, and played with. So, I got dressed, got out the door, and walked them. And, what I noticed when I walked outside was that dreadful feeling of “doom”. Again, there was something familiar about the feeling these quiet streets had – no one walking about and the hush that filled the air. It resembled what I was feeling on the inside and had been feeling these past six months. My grief and life on the inside of my house was finally being reflected on the outside.
I texted a friend of mine to see if this phenomenon was also happening where she was living and she texted back to me “Funny u say that bc my normally busy street, isn’t. Think people r in shock”. Then, if finally dawned on me, people are in shock and grief about the outcome of this election. What I have been going through, personally, for the past 6 months, and the 2 weeks in the hospital preceding her death, mirrors exactly what millions of people in this country are experiencing from everything preceding the election, to the election itself, and it’s horrible, devastating, outcome.
Just like me, people are going through, what Swiss Psychiatrist , Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, called the 5 Stages of grief. The progressions of the states are as follows:
- Denial, numbness, and shock: This stage serves to protect the individual from experiencing the intensity of the loss. It may be useful when the grieving person must take action (for example, making funeral arrangements). Numbness is a normal reaction to an immediate loss and should not be confused with “lack of caring.” As the individual slowly acknowledges the impact of the loss, denial and disbelief will diminish.
- Bargaining: This stage may involve persistent thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the loss. People can become preoccupied about ways that things could have been better. If this stage is not properly resolved, intense feelings of remorse or guilt may interfere with the healing process.
- Depression: This stage of grief occurs in some people after they realize the true extent of the loss. Signs of depression may include sleep and appetite disturbances, a lack of energy and concentration, and crying spells. A person may feel loneliness, emptiness, isolation, and self-pity.
- Anger: This reaction usually occurs when an individual feels helpless and powerless. Anger can stem from a feeling of abandonment through a loved one’s death. An individual may be angry at a higher power or toward life in general.
- Acceptance: In time, an individual may be able to come to terms with various feelings and accept the fact that the loss has occurred. Healing can begin once the loss becomes integrated into the individual’s set of life experiences.
However, it’s important to note that not all of these stages occur #1 – 5, they can be switched back and forth, and not everyone goes through every single stage. I can safely say that I have gone through all of them, to some extent, and have circled back many times to many of them. I don’t think I’ve fully gone through acceptance but do, to the best of my ability, each and every day. Other days I fight it because undoubtedly depression and anger kick in. This particular day I woke up very depressed, empty, and the feelings of loneliness were intense. And, as I went on with my day, I saw that same “shock”, that same “depression”, and most certainly the “anger” from the people in this city and across the country because of this elected President.
I turned on the television and saw protestors in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Austin, Philadelphia, Portland, OR, and Seattle ANGRY at this outcome! Others, looking on my social media, posting thoughts and feelings of sadness, isolation, and shock – I even see the Bargaining happening with the pundits and news commentators on the cable networks talking about “how could they get this so wrong?” and all the blaming, pointing fingers, and people blaming the “democratic party itself for letting this happen!”. I’ve never seen anything like this, from a collective whole (nation), to this extent, in my life.
I have to selfishly say that I’m glad I’m not alone in my grief. I, too, feel this sadness, confusion, anger, and pain. However, it is for the loss of my partner, which (pardon the pun) out trumps any election. The only thing is that I’m just a little over 6 months into the pain of losing her. I’ve had a head start and the deconstruction and processing of my feelings are intense, powerful, and quite frankly, exhausting So, I honestly can’t add another thing on my plate. The whole outcome of the election is hugely disappointing, and don’t know if this new grief is compounding itself with my own personal grief or will hit me in a few months. It’s too much for me right now. Also, it may not have happened to you yet (or it may have) but you will start to understand the feelings of “overwhelm” which start to envelope you during this process as well. I know, the gifts that keep giving. But, one thing I do know, and can share with you from my own experience, is that “this too shall pass” and that we can all take it one day at a time. What I’m told is that we all have to go through these feelings and that it may take a while to get completely through them for a healing to occur. However, I’m also told that it never really goes away. And, for this country, this is a game changer on so many levels. Either way, this has made history. As to what type of history – that is yet to be determined. So, the question remains, how do we start to heal? There are those of us who are still outraged and are determined to change this outcome. There are still those that are in denial, getting stuff done that needs to get done, hence petitions to change electoral college electors minds to switch their votes to Clinton, etc. These occurrences will persist until…well, I don’t know. But, I do know that it takes time to heal these inner wounds – time and love. I’m trying to be gentle and kind not only to myself but to my fellow man to heal my own personal wound at the loss of my partner. I truly believe that this is the way that I can make a difference – by how I treat my fellow man. It’s a cliché but so true: Love Trumps Hate.
I hold on to hope and am inspired by the writings of Viktor Frankl, renowned Austrian Author-Psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, who said in Man’s Search for Meaning, Part One, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” as he endured the harsh, cruel, and unthinkable acts in that internment camp:
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love.” – Viktor Frankl