Life throws all of us curves, that we need to put on our big girl pants to deal with, but we are not alone!
Most people are familiar with concept of five stages of grief: A series of emotional states that people dealing with loss tend to pass through. But it wasn’t until I’d spent some time working with the spouses of wounded warriors that I heard these stages re-cast as the five stages of growth: Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance all contribute to the healing process, and all help us grow beyond our pain. After all, loss is part of life, and each stage can be transformative in a positive way.
Many of the women I’ve spoken with have pointed out that the five stages don’t always take place in the same order, and some stages reappear over time. One wife who attended a recent SPA Day told me, “When my husband went in for his second surgery we were back in denial. We thought we’d moved past it, but we were numbed by the shock of another surgery that he might not make it through. We needed time to process the new assault.”
Others have explained that a person can get stuck in one stage for a long time and zoom through others. Another spouse shared how she and her husband went through stages at different times and paces, so they were both grieving the loss of their former life, but in different ways.
“I was sprinting for a couple months, but when the shock phase became a marathon, I couldn’t keep passing the water stations. I had to stop, refresh myself and reach out for help,” she said. “Then my husband was stuck in depression while I fluctuating between denial and anger. I took all my anger out the hospital staff until I had a major break down and the doctor told me to leave and let the hospital staff do their job.”
Although how and when they appear can vary, all five stages have recognizable attributes, and all five have specific types of growth they can inspire. Let’s look at each one in detail:
When faced with true trauma, we often reject its existence to protect our minds from shock. This is a mental coping technique that serves as the first emotional line of defense.
Other feelings of denial include, “There’s nothing wrong with me,” “I’m fine,” or “This can’t be happening. It’s all some sort of mistake.” Denial is actually there to cushion the blow of a new reality. It allows us to navigate through the fog so we can make it through the day. Others may think it’s unhealthy at the time, but it’s an important part of moving toward healing and growth. Let denial happen organically. It will burn itself out when the time is right.
After the numbness of denial wears off, we are faced with our harsh new reality and the shock hits us full-force. We may yearn deeply for the way things were, or wonder what we could have done differently. If we focus on the unfairness of our situation, rage floods our system. “Why me?” “I hate my life!” “I’m over this!” We are often told that anger is pointless, but in reality it is an important part of processing pain. Keeping anger bottled up always backfires, and feeling it is a natural, normal part of living through a life-altering trauma. Anger can even help create motivation to ask more questions, change unfair situations, and advocate for yourself and your loved ones.
Anger takes a lot of energy and can only be a comfortable emotional state for so long. When anger begins to recede, bargaining takes over. Thoughts like, “If I do better…” or “Take this away and I promise to always…” give us a sense of control within an uncontrollable situation. Anger and denial can cause us to lash out, but bargaining is usually internal. People can become stuck in the bargaining phase for too long, and may need to force themselves to talk about the deals they are trying to strike inside their own minds. When explored out loud with others, bargaining helps the bargainers understand what they can and cannot change in their new situation.
Once we acknowledge that bargaining is in vain, a flood of sadness washes over us. This is where grief sinks in and begins to feel like a much heavier a burden than ever before. We often withdraw from life and friends, unable to perform even simple tasks without feeling exhausted. Depression causes feelings such as, “What’s the point?” “My life isn’t worth living anymore,” or “How can I continue on like this?” Many wounded warriors and their spouses experience depression. This stage can feel endless and exhausting for both, but without it they will not be able to flush sadness out of their systems. Depression allows the feelings of sorrow and hopelessness for our changed lives to be fully expressed, and without it we cannot continue to move forward.
When depression lifts, grievers often find themselves in a land of acceptance. Acceptance is far from being “okay” or “fine” with a loss. Instead it is an acknowledgement of the truth of the situation, an adjustment to the “new” new. A surge of inspiration often ascends from the rubble during this period and we think thoughts such as, “This doesn’t define me,” “I have a greater purpose,” and “I can help others through my adversity.” When the spouse of a wounded warrior reaches the acceptance stage, she may feel weary at first. But with acceptance comes the motivation to do the best she can with what she’s got. Acceptance means making peace with what is, but it also leaves room for contemplating ways to making the situation even better.
I’ve found that learning about these stages helps me to understand better what the spouses of wounded warriors are going through. As a physical therapist who can be the bearer of bad or frustrating news, it helps me not take their anger personally. Understanding the stages and the growth they can promote also lets me help veterans and their spouses as they work through the painful part of each stage and move beyond toward personal growth.
In my own life every challenge from the death of my marriage to the death of my father has inspired new life and personal growth, and I believe we can all learn about ourselves as we cope with our grief. Hope is the thread that runs through all these stages. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s really true: When we’re in the thick of it, grief can seem like an endless, oppressive fog that engulfs our lives. Identifying the stages of grief and embracing their potential to make us stronger and wiser makes it all seem important, logical, and endurable.
Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance are more than stages, they are like the seasons of growth. When we think of a tree growing it fluctuates between expansion and retraction—losing leaves in the fall, then blossoming in the spring—but every year it becomes stronger. Every person who makes it through the five stages comes out wiser, kinder, and more powerful than ever before. By understanding the universal pattern of these Five Stages of “Grief Growth” we can foster patience with ourselves and others, as well as finding the inner grace we need to guide us.