Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance make up the five stages of grief. As a counselor, I am more than familiar with these stages, as I have discussed them with individuals who have lost a loved one. As I read through each stage today, I can’t help but ask myself whether these stages apply to an individual who has lost a loved one to suicide. I am not arguing that as survivors we do not grieve like others. What I have began to question is whether a survivor is able to fully transition through each stage in order to fully accept what has happened. Let’s look more specifically at each stage:
Defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler as, “The world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial.” I certainly relate to this, as nothing made sense in the weeks following my father’s death. Some say that denial is a way to cope with the loss that we have experienced, enabling us to survive. I believe that denial in the aftermath of suicide is our psyche’s response to the unknown. How can you cope with and process something that you truly do not understand? Prior to my father’s death, I did not know anyone who had died by suicide. This was simply not something that existed in my world, and certainly not something that could have happened to my family. Thinking about my father’s death now, still leaves me in a state of shock as I ask myself, “Did this really happen?”
As I survivor, I have spent a great deal of time in this stage. How can you not be angry at somebody or something for the loss that you have experienced? I was angry at myself for not being more aware of the signs that my father had given me; angry at his counselor for medicating him, not treating him; angry at my father for choosing to end his life. My anger masked the pain, and energized me as it helped me get through many days following my father’s death. I still experience anger. I experience it when somebody says, “I want to kill myself”, and when I hear of another individual lost as a result of suicide. The anger I experience today is different from the anger I felt in the aftermath of my father’s death. My anger continues to motivate and fuel me as it drove me to pair with Lindsay and Becky to create this blog. Why do we have to transition out of this stage? I say, just find a healthy way to express the anger in order to deal what is underneath!
The “What Ifs!” Statements and thoughts that began with those two words have never been beneficial in any area of my life. Why? Because I will never know what would have happened “if” something was done differently. As a survivor, questions present themselves time and time again. While eating dinner with Lindsay and Becky, we will still ask questions and make statements that begin with “what if” or “if only.” We try to put pieces of the puzzle together; try to make sense of a situation that continues to be out of a movie, not reality. Unlike a natural death, I really do not know why my father chose to take his life. I can guess or assume, but will never truly know. This is why I believe this stage of grief is different for a survivor. A survivor is not necessarily trying to bargain with anyone, but certainly you continue to try and make sense of the unknown.
I really do not like this word. Depression has such a negative connotation in our society. Every day, the television is plagued with images of sad individuals who are apparently “depressed.” Why do we have to label a person who is feeling down or sad? Was I depressed after my father died, yes, of course, how could you not be?
I will always feel sad when I think about my father. I will always wish that he were here. Am I depressed, no, but I certainly feel sad. I am not downplaying depression, as I believe that my father was most likely experiencing depression when he chose to take his life. What I am trying to express is that sadness may always present itself in the aftermath of suicide. And that is ok. As survivors, we should allow ourselves to be sad!
Acceptance is not defined as acknowledging all is ok. It means that we have accepted the reality of the situation. I have accepted that my father decided to take his life. I am not ok with this decision, but I have accepted it. We adapt to “the new normal.” We make changes in our life to fit our new life. As survivors, we find a way to adapt our lives to accept what has just occurred. For some this happens in months, others years. There is not right or wrong.
As a survivor, I am not sure if these were the only stages I went through or that I successfully transitioned from one to another. Like I stated previously, I continue to experience feelings and emotions associated with each stage. I believe that I always will. When talking about the stages of grief, I think it is important to remember that they are different for everyone. There is no set time limit for when you should reach acceptance, or fully transition from one stage to the next. As I stated, I am not sure that I will ever fully transition out of the stages of grief. What I have accepted, is that is ok.
Additional Posts on The Stages of Grief following a Suicide: