Counseling Center

June 8, 2020

The Stages of Grief: Accepting the Unacceptable

Water LilyPosted by Caitlin Stanaway, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist, UWCC

The pandemic has impacted our routines, social lives, school, work, and more. It has caused the loss of lives around the globe, as well as the loss of normalcy. The recent death of George Floyd has put police brutality, murders of Black and Brown people, racial and social injustice into the spotlight. There are many losses to grieve amidst the intensity of civil unrest, on top of more typical stressors like taking finals and looking for a job.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Grief is typically conceptualized as a reaction to death, though it can occur anytime reality is not what we wanted, hoped for, or expected.

Persistent, traumatic grief can cause us to cycle (sometimes quickly) through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These stages are our attempts to process change and protect ourselves while we adapt to a new reality. While there are consistent elements within each stage, the process of grieving looks different for everyone.

When you combine experiences of stress and trauma to grief, it is overwhelming. It takes a toll on our mental and physical health. Our minds and bodies are consistently being impacted by the stress response, a nervous system reaction to feeling threatened. It triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, impacting sleep, appetite, making it difficult to function at your best.

Symptoms of anxiety and depression may develop, as well as trauma symptoms like intrusive thoughts, nightmares, feeling disconnected from self. Trauma related to racial injustice is chronic. Resources for Black healing, including crisis support, self-care, and reducing cortisol levels in response to racial stressors can be found here.

Being aware of the grief stages and how you uniquely experience them can increase self-understanding and compassion. It can help you better understand your needs and prioritize getting them met.

Denial

can look like: can feel like:
avoidance shock
procrastination numbness
forgetting confusion
easily distracted shutting down
mindless behaviors
keeping busy all the time
thinking/saying, “I’m fine” or “it’s fine”

 

Anger

can look like: can feel like:
pessimism frustration
cynicism impatience
sarcasm resentment
irritability embarrassment
being aggressive or passive-aggressive rage
getting into arguments or physical fights feeling out of control
increased alcohol or drug use

 

Bargaining

can look like: can feel like:
ruminating on the future or past guilt
over-thinking and worrying shame
comparing self to others blame
predicting the future and assuming the worst fear, anxiety
perfectionism insecurity
thinking/saying, “I should have…” or ”If only…”
judgment toward self and/or others

 

Depression

can look like: can feel like:
sleep and appetite changes sadness
reduced energy despair
reduced social interest helplessness
reduced motivation hopelessness
crying disappointment
increased alcohol or drug use overwhelmed

 

Acceptance

can look like: can feel like:
mindful behaviors “good enough”
engaging with reality as it is courageous
“this is how it is right now” validation
being present in the moment self-compassion
able to be vulnerable & tolerate emotions pride
assertive, non-defensive, honest communication wisdom
adapting, coping, responding skillfully

 

Generally, if we are not in the stage of acceptance then we are in some way fighting against or avoiding reality. We might start sleeping more. Our mood or anxious thoughts might become the focus of attention, distracting from external stressors. We might use alcohol or drugs to avoid or disconnect from reality. We might keep our focus on tasks, responsibilities, or the needs of others – staying busy as much as possible to avoid feeling distress.

Acceptance doesn’t mean not experiencing distress, emotions or trauma. It does not mean you condone what is happening. It means noticing what you are fighting against, validating your desire to fight against it, and re-orienting yourself to the reality of the moment you are in. It means not getting stuck, or getting un-stuck, from other stages. Mindfulness and a non-judgmental, curious attitude can be a big help.

Acceptance might look like saying to yourself: “If I sleep too long today I’ll keep sleeping through the mornings. I’m going to prioritize getting my schedule regulated.” It might look like noticing: “I’m directing my anger and sadness about what’s going on toward myself and ruminating on self-criticisms. I’ll acknowledge my anger and what it’s really about.” Or reflecting, “how could I not be angry about ___? Who wouldn’t be anxious about ___? Of course it’s extremely hard to accept ___”; It might look like checking in on yourself: “If I keep neglecting my own needs and focusing on work/others, I’ll end up feeling burned out and exhausted. I’ll take time to assess how I’m doing and what I need.”

It is rare to move through the stages in a linear way. It is normal to experience ups and downs in mood, thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. It can be difficult maintaining acceptance while things feel so unacceptable.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by grief, loss, trauma you do not have to go through it alone. The Counseling Center can offer culturally-sensitive support and guidance through the grieving process.