Stages of grief

Recently I’ve been thinking about how the stages of grief relate to cancer. And how this is not only the case after someone dies.

We can experience grief stages when we first hear about the person’s cancer, for loss of the life we envisioned or for their reduced abilities and health, if it becomes clear the person will die, or after their death.

The person who has cancer may also experience grief stages as they face the end of their time here. I thought it would be helpful to share what I wrote about the stages of grief in my book Their Cancer – Your Journey.

(There are several versions of the stages of grief, including the Elizabeth Kubler Ross stages of grief – these grief stages are a slightly simpler version)

Grief – Stages Of

“According to research conducted by psychiatrists J. Bowlby and C.M. Parkes, there are four stages of grief that people commonly experience. You may find that one or more of these phases describe where you are in your grief at any time. Your progression from one stage to another may not be smooth, and where you are can vary from day to day. The four stages are:

  1. Numbness. This is where you may be in shock, feeling disbelief and cut off from reality.
  2. Yearning, pining. Here you find you wish to bring back the person, long for them. You may feel much anger and disappointment at this stage.
  3. Depression, disorganisation and despair. Now you find it difficult to function in your everyday life. You may struggle to concentrate or not be able to bear thinking about the future.
  4. Recovery and reorganisation. At this stage more positive feelings begin to surface. You are ready to take the first steps of moving forward with your life, and adjusting to your new reality.

When you first reach the stage of recovery, it is likely to be fragile. You may start by catching fleeting glimpses of how life may be.

It is tempting at this stage to slide back into guilt, thinking “How can I be thinking of the future when he or she is not here?” Guard against this temptation. Guilt serves no one, especially not your loved one, who has left already.

Describing these phases of grief makes them seem passive, as though you have no control over your route through them. There is a benefit to taking your time. No one can tell you how long it should take you to move from one stage to another.

There are many things that affect your ability to adjust and move on through this unfamiliar landscape.

A more ‘active’ way of looking at grief comes from William Worden, who described a series of four tasks that are involved in mourning.

  1. To accept the reality of the loss. This shows that you can make the choice to face this reality with courage, and resist the temptation to deny it.
  2. To experience the pain of grief. This task is where you dive into the pain. When giving birth, a mother is encouraged to flow with the pain, rather than resisting it. If you give yourself the time and the space to do this with your grief, you will allow the emotions to flow rather than become stuck. Self-medicating with alcohol, or anything else that prevents you truly feeling your emotions, would be avoiding this task.
  3. To adjust to the environment where the deceased is missing. The loss of someone close to you changes the scenery of your every day. In fact the build up to death may have changed
    your life beyond recognition, so that it revolved around caring for the person with cancer. When they die, this is a huge adjustment. Your task now is to create the new landscape of your life, metaphorically moving the furniture to at least partly fill the hole that they have left.
  4. To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on. This task involves making a space for your loved one as a memory rather than a current relationship. Keeping them in your heart in this way allows you to look forward to a future without them and not feel bad about yourself for doing so.

You will find a way through these phases and tasks. The human spirit is resourceful and resilient. In the early stages it may feel as though your world has ended.

And so in a sense it has. However, there is a new world for you to step into, when you are ready.”

Anne Orchard

Anne Orchard is an experienced life coach based in Dorset, UK, whose areas of expertise include offering support to those affected by illness or death of a loved one and helping them to rebuild their lives.

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