Grief and loss, and how it works

by Angelica Flanagin
Licensed associate counselor

In relationships, as in life, there are great moments and there are moments that prompt pain. Part of living is losing — jobs, friends, family, pets, money, houses, boyfriends, girlfriends, marriages, etc.

One of the most interesting things I have ever learned about is how living things grieve. I believe that anything that can form an emotional bond grieves. An entire group of people can experience the same loss and react to it completely different. That is normal. We all move through this so personally, I hold the process to be sacred and individual. The key word is “move” though; when the grieving process goes awry, it can really go awry.

According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Denial is typically the first stage of grieving. You don’t want to see it or feel it, so you don’t. It’s your human way to be able to survive the loss. This is where you may feel nothing or numb. This is also where you don’t see what is right in front of you. If it’s not there, it can’t hurt you. It does not exist. Nothing to see over here, everything is A-OK.

Our human brain’s first and most important priority is to keep us alive. If there is something that is too overwhelming to process when it happens, our brain protects us from it. It may disconnect from what is happening to a certain degree. Denial is a way to disconnect from the immediate impact of the blow. You may hang out in denial for a while. Looking back, you can see it, but when you are in denial, you have no conscious grasp that you are swimming in it.

Anger is not a bad word. It is a very normal human emotion. It’s what you do with anger that can be labeled healthy or unhealthy (as with every emotion, really). It’s OK to feel angry about what’s happened. You may be angry at others, at yourself, at God, or the world and everything in it. If you hurt people, yourself, or are self destructive, then you are not moving through it in a healthy way (again, as with any emotion). When anger sets in, you know you are navigating out of the denial stage because you are now feeling something. I have heard it said that anger is the easiest emotion to pull forward compared to other emotions when we are in distress.

Bargaining is when you try to find a way to go back to what life used to be before the pain. This is where you think a lot of “what ifs” and “if only.” The shoulda-coulda-woulda self talk. This is where you beg to whoever and whatever to come back, to take the pain away, to go back in time, or for a chance to un-do.

Depression typically hits when you realize there is no undoing what has happened. Depression is not just feeling sad, it is deep pain. We may want to not move off the couch or the bed (or the floor). Basic things such as eating, sleeping, and showering feel incredibly energy draining and impossible. You may cry a lot (or a little) or when you don’t expect to cry. You may feel pain in your chest or anywhere in your body. You may get headaches. It may hit you in waves.

Acceptance does not mean that you come to an emotional place where you are OK with what happened. It means that you have found your new normal. It doesn’t mean that you deny what’s happened or that you are now somehow OK with your loss. It means that you are in a place where you’ve moved through enough emotional processing where you can see the situation that occurred from a place of acknowledging that it happened, that it hurt and sucked, and that there is a possibility of continuing to live. It doesn’t mean that you have it all figured out, or that you are never going to feel the pull of the loss. I picture it as the moment you get off the floor, put one foot in front of the other and start walking again on a newly formed path in the same life that you are living.

You don’t necessarily move through the stages in a straight line, it is normal to move from one to another as you happen to be moving through them. You may be in anger and depression at the same time; you may feel like you are in acceptance and then when you don’t expect it, you feel the pull of that original pain because of a smell, seeing something or someone, a memory or anything that triggers your grief. You may stay in that triggered place for moments or days. There is no set time to move through them, and there are no rules. Some people become stuck in one or another.

This topic is so much a part of the human condition, and emotionally heavy that we may forget what possible good can come from such a dark place. In my personal experience with grief and loss, of all kinds, I can say one thing with all certainty. Despite the pain, I grew into a different version of myself. I have learned to allow myself to feel whatever comes up as I move through grief and loss. If I try to stuff it, numb it, or dismiss it, it doesn’t mean it goes away, it means it will probably come out sideways. You know what I mean by that. I mean that it will come out in a way that I don’t expect and most likely in a way that I never wanted it to come out. If not processed in a healthy way, with support from healthy people, grief and loss can get stuck. Once I move through the stages, I feel stronger. I learn about my own resilience and my power, and of the gift of the present.


Angelica Flanagin is a licensed associate counselor at Arizona Blue Sky Counseling in Phoenix.

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