When we lose a dearly loved companion, well-meaning friends may tell us about the five stages of grief we will go through. But do we really have to endure a long drawn out process in order to find peace and healing? Not necessarily.
The current theory about the “five stages of grief” began in the late 1960’s after Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her book, “On Death and Dying.” Since then this has been the common approach when dealing with the loss of a loved one, and many of us have accepted that healing will take a long time – if ever.
But Dr. George Bonanno, a grief researcher at Columbia University, challenges the notion that grief has five stages, and is a lengthy process. Through a wide range of studies, he looked at how people grieved, and found something quite different. His conclusion is that people experience grief in various ways, and there is no evidence that they need to go through these stages. Dr. Bonanno found that resilience, along with a more forward and outward looking mental position is key to healing.
When I shared these ideas with a friend who had recently lost her husband, she was actually quite relieved. Being a Buddhist, she had a very different approach to grief. She found that the meditative practice of acceptance helped her to let go of a sense of loss. Additionally, part of her tradition is the giving of alms – which for her means the doing of good deeds. These activities helped propel her forward in her new life. Still, at times, she felt pressure to conform to the western model. Her friends expected her to soldier on through the “valley of the five stages,” even when she was already moving on. She felt their disapproval and suspicion when she expressed happiness or positivity “so early in the process,” as they put it. This made her feel guilty, and complicated her healing.
No one grieves the same way. Some people need more time to process and heal than others. However, it is liberating to know that we don’t have to go through an extended period of sadness in a prescribed order to be healthy. Nor, do we need to feel guilty if we heal swiftly.
Grieving doesn’t need to be feared or negative and dark. For many it is a time to re-evaluate and reflect about what is important in life. Others, like my friend, turn to spiritual reflections about life. In fact, an interesting study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who had a spiritual practice may be able to resolve their grief more quickly.
And that is what I found. When a beloved uncle passed away suddenly, what helped me was the gaining of a deeper sense of spiritual connectedness – the feeling that I am forever connected to those I love because we are all connected to the divine. Many of us feel that life is eternal, but we may still need help to address our loss in the here and now.
Here are some practical ideas I found helpful:
1. Engage in some form of prayer or meditation every day so that you start the day feeling safe, comforted and connected.
2. Nurture that feeling of connectedness by engaging with family, friends and community, and by helping and giving service to others.
3. On days when you feel more vulnerable, be tender and gentle with yourself.
The sense of connection to both the divine and to others – including giving and serving others – helps counteract the sense of loss that for many is initially so overwhelming.
Resilience, recommended by Dr. Bonanno, is the quality that helps us to “bounce back” after adversity. I am sure that I wasn’t bouncing after my experience of loss, but I did discover an inner strength that enabled me to rediscover the joy and peace that I thought I had lost. Even though I can no longer have marvelous conversations with my uncle, his wisdom is still with me. The wonderful thing is that I share his wisdom with others on a regular basis.
There are many accounts in the news of those who after losing a loved one have been inspired to help others in some way, and subsequently have found new meaning in life. When he lost his wife after 50 years of marriage my uncle reached out in his community. His example of spiritual resilience and love for his community taught me to do the same.
Rather than “coping” with grief and viewing it as a long process, an appreciation of life as eternal can heal that feeling of separation, inspiring us to share with others what we know about life. while restoring a sense of peace and wholeness in our own lives.