A couple of weeks after Arthur died I wrote in my journal, “I don’t remember one of the stages of grief being hell. That’s where I am right now.” A few weeks later I wrote, “I’m in the wanting-to-break-something stage of grief now.”
Two months in I wrote, My stages of grief so far:
- Shock. Total numbness.
- NO! This made me feel like a 2-year-old, shouting ‘NO!’ at the top of my lungs while crying. Lasting at least six weeks, this stage isn’t through yet. This is also the time of magical thinking, like a young child.
- Goddamn It. Started about week 7. Not anger at Arthur, just general displeasure at how life looks.
After four months I wrote, “What stage am I in now? What comes up is dullness. A dull plodding through the days, because the weight of the reality has sunk in. Arthur is not coming back, I’m going to have to face living the rest of my life without him. It’s an acceptance of sorts, but a very unhappy one. There’s been a return of the bone-weary tiredness.”
For years I had heard about the ‘five stages of grief’: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But when I actually got to the point of experiencing grief these didn’t fit my experience at all. When someone has already died how does bargaining enter the picture?
With a little research I learned that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross delineated these famous stages for people who were dying, not for those who were grieving.
I’ve read a number of books about grief and hadn’t found any that describe the stages of grief in a way that matched my experience until I found Giving Sorrow Words, by Candy Lightner and Nancy Hathaway. Ms. Lightner founded MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Ms. Lightner learned that psychologists have identified various patterns of grieving, and one of these, by psychoanalyst Dr. John Bowlby (1907-1990), resonated with me.
Dr. Bowlby broke grief down into four stages: shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.
The first couple months after Arthur died I was in shock. Numbness is a good word for it. I thought I was dealing with the grief and death, but really I wasn’t; I was walking through the days like a zombie. The numbness is a psychic protection, like the way shock protects us from the full experience of the pain of an accident.
This zombie-like phase graded into a period of intense searching. I was desperately looking for answers, for any evidence of Arthur’s presence in the world, for any sign of meaning in the universe. This was a period when my awareness was filled with Why? and What? and Where? Why does the universe exist? What’s the point of life if it just ends in death? Where is Arthur? I spent a lot of time out in the woods, the only place I knew where I could find comfort with these questions swirling in my mind.
During this phase, almost every time I would walk into my kitchen something outside the French doors would catch my eye and I’d wildly swing towards the door, certain that somehow there was a message for me from Arthur out there. I can’t explain this in a way that makes sense, because grief doesn’t work in a rational way. All I can tell you is that for months I had this reaction every day, many times a day.
After months of searching, and realizing that no matter how hard I searched I was not going to find Arthur in physical form—the real motivation behind all my searching—despair arrived. I thought the worst suffering happened in the month after his death, and perhaps only the grace of time’s softening of memory makes me think this, but in many ways the despair I felt in this third phase was the worst. The true horror had sunk in: Arthur was not coming back. This was not some cruel joke. All the irrational hopes that somehow this colossal mistake would be reversed had dried up. All I was left with was emptiness. I went through some very dark months of hopelessness.
I read Ms. Lightner’s book during this period of despair and was relieved when I read Dr. Bowlby’s stages. Instantly I felt a sense of recognition and understanding about what I was going through. He calls this third phase disorganization and despair, and by ‘disorganization’ I imagine Dr. Bowlby means a breakdown in your sense of identity. This is the painful part of losing a spouse. When you are in a marriage, particularly one of long duration, your identity fuses with the other person. I wasn’t an independent autonomous agent, I was half of a whole, I was Katie-and-Arthur. I liked it that way. I hated giving that up.
But this identity had to be broken apart now that Arthur was gone. Breaking it hurt. I didn’t want to let it go and my clinging to it made this a very painful time.
Now in the second spring of my widowhood it feels like I have entered the fourth stage, reorganization: creating a life as an independent agent. And I’m finding I like this too.
A friend recently sent me an essay about grief by a Franciscan named Dorothy Heiderscheit. She described five stages: (a) acknowledge the reality of the loss, (b) be open to the pain, (c) revise our assumptions about life, (d) reconstruct our relationship to that which was lost, and (e) reinvent ourselves.
I can relate to these stages also, and I prefer the term ‘reinvent’ to ‘reorganize.’ It feels more creative.
I’ve been getting ready to move and am going through boxes of old memories. I came across some diaries from high school and spent some fascinated evenings getting re-acquainted with myself. I felt like I was learning some deep truths about who I am. What a perfect gift to aid me in this time of reinvention.
Note: there’s not a lot online about Dr. Bowlby’s phases of grief, but you can read more about him at this grief website.