Grief: a process of transformation.
It follows a shock, a sudden change, unexpected and/or unaccepted.
We were the daughter or son of someone, and suddenly we are orphans. We were husband or wife, and now we're single. We were in our country of origin and now we're not. We were slaves and now we are free... our social status and roles also change.
There are big bereavements and smaller ones, and none of them are trivial. We experience them more or less consciously every day.
The American-Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the first to map out the five stages of grief:
These terms have the disadvantage of having negative connotations. But bereavement engages us in a positive process of transformation, even if its source is a brutal shock.
The American author Mirabai Starr reframed these stages in a more positive way which, on a physical level, allows the body not to recoil on itself:
1. The Dream
2. The Fury
3. The Story
4. The Abyss
These phases do not follow one another in a fixed order – they are interchangeable. They tend to come in waves that repeat themselves.
What is behind these titles: Denial/Dream, Anger/Fury, Bargaining/Story, Depression/Abyss, Acceptance/Rebirth?
The Dream is that stage just after the shock when we are no longer really connected to reality. We refuse it, it does not exist. It is also a sacred space where we are compassionate and kind to ourselves.
The Fury comes when we rebel against the factual reality, the injustice of loss. Grief stems from loss – be it bereavement, the end of a marriage, relocation, or loss of health. At that moment, we are angry with the whole world, God, the Universe, ourselves... We have to find someone to blame. And that's only natural. We are asked to accept the unacceptable. It's also a phase that allows us to set things straight and assert our wishes more firmly, to eliminate what we can no longer put up with in our lives.
Then we move on to the stage of the Story, which we tell ourselves to make the situation acceptable. Our mind, which is there to protect us, looks for a version of the story that is tolerable. This is the phase when we rehash. This is also the time when we can choose to punish ourselves for not having done this or that, for not having been like this or like that.
Then there's the Abyss. This is a time of crisis of faith. Life no longer has any meaning, we may feel disconnected from ourselves, cut in half. Our beliefs and certainties fall away, no longer serving any purpose. They no longer protect us. This is the moment when the body and mind surrender. They give up the fight. We may feel an immense fatigue.
Finally, there’s the stage of Rebirth and forgiveness, forgiving reality for being what it is. This is also the moment when we realise that we are not alone and that we are part of humanity. Our pain is unique, but our situation is shared. This is the moment when we begin to tame our grief and turn it into a companion. A part of us has been amputated and we are finding a new balance.
It's no disrespect to the person we've lost, or the relationship that has ended, to carry on living, laughing, travelling... Perhaps it’s precisely a way of honouring them, honouring the life within us, and respecting ourselves too.
In my experience, creating one or more rituals, finding a way to honour the relationship or the person who has died, is a real support. Writing is also a good ally. Write to the person you've lost – “this is what I have to say to you” – and let them write to you too, imagining what they would like to tell you. We need to express our loss, to show it: through art, by dedicating a project to it, by offering ourselves in service…
The process of transformation that begins with grief leads to a change in our posture, the nature of our relationship with life and the world. In the case of a death, the other passes from the visible world to the invisible – but perhaps they are still there, who knows.
*Illustration Clemence Renault, https://www.instagram.com/clemence.renault/