Monday, 25 August 2014

The 7 Stages of Grief and Loss explained

This is an update of a blog I wrote last summer.

I have been pondering loss a lot recently, watching the heartbreaking carnage and devastation which is going on in Gaza right now.

I've been thinking about how we, as observers, are experiencing the losses our Palestinian brothers and sisters are having to cope with day by day, hour by hour.

I know what it's like to lose a child.  But in my case the little girl was born dead and I had never had the opportunity to develop a relationship with her outside of the womb.  As any mother will tell you though, we certainly did develop a deep bond, through the 8 months I was carrying her, and losing her was almost too much to bear.  I could actually feel my heart breaking as the very lovely male midwife explained there was no foetal heartbeat, the baby had died, and we would now have to go through a very emotional labour and birth, knowing the only conclusion of that experience, would be me saying goodbye to my son or daughter.

So, I know what it is like to lose a child in those circumstances.

But I cannot begin to imagine the sense of abject, incomprehensible devastation of losing a son or daughter, who was alive and happy and well, a few hours ago, and has been killed, perhaps horribly maimed so that he or she is not even recognisable now, because a country has decided to inflict war on your people, misery on your family, extermination on your child.

Who could begin to understand what that must feel like, apart from other grieving mothers and fathers in Gaza.

But of course, I am hurting.  Like millions of others around the world, I feel a gaping wound open up, every time I see another son or daughter lying lifeless in the arms of the mother who cherished them, or the doctor who tried everything they could think of, to try to save them.

In the original article on Grief and Loss, I used a number of scenarios to explain what is going on at each stage of the grieving process. Now I am going to add in, what is probably happening when we are experiencing viewing these awful, mindless acts of death and destruction.

To try and make sense of that which is shocking us every time we see another image.

Many of us will have heard of a theory that states there are 7 stages of loss and grief (some psychologists say 5).  The belief is that we go through 7 different phases of dealing with any loss in our lives, and this theory relates to all kind of loss, from the relatively mundane, such as losing our car keys, to the enormous losses we all have to face in life, such as the breakdown of important relationships and the death of cherished loved ones.

Although these stages go generally in order, we may find ourselves hopping back to previous stages, and if people get stuck on a particular level, this is when there can be a sense of hopelessness, this is often the point at which someone will consider counselling to help move them on.

I will try and explain what is happening when we experience any sort of loss, including loss experienced by someone we care about or feel connected to.  Because the human brain is full of mirror cells, which enable us to empathise and experience other people's pain as if it were happening to us.

Here are the examples then:

  • losing your house keys
  • losing a job
  • end of a relationship
  • witnessing the death of a child in Gaza

The 7 Stages

1)   Shock

You're simply stunned by the event of the immediate loss.
Inability to even comprehend what has happened, senses in temporary shut-down.
"God!!"  "Shit!!"

2)   Denial

Inability to accept what's happened.  "Everything's fine!  "This can't be happening!"

Keys - They're here somewhere, pocket, bag, kitchen table!
Job - They can't sack me, they've made a mistake, someone will come in and take us over!
Relationship - She hasn't actually left me, she'll be back!
Death of Palestinian child - It's not as bad as it looks.  The pictures are all doctored.  There's two sides to every story.  It's more complicated than people think.  Distraction techniques to relieve symptoms of stress, such as watching reality TV or reading celebrity gossip magazines. Using drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.  I don't understand the situation in the Middle East.  I don't like politics.

3)   Anger

Lashing out, losing emotional and physical control, looking for someone or something to blame for the loss.

Keys - Who moved my keys! This always happens when you make me late!
Job - It's the managers' fault for losing contracts!  I blame immigrants! I hated that job!
Relationship - She never loved me!  She only wanted me until someone better came along!
Death of Palestinian child - It's all politicians fault!!  IDF/Hammas are to blame!  Arguing with people online.

4)   Bargaining

Making internal deals with yourself or someone else, or with God.  If the situation changes, the outcome will change.  Pledging to make sacrifices for a better outcome.  Revisiting the physical place of loss in the hope of a different outcome.

Keys  - I had them in the kitchen, they must be there!  OK, I'll pick up your mother, now where's my keys!
Job - I'll take a pay cut.  I'll work longer hours.  Don't sack me, sack them!
Relationship - I'll change!  Marry me!  Let's have a baby!
Death of Palestinian child - Being completely preoccupied with media, in the hope of positive news. Cutting off friends and family who don't sympathise with the suffering. Going to church, lighting a candle and saying a prayer.

5)   Guilt

Taking on all the blame for the loss.

Keys - I should have put them on the hook.  I should have got a spare set cut.
Job - It's because I had time off for my bad back.  It's because I'm 49.
Relationship - I took her for granted.  I mess up every relationship I have.
Death of Palestinian child - I should be there in Gaza trying to help.  I should be more vocal than I am.  I should appreciate my own children more. I should have voted in the last election.  

6)   Depression

Overwhelming sadness, physical and emotional withdrawal from life and family and friends, loss of hope, despair.

Keys - I can't be bothered to look any more.
Job - I'm never going to find another job.  I'm on the scrap heap now.
Relationship - No-one else will ever want me.  She was the only one for me.
Death of Palestinian child - The world is heading towards Armageddon.  All world leaders are corrupt. Ordinary people can't overpower governments.  (There may be a return to the denial phase at this point, distraction with drink, drugs, sexual promiscuity, reality TV, shopping)

7)   Acceptance

Coming to terms with what's happened.  Acknowledging the impact of the loss while recognising life has to move on.  Appreciating how valued the object, situation or person was and ultimately a sense of hope that there will be happy times again in the future.

Keys - I guess I'd better get another set cut after work then.
Job - Let's organise a leaving party, and stay in touch after the redundancies.
Relationship - We had some good times, but it just wasn't meant to be. Joining dating sites.
Death of Palestinian child - Joining groups which share your views and have positive plans.  Co-operating to make an effective protest.  Boycotting Israeli goods and companies associated with the occupied territories. Finding places to purchase Palestinian goods to support their economy. Donating money to a worthy charity. Thinking about practical ways society can be made better, safer, more secure for that region and all children everywhere. Creating a memorial.

Of course, some losses are much easier to come to terms with than others, but the belief is, that we will still go through each of these stages as we process the emotions associated with the loss.  So in some cases we'll go through all 7 stages in one hour or one day, in more devastating circumstances, it will take months or even years to feel like life is moving on.

Sometimes, people might find they always get stuck at the same stage of grief, such as anger or bargaining or guilt, and whether they're dealing with failing an exam, or losing a train ticket, or having an argument with their spouse, or missing out on promotion at work, they just can't seem to process the loss beyond that stage.  And that can be a good indication to get extra support, and go and talk to someone about what keeps happening.  Because if we can't fully process loss, it's harder to commit to things in the future, without this fear of having to deal with an ending one day.  And that fear of loss and endings, might not be conscious, so we recognise what's going on in our minds and hearts, it could be completely unconscious, and we don't even know why we are always the the one who dumps the other one, in relationships, or why we always walk out on a job.

In terms of death and mourning, as a general guide, psychologists and counsellors would expect it to take about 2 years to come to terms with the death of someone close, who is actually in our lives, a parent or grandparent, sibling, partner, child or close friend.  When the first set of anniversaries come around, their birthday, wedding anniversary, anniversary of their death, we can find ourselves back at the anger stage for a while.  By the second anniversary, the sense of loss will usually have lessened considerably and be replaced with some level of hope.  When people are still deep in mourning, 2 years on from the death, some benefit might be gained from getting help with coping with the sense of grief.

As I write this, of course, my thoughts and love are with the people of Gaza.  We continue to apply pressure for a peaceful resolution and a fair future for all Palestinians.  -xx-

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Kelly McGonigal TED Talk : How to make stress your friend

Incredible TED talk given by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal talks about the biological response we know as stress, and how it's been drilled into us from health care professionals that stress is bad for our health, to the point where  so many people are getting stressed about being stressed.

She offers scientific evidence to back up the value of a more natural relationship with stress, so that we are again in control of our bodies.

She talks about my favourite hormone, Oxytocin, and its role in promoting physical resilience to stress.

Brilliant lines from her talk!
  • When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage 
  • And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience
  • Stress gives us access to our hearts
  • The compassionate heart finds joy and meaning in connecting with others
  • Under stress, your pounding physical heart, works hard to give you strength and energy  
  • And when you choose to view stress in this way, you're not just getting better at stress you're actually making a pretty profound statement   
  • You're saying that you can trust yourself to handle life's challenges 
  • And you're remembering that you don't have to face those challenges alone

Now watch her talk for yourself, and see if you too, can start to feel differently about stress!