How We Grieve the Loss of a Loved One

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A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association refines our thinking about how people grieve the loss of a loved one. Since Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying in 1969, we have accepted her model of five-stages of grieving: (1) Denial – “It can’t be happening,” (2) Anger – “How dare you do this to me?!” (3) Bargaining – “Just let me live to see my son graduate,” (4) Depression – “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?” and (5) Acceptance – “I know my husband will be in a better place.” This new study looked at 233 adults in Connecticut over a two-year period of time following the loss of a loved one.

What the Study Shows: Disbelief reaches a peak one moth after the loss, then declines. Yearning steadily increases and reaches its high point at four months before declining. Anger rises to a peak at five months, and depression peaks at six months. Acceptance is strongly present even from the first but becomes increasingly dominant as time passes. When I look at the graph (published by The Atlantic Monthly — June 2007) I notice that even after a year the individual experiences a mixture of all the feelings. The stages and phases do not follow in a neat sequence in which the next stage starts when the previous one ends. The whole process normally takes a year or two to resolve. At the same time, if someone is still wrestling with anger and depression a year after the loss with very little growth in acceptance, they probably need some help in getting unstuck. But at six months, these struggles would be quite normal. I like the added perspective this study provides.

What the Study Does Not Show: (1) Since 84% of the individuals studied lost their spouse due to natural causes, it does not indicate what the reactions would be following the loss of a child. (2) Nor does it predict the reactions of a young person, say an adolescent, whose parent dies. (3) Since 97% of the individuals were White, it does not indicate the effects of ethnic differences. (4) Since all the participants studied lost a loved one to death, the study does not necessarily address reactions to other kinds of losses, like divorce or bankruptcy.

What I Would Add to the Discussion: I think that a person’s spiritual orientation makes a huge difference in how they process the loss of a loved one. Especially significant is the person’s belief in the afterlife and in a loving God who is involved in the affairs of His children. I have witnessed the comfort people receive in the midst of their grief when they claim Psalm 119:75, “in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me.” I have heard a man dying of cancer as well as his wife calmed by the acceptance of the truth that “He who raised the Lored Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you” (2 Cornithians 4:14). In other words, for the Christian death is ultimately a transition into a new phase of eternal life. It is not the end of life but the beginning of a new kind of life. So I would imagine that a mature Christian would have a different response to death than would a non-believer who could see only “loss” and “the end.”

What Others Say About Grief If you would like a plethora of links to resources on grieving, go to Healing the Grieving Heart. It’s impressive and well organized. More details of the study from Yale can be found in the Chicago Tribune. To see some of my own posts on the subject of grieving, use the search box after entering “grief.”

What Would You Add to the Discussion?

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5 Responses to How We Grieve the Loss of a Loved One

  1. bjmmckee says:

    Very interesting study, but as you pointed out, very defined in subjects in the study. Having lost a 12 year old son to suicide, I can tell you that being a Christian was the only thing that actually helped through all the awful process; and at that point, I don’t think my faith was as strong as it is now. I cannot imagine how people without faith can handle such a tragedy. In addition to those areas of grief mentioned, I remember how cheated I felt, and this feeling was one that didn’t appear in the process until months later. I don’t recall that I tried to bargin with God; it was too late for that. I don’t think the grieving process has ever actually ended for me. Though I am not totally consumed with the various aspects of grief, I am always very saddened when I think of this precious child and the fact that he is no longer with me. And, I always wonder why. What happened? It is just not the natural order of life – we expect for our children to bury us and not for us to bury our child. I can, and do, joy life again, but life will never be the same. And, I always wonder, what would he have been like as an adult. I don’t think the yearning to have him here has ever left. When I reached the point of consigning to the fact that I will never know the answers and I mentally gave him to God, then I began to be able to accept the loss with a better frame of mind.

  2. Lee says:

    Your experiences touched me in many ways, bjmmckee. I, like you, don’t think that any parent should ever have to experience the death of a child. Yes, the other way around is a more natural part of growing up, though still very sad. Likewise, nothing can ever completely fill the void left by a deceased child with whom you have been so deeply attached. We remember it, we feel the loss, and we wonder what might have been, but as we come to terms with it, we can enter into it and come back out of it without getting stuck in it. So we go forward in our own lives with a greater sense of dependence on God and His ways. I yearn for the time when we will fully understand these things when we are with Him. I think your experiences will be encouraging to someone else who reads this. — Lee

  3. Jane Musser says:

    Well Hello! I was just emailing a friend from work who’s fiancee died in his sleep the week before Easter. She is just devastated, and my heart breaks for her. This is divine that you had this piece on your blog. I sent her the link and I know she will gain some form of understanding and piece. She is a beautiful christian woman.

    Thank you for doing this. And you pictures are beautiful, did you just travel?

    I hope you are well.

    Jane

  4. Donna says:

    I am Jane’s friend/co-worker who unexpectantly lost my fiancee, Paul, approximately 2 months ago. This piece on grieving is not only interesting but helpful. Emotionally, I’m struggling as I considered Paul an answer to a “life-long” prayer. (I’m a 49-yr old, never-been-married, who’s been looking for a loving relationship for 20+yrs.) Intelligentually, I know that God’s plans are bigger than mine and that the end of my story will be more wonderful that I can every imagine.

    During my times of struggles, I find memorizing scripture so therapeutic. I am also grateful for those Christian brothers and sisters who lend me their shoulders to cry on.

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