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But Step Four also limits the period of suffering that we must endure. Although we will feel the sadness of our loss as intensely as we need to feel it, we also recognize that our grief was meant to be a temporary means of healing and not a permanent agony. This step acknowledges the pain of our loss even as it helps us put that loss behind us.
In earlier centuries, a specific period of time was set aside for mourning the death of a loved one. During the mourning period, which was usually
a year, the bereaved were expected to experience the terrible pain of their loss, accept the love and support of their friends, and make peace with the change in their lives. After the mourning period was up, however, the bereaved were expected to bring their grief to an end and resume an involved, productive, and ultimately happy life.
The Nature of Losses
Losses in life are inevitable. They are built into life, including both its successes and its failures. Some losses are sudden and obvious: termination from a job we liked, a house that burned, a parent who died. Some are slow and subtle: the loss of youth, vitality, or the possibility of pursuing a career in a certain field. Other losses are buried in gains, so we don’t see them as losses at first: moving out of our parents’ house, graduating from college, changing cities for a better job. All of these gains entail losses—losses that we willingly give up for the gains we achieve, but they are losses nonetheless. Other losses are intellectual, such as the realization that we have been wrong about a cherished belief that we have held for many years. Losses may be spiritual, such as the shattering loss of the belief in a loving God.
Still other “losses” are not really losses at all because we never had them in the first place. Yet they feel like real losses and, in a sense, they are. These losses may be the hopes and dreams we once had for ourselves that can no longer be achieved, basic needs that went unmet, or fundamental expectations that were never satisfied: a nurturing family, enough to eat, a safe neighborhood, or parents who lived beyond our childhood. These losses are as real in our regrets as the losses of people and things we once
Every loss brings pain and grief. When the losses are great, the pain is great. We have three different options regarding the losses of our regrets, but only one of these options leads to healing. The first option is to refuse
STEP FOUR: GRIEVING LOSSES
to revisit the losses and feel their sadness, thus sacrificing our only means of healing the suffering they cause. The second option is to feel the pain of our regrets but never bring that pain to an end, creating continuous or intermittent states of suffering. The third alternative is to return to the regret and its pain in a structured way in order to feel that pain, express it, accept it, make peace with it, and let it go. Achieving the third option is the purpose of this step.
Grief brings healing, and the only way to healing is through grief. There is no way around it, only through it. If we refuse to grieve or if we don’t know how to grieve, we will continue to suffer as long as we live. Because regrets always involve losses and because losses always involve pain, we have to work through the pain of those losses and let it go, or we cannot let go of our regrets.
In her landmark book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., described the five stages through which all dying patients journey in coming to terms with their own deaths: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Understanding these stages is helpful to anyone dealing with significant loss, even if the loss is emotional or spiritual rather than physical. Every loss, after all, is a form of death, whether it is the loss of a job or the loss of a dream. Both physical and psychological losses can mean the end of relationships, interaction, and experiences. Like the death of a loved one, the death of things that are important to us (the death of youth, of a career, of a promising future) must be grieved and accepted. Although we feel these losses in the emotional realm, they are as real as the losses we feel in the physical realm. Like a broken bone, they must be treated carefully and with patience if they are to heal properly.
The five-stage process through which the dying find acceptance of their loss is described in the following paragraphs. Acceptance is not inevitable, however. It is possible to remain fixed in any one of the stages just as it is possible to be working on more than one of them simultaneously.
Stage 1: Shock and Denial
The initial reaction to loss is temporary: a state of shock from which we gradually recover. When the protective numbness of the shock wears off,
we replace it immediately with something else: denial. In the face of irrefutable evidence, we refuse to accept the truth of our loss by denying it. “No, it can’t be happening,” we say, “It can’t be true,” “I’m sure that’s not right,” “There must be some mistake.” Shock and denial are temporary responses that provide the time we need to marshal our intellectual, psychological, and spiritual resources to deal with the crisis of serious loss.