I would like to know if the two assholes who coined the phrase, “stages of grief,” have ever experienced the sewage that is grief, piles and piles of shit slopping onto an already overwhelmed hill only to avalanche into a sticky, suffocating, crystalized pile of slop. I bet that if they had, they would have described grief as a never-ending Tim Burton rollercoaster, not a stage.
I have two main issues with this stage analogy. One, when I think of stage, I think ending. The show is over, take a bow, give a clap, go the fuck home. Two, when you’re on a stage moving from point a to b, you are on different sized podiums or choir bleachers that go from big to small. Usually, there are three and when you finish with moving up these platforms or bleachers, you’re done. You’ve gone as far as you can go, show also over for you because you either need to move to the next general level or it’s a career ender. Either way, you are off the stage. Grief is nothing like this. Grief is like being forced onto the stage during rehearsal without any direction. Are you on the crew? Are you an actor? Are you doing something with the costumes? What’s the giant yellow thing over there? Who is touching your back? Where is that warmth coming from? What the fuck is happening? Only it’s all cerebral. Imagine how miserable that is. Grief really is its own mental illness.
If you already know, and I’m sorry to repeat, I am grieving the loss of many things: a husband to death, an identity (birth of my children), a country, two homes, two relationships, cancer (identity again), independence. That’s a fucking lot.
Many of us are grieving many things and none are created equal. Something that might seem low-ish on the grief scale for me, might be at the absolute top end for someone else. For example, and I hate to say this, but at this point in my life the loss of my pet is fairly low on that scale. I love my dog, but I would rather contend with losing him than so many other things. For someone else, the loss of a pet supersedes many of the losses that I would bend over backwards not to experience again, which is why it’s impossible to compare loss or suffering. It’s like comparing apples to chalk. They share one letter, comparison over.
For me, grief winds like this. I get up, give myself a little pep talk, seek the sun and start moving. Good day, no rain clouds ahead, sweet. Ope. Here comes a lift in the sidewalk, minor stumble. It’s still sunny. A few moments pass as do smiling people and flowers and active lifestyles and then, by God, it’s an ant but for some reason it feels like a Datsun-sized wasp and it won’t leave me alone. This ant might be the husband or the babies I’m forced to miss every two weeks. Or, it might be unidentifiable. It might be a nice butterball mixer of all the things. This is the worst because when the grief combines, I don’t know which tool in the coping mechanism box will help. Grief is nothing like a stage. It’s more of a shit storm or cyclone, unpredictable in its arrival, severity and departure, its possibility always lurking.
So what are these bullshit stages?
I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced denial unless choosing to have babies with a stranger rather than deal with a deceased husband counts as denial. It probably does. Anger and depression are definitely the most reoccurring. Bargaining I don’t understand. Once a thing has happened—cancer, kids, death—there’s no going back. Never once during my cancer treatment did I think hey God, if you get rid of this right now and pull me out of the chemo chair, I’ll do x, y, z, which, I suppose, leads us to acceptance.
Grief has taught me that I am one hundred percent not as tough as I thought I was. Some days this shit overwhelms me to the point that I can barely move in a productive direction. I can get out of bed, but when I do, I amble around, lost. I also run into a lot of things although I don’t know how the absence of my children or my breasts or a traditional family affects my inner ear.
Grief has certainly made me more human. It’s also made me more tolerant. If I had a dollar for every person who, after telling me about some misfortune in their life says, “Oh, I shouldn’t even be telling you this after all you’ve been through,” I’d have a nice retirement plan. Six years ago, I would have cringed at the triviality of these same stories. Jane is upset because her son doesn’t sleep through the night. Kara wants a promotion at work. Sam’s sprained ankle has derailed his Tough Mudder training. White people problems, I would have said. Be that as it may, it’s really and truly impossible to understand how another person feels or the depth of that feeling just like it’s impossible to compare the grief process to a stage.
We are wired for understanding, but so many things cannot be understood. Love. Attraction. Betrayal. Grief. If you’re grieving and, like me, expected that the first glimpse of acceptance meant that you were about to get off of that stage once and for all, know that even though we can’t always put it to words, the rest of us grievers feel you. We feel you, we love you and we’re holding space for you so grab our hands as that cyclone whips by.