When we think of grief we often think of a funeral or the separation from a loved one. However, grief is as diverse and expansive in its reach as how it presents itself.
With the recent fires that ravaged British Columbia and the Northwest Territories, we can quickly learn just how unpredictable and sudden grief can be. Even if you have not been directly impacted by the fires, you may be feeling the grief of loss on behalf of others.
You may also be feeling that your own safety and security have been threatened by such a sudden and disastrous event, causing you to ruminate over how similar situations could affect you in the future.
Stages of grief
Many of us have seen grief described as the “Stages of Grief”, described as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each of these stages alone are incredibly complex and not usually experienced in order. Let’s explore how each stage may present to further understand why these have been identified as the stages of grief.
Denial is a natural response to grief, but can feel offensive when someone isn’t responding how we would deem ‘appropriate’ to a presenting circumstance. With that said, denial can go far beyond being ignorant of a situation, it can actually be your brain’s way of protecting you from the extreme emotion attached to the situation.
The logical side of the brain kicks in, preventing the emotional takeover that our brain deems ‘dangerous’ to our own nervous system. It does not mean that we cannot feel emotion around what is going on, but it may mean that your brain is attempting to delay the realization of the emotion to prevent extreme reactions. If you know someone who seems in denial of a situation, give them grace and be patient with their processing.
How does denial present itself? We may find that our reaction considerably underrated given the situation. There is acknowledgment of what happened, but our acknowledgment may be similar to that of reading a news story, versus something that has personally impacted us.
Sometimes, denial may also look like the outright blocking out facts or acknowledgment of the situation, refusing to come to terms with what has taken place. Denial may also look like preoccupation with seemingly mundane tasks or finally taking on a task we have procrastinated on as a way of distracting from the events.
Anger, a secondary emotion, is often the “coverup emotion” for what is going on. Usually, the primary emotion is too vulnerable to expose, so anger comes out first as a defence mechanism against the true vulnerability. There are, of course, situations where anger is a very appropriate response to grief, perhaps, as an example, an injustice has taken place.
Anger does not always come out loud and aggressive either. Anger can run deep, creating a stoic front when the underlying anger presented as resentment or judgment.
“Why didn’t they” or “How come this didn’t” is how anger may sound during the process of grief. For those who are using anger as a way to process grief, allow them to express this emotion and try not to defend or respond with answers or solutions.
Often the anger needs to vent, like a stove pipe, and once done will subside some. We may find that our fuse of tolerance is short, getting upset over seemingly nothing. Anger can also present as a form of denial as other triggers take over our emotions and our focus away from the event that caused the grief in the first place.
Bargaining can be a tactic to prevent grief from happening. It is also a common stage for those who are faced with death—bargaining with God for more life and time on Earth.
Bargaining is often a response to missed opportunities and the grief around regret, looking for one more chance to live the life or situation as it should have been. Lofty promises can accompany bargaining, but may never be lived out once the crisis of the event has passed.
Depression is the most common form of grieving. We can all, more or less, relate to an aspect of depression that may look like not being able to get out of bed, oversleeping or insomnia, decrease or increase in appetite, hopelessness or lack of motivation, decrease in social activity, and avoidance. The loss itself can seem so large and impactful that we lose the ability to move forward, rebuild, or face life without that which we have lost.
Depression can also indicate a form of denial as we look for excuses to stay in our depressed state and not face the reality of the situation or strive to move forward.
Grief is different for everyone
In our desire to understand the complexities of grief in order to help ourselves through it, we’ve boxed it up in the form of stages or a process that we feel we have management over. Grief, in reality, is an unpredictable rollercoaster.
The process of grief can be short or long depending on how you process it. Grief is also not linear in its stages and can bounce from feeling to feeling or emotion to emotion on a whim.
The important thing is to acknowledge that grief is fluid, confusing, a mixed bag of emotions, and can present differently in everyone.
I would beg to offer that the first stage of grief is acceptance, accepting that you are indeed grieving. This does not mean accepting the loss or what happened, but accepting where you are at this given moment, that you need space to process and heal.
Any loss can cause grief
When we consider the fires that have damaged so many of our communities we have to acknowledge the great loss that goes along with this. Some have lost homes, physical places of memories, and mementos they will never recover.
Others have lost vacation spots and favorite road trip locations that will never look or feel the same. Some have lost businesses and a way to provide for their families. Our physical landscapes will now be scarred for the remainder of our lives as we look to the barren mountains where forests used to be. Even just reading this may stir up feelings of grief.
So what do we do with that emotion? Processing grief alone can be very difficult. Empathy is one of the greatest tools to move through grief, and finding a counsellor or close friend who gets what you’re going through can help you accept the situation and move through grief with grace, coming out the other side stronger and more resilient.
You may need to process the meaning of what was lost to better understand the deeper need inside of you that will now need addressing differently. This could mean redefining what “home” means if you have lost your home due to a forest fire.
I have heard it said that “grief is love with no place to go” (Jamie Anderson). This can make sense if you consider your home to be a vessel to give love away to others. How then do you qualify where or how that love should go now? How do you redefine what home is for you in the transition of rebuilding?
Be careful not to rush through the process of grief. Pause, feel it and process it. Forming resiliency through what has taken place should not rush the rollercoaster of emotions that grief can bring.
Shonah Nykiforuk is a counsellor at Incentive Counselling in Kelowna.