November 20, 2020
Thanks to Minette Bryant, a 2020 HMU Fellow in Ideas, for today’s blog post.
There is simply no denying it, although denial is a major part of the grief process, and so anyone who would try to deny it is only exemplifying the point…we are all grieving.
I keep thinking about a meme that I saw that said something like, “So, basically, everyone in 2015 who answered the question Where do you see yourself in five years, got it wrong.” This is so true in its utter simplicity. In February of 2020, the vast majority of us had no idea how our lives were about to change, and as we come to the end of this year, we cannot see what the future might hold. We can’t make plans, we can’t go the places and do the things that we used to, every single talking head on television is warning us to be afraid, be very afraid…and we are grieving.
But “grief” gets a bad rap. When we think of the word grief, we tend to take our definition all the way to the furthest end of the spectrum, to the part where someone we love has died…and that is what we think grief means. But in truth, the word “spectrum” cannot be overstated here…we grieve every single day, every time something doesn’t go the way we planned.
The grief process can be summarized into these five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
Here’s a scenario: imagine that it is a Monday, a regular work day, and at some point in the morning, your co-worker suggested that a group of you go out for lunch at that little Chinese place you love. Oh, that sounds so good, and you watch the clock until lunchtime, your mouth watering as you think about your favorite menu items. Finally, it’s time to go, and you pile into a car with several friends and you all chat merrily as you make your way to the restaurant…but as you pull into the parking lot, you begin to be suspicious because there are no other cars out front. The grief process for you looks like this:
The Denial stage: Maybe the owners are just parked out back? We’re a little early for the lunch rush; I’m sure everyone else is coming soon…they can’t be closed on a Monday! They’d lose too much business!
The Anger stage: What? That sign says closed on Mondays! Every Monday? That’s so stupid! How do they stay open when their main clientele is the lunch rush?! (You might even rattle the door severely at this point.)
The Bargaining stage: (You cup your hand around your face and peer through the door into the dark restaurant) Maybe there’s someone in the back. If we go around to the other door, then they might see us and let us in.
The Depression stage: I should never have left the office. At least there I could have eaten stale chips from the vending machine. Now I’ll be hungry all afternoon and miserable by the time I get home. This is so typical. Stupid Mondays.
The Acceptance stage: Well, I guess now I know not to come here on Mondays. It looks like that taco stand across the street is open though…I bet we can grab something there before heading back. I’ve heard their food is pretty good too.
Now, all of that might take a full 90 seconds (or less) to work through…then again, it might take much longer. Or, you may follow the exact path through the stages as I’ve laid them out, but someone else in your party might stay totally stuck in the Anger stage, or stuck in the Depression stage, and that person might not even eat at the taco stand, even though everyone else is. That person’s Bargaining might look something like, “If I refuse to eat anything else, then I’m effectively punishing the Chinese place for inconveniencing me.” You can laugh at the fallacy of that magical thinking…but you’ve probably seen it or may have even done something similar yourself.
Can you see how, just in that simple lunchtime scenario, everyone would be working their way through the stages at a different pace and in different ways, and how easily it could lead to conflict among friends? If I’m angry at the Chinese place, and you’re moving on quickly to another restaurant, then I feel like you’re devaluing my anger…I want you to be angry too! And you want me to stop grousing about it and come get in the car.
Also, on a daily basis, in large and small ways, we go through the Stages of Change. Those stages, like the stages of Grief, are five: Unaware, Awareness, Preparation, Action and Maintenance.
The “Unaware” stage of change is, as its name would imply, something that we cannot be aware of. I’ve read that philosophy can never be proven, because as soon as it is proven, it ceases to be philosophy and immediately becomes science. This is the same with the Unaware stage of change…as soon as you become aware of it, it ceases to be the Unaware stage and immediately becomes the Awareness stage.
In the Awareness stage, we have to resolve our own ambivalence, that “sitting on the fence” where we have to decide whether to stay where we’ve been or move on into change. Until this ambivalence is resolved, we remain in Awareness, and sometimes we remain there for years…or forever.
But once we do resolve the ambivalence, we can move forward into the Preparation stage, which means we are preparing to make the change…gathering information, talking to friends, reading the works of experts, learning new things. Once the Preparation is completed, then we take Action: the implementation of all the things we gathered in Preparation. The final stage of change is simply Maintenance, which may be easy or it may be very difficult, depending on what the change is. If my goal has been a bathroom remodel, then the maintenance is very simple. If my goal for change was to end an addictive relationship (with a person or with a drug), then the maintenance is going to be much harder.
Now that you have a grasp on the stages of grief and the stages of change, I want to show you how they go together. I have to admit to you, though, that where, before, I was basing my concepts on the concepts of others, from this point, I’m just freestyling.
I have a personal theory that every time we go through the stages of change, we also go through the stages of grief…and that the entire grief process takes place while we are sitting on the fence in the Awareness stage of change.
The model to illustrate that would look like this:
Do you see how that works? In order to resolve the ambivalence of the Awareness stage of change, we have to go through the entirety of the stages of grief!
Let’s go back and look at the fellow whose favorite Chinese place is closed on Mondays. We previously talked about this experience in terms of the stages of grief, so we can now enlarge it to show how those stages fit within the Awareness stage of change.
All morning, as he was daydreaming about his favorite dish at that restaurant, he was in the Unaware stage of change. The restaurant was closed—had probably been closed every Monday since it first opened—but he didn’t know it. As they carpooled down the highway to the restaurant, they were headed straight for the Awareness stage, straight for that moment when they realized they would not be eating there today.
So, they pull into the parking lot, and they become aware…and he goes through the stages of grief just as we laid them out before.
Denial: “No!! They can’t be closed!”
Anger: “This is so stupid! After all the business I’ve given them?!?”
Bargaining: “If there’s someone in the back, then maybe they’ll let us in…”
Depression: “Forget it. I’ll just starve. I probably deserve it.”
Acceptance: “I guess I know better than to come here on Mondays anymore…”
And once he hits the Acceptance stage of grief, he can move into the Preparation stage of change…the part where he points out the taco stand across the street and encourages his coworkers that they still have time to eat if they hurry…and then the Action stage, where he has successfully made the change and is eating his lunch.
But remember that not everyone moves through the stages of grief or the stages of change at the same time, and he may have friends who eat the tacos, but have not yet moved past the Anger or the Depression stage of grief…and he may have a coworker who is still so stuck in his grief that he won’t eat at all.
I have purposely chosen not to spend this article on examples of grief and change that are strictly rooted in the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. Part of this is because I cannot possibly cover all of the things that are being grieved as our current world is changing, but also because I want you to see how these stages of grief and change are elements of life that we face every day, on a wide variety of subjects. Once you understand the stages of grief and change, then you yourself can identify and deal with them in whatever situation you are facing in any given moment.
As we move out of 2020 and into the new world we are creating, every day, with our choices, it can be invaluable to use a stage-by-stage model like this to identify and break down changes that we, ourselves, are grieving, and to then take charge of our own ability to move through the stages. No one can do it for you.
This year has thrust many changes on us as a species and as individuals. We didn’t choose these changes, but we can choose how we respond to them on our way to a new life. Change can be frightening, but it can also be exhilarating to take ownership and to guide our own vessel through the changing waters. Carve the ten stages of grief and change onto your oars, and make the most of this journey. Cheers!
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