The Time Sequences of Grief…Moving Through Loss

By Gloria Lintermans and Dr. Marilyn Stolzman

The loss of a spouse is one of the most difficult loses we experience as your entire day-to-day life is turned upside-down. The grieving process following this loss is divided into five time sequences of grief. One to four months would be called SHOCK, five to eight months of mourning is DENIAL, nine to twelve months is ANGER, thirteen to seventeen months is DEPRESSION, eighteen to twenty four months is INTEGRATION, ADJUSTMENT and TRANSITION.

While everyone experiences grief and mourning in his or her own way and time, predictably there are time sequences and emotions common to all. You may find yourself going through each of the emotional stages of shock, denial, anger, depression, and finally, integration, adjustment and transition in the order listed, or you may find yourself jumping all over the place in a forward-and-backward movement.

You may even seem to skip one stage completely, only to encounter it long after you have thought yourself emotionally healed. How so? You may not have allowed yourself to recognize, for instance, anger directed inward, or directed outward toward your late spouse or even the world-at-large until you are feeling stronger and in control of your life once again.

SHOCK is an alarm response to a sudden, violent or upsetting disturbance. Whether your loss is sudden or expected, the element of shock is still present. It is an alarm state that protects you from the flood of emotions with which you may be unable to cope. You may experience it as anxiety, insomnia, and /or numbness. It helps you get through this initial time period. It is “normal” at this time to lose things, to misplace things, to have trouble concentrating and staying focused. At work, you may function fine and at home while reading the papers, you may not be able to retain three sentences. You are easily distracted, may lose self-esteem, and frequently feel overwhelmed.

DENIAL. While mourning involves the struggle between holding on and letting go, denial keeps you holding on. Denial is no stranger, as it is a regularly utilized defense that helps to reduce, avoid or prevent anxiety. Denial helps to make life bearable at your time of loss. Denial of loss can take the form of refusing to believe that those we trust may let us down. It show up in many ways, such as leaving the deceased’s room unchanged, setting an extra place at the table, or momentarily believing that you see your loved one I the face of a stranger. You might feel that the deceased has gone on vacation, or that the phone will ring or that the doorbell will knock. Denial is a defense of the ego and it lasts as long as it lasts.

ANGER. When denial can no longer be maintained, feelings of anger, rage, envy and resentment may show up. This anger may be directed outward or inward. Anger toward the self may look like self blame, (i.e., “I should have done more….if only I had…”) resulting in feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness and fear. When directed outward, there is a danger of becoming caught up in bitterness, resentment and alienation. Instead of feeling the normal grieving feelings of sorrow and emotional pain, one may lash out at any convenient scapegoat (i.e., the doctors, God, an inept salesperson, etc.) When you admit your anger to yourself, talk to someone you trust. It is important to work through your feelings of anger and fear.

DEPRESSION. Anger turned inward becomes depression. Depression often occurs as feelings of helplessness and overwhelm as a result of dealing with a new and unwanted life-change and expecting yourself to manage your daily obligations and emotions as you did when your loved one was alive. Here it is important to take every step slowly and carefully. Seek help where and when needed and acknowledge every success, no matter how small. When the depression is not dealt with the grieving process is delayed. Often it is helpful to speak with a therapist or counselor for assistance in dealing with these overwhelming thoughts. Often, depression may be experienced more at nine months than initially because one is so busy taking care of paperwork and details, that they do not have time to process the feelings.

INTEGRATION, ADJUSTMENT, and TRANSITION. How will you know when you are healing? You will know when you can think of your loved one without the accompanied strong emotional feelings of longing and sadness. You will remember him/her more realistically neither as an idealized saint or as a villain. You will be living in the present, not stuck in the past, and making plans for the future. I don’t think we totally achieve acceptance, I think we weave the loss into our lives by integrating it, making an adjustment to our living and making a transition. The pain and sorrow have lessened, and we feel free to reinvest in our lives again.

Gloria Lintermans and Dr. Marilyn Stolzman are co-authors of THE HEALING POWER OF GRIEF: The Journey Through Loss to Life and Laughter ( ISBN 1-932783-48-2). Gloria Lintermans, a North Hollywood, Ca.-based freelance writer, author, and widow is also the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect.


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