The Five Stages of Grief

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Joe Williams is a Certified Staff Chaplain with

Community Hospice Inc. in Modesto, CA.

I am proud and excited to introduce the newest member The Growth Network family- Chaplain Joe Williams. Joe is a graduate of Oakwood University and Andrews University with a Masters of Divinity. He has received extensive Clinical Pastoral training and now serves as a Certified Staff Chaplain for Community Hospice Inc. in Modesto, California. You can visit his website at www.chaplainjdub.com. The following (I'm sure) is the first of many posts from this gifted growth specialist. Enjoy, and be sure to give us your feedback. 

A friend of mine died from the flu after being sent home from the Emergency Room the day before. My immediate reaction was not spiritual, holy or righteous. I was angry and numb. I couldn’t sleep; concentrate or sit still. I was afraid of sleeping because if it could happen to them, then surely it could happen to me.  

Death has a way of taking away our (better yet my) superhero complex. When Optimus Prime was killed in Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen, my mortality came to the surface and my goose bumps gave way to tears. If my favorite hero can die, then what does that say about the rest of us terrestrial creatures on planet earth?

Grief has a psychosomatic reaction and it’s inherent to us human beings. When something hurts us emotionally, our bodies react. Some people cry, some people acquiesce and some people faint. I will give you a disclaimer: I am a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” I am around it everyday. I cannot hide from it if I wanted to. I am fascinated by death. The study of death is called “thanotology.” I’m sure you remember “Thanos” from the comic books. Studying death academically doesn’t prepare one to face it in real life. My education about death started before I had consciousness. I was two years old when my mother was killed. Like the poet Langston Hughes writes,

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Not that I need to prove myself or show my “street cred”, but I know what grief looks like, feels like, and even tastes like. There is a proverbial curve to it. However, I must tell you that grief and its reactions are normal, human and healthy.  

Like I said, I am a man of sorrows personally and also professionally. I am a hospice chaplain. I work with patients who aren’t going to recover, get better or find a cure. My patients are in what we call,

“the land of the dying.”

So my understanding of death, dying and grief is visceral. I have an academic and theoretical knowledge, but that is only ten percent of my knowledge base. Ninety percent of my knowledge base about sickness, death, dying and loss comes from my patients and families. They’re my teachers, and I learn about them, but I also learn about myself. I wish there was no need for hospice, but since people are born into this world, and most (if not all) are going to die, we are their companions during their last journey.

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Stage 1 - Denial normally

corresponds with shock & disbelief.

            One doctor, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross set out to let patients be the teachers and experts, kind of like in the movie “Patch Adams” starring Robin Williams, where he got to know the patients personally. Health care is very scientifically and disease focused, but, as one hospital put it,

“we do not treat diseases, we treat people.”

Instead of observing them, she and other medical students interviewed them. The dying themselves are primary sources instead of secondary sources. For those of you who took English Composition, you know the difference. Through personal interviews, a Grief Curve resulted in stages of grief. The first stage is denial.

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Stage 2 - Anger flows as an expression

of overwhelming negative emotions. 

            For me, denial is a strong emotion. It protects us from the full weight of the sadness. For those of who have continued to read this far into the article, you trust my words. Let me tell you, it is healthy to experience the entire range of human emotion. They are healthy, human and normal. So often times, nurses and doctors would call, albeit in the middle of the night, for a “demonstrably emotive family member.” During my internship a doctor called me, while I was on my way to church, because a young man was asked to make a decision about disconnecting his mother from a ventilator: a machine that breathes for a patient. The young man was experiencing what we call anticipatory grief. He collapsed on my shoulders and said, “I’m not in the place of God. I don’t want to kill mom.” He was in denial, which obviously gave way to (the second stage) anger. When the doctors saw the denial and anger, they called me.

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Stage 2 - Bargaining is usually

is expressed toward God. 

            After the young man collapsed in my arms, he began (the third stage) bargaining, with tears and cursing. “Please God, don’t take mama. I will do better. Please! Please! Chaplain please pray that He don’t take her.” He then went into a shell and didn’t talk to anyone. Ross would call this the (fourth) stage of depression, which ultimately gave way to (the fifth stage) acceptance. I then went through an ethical decision making process with the young man, and his family discussing the patient’s wishes.  Patients and family members experience this curve because sickness affects everyone. I told them, “A decision made in love is never the wrong decision.”

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Stage 4 - Depression is a refusal to

participate as a response to pain.

I will tell you a secret, many times when my staff calls me, it isn’t because of the patient or family’s emotion but because of their own. They are experiencing what we call vicarious or secondary trauma. Its like when you watch Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit or Criminal Minds, you experience the emotions of the characters in the television show, indirectly. We are like sponges to our environment sometimes, and we experience sadness too. In my own life, I have faced this grief curve and its feels like a curve ball sometime. My mother, brother, cousins, adoptive parents, classmates had died and in a way, they abandoned me. Emotionally, that’s how we feel sometimes. Depending upon our relationship intensity, my reactions will fluctuate. We had BBQ’s, conversations, family outings and emotional bonds result. When they die, my emotions feel “left out in the cold. They aren’t always pretty, neat and tidy. Grief isn’t like a light switch that is turned on when the patient is dying, but grief comes in waves and curves. It will overwhelm you at times, but you are a normal person having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We can’t hide from ourselves, but we can deal with our hurts and losses in healthy ways. It is my hope that you find a safe place for your grief, so you can find healing for your soul. 

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Stage 5 - Acceptance is acknowledging one's inability to change

the circumstances and resolving to move on with life.