I vividly recall the lamentation of a postal supervisor on a management fast-track, quickly derailed by reorganization: “I once had a career path. Then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it!” Is it only a career path that’s been crushed? How about the human psyche and spirit? Has it too been burnt up or burned out?
3. Rage and/or Helplessness or “How Dare They!” or “Oh No, How Could They!” Do you think our once fast-tracked supervisor is feeling abandoned and betrayed? Most likely. Often people in this phase swing between rage and profound sadness. Both states can be induced by deep underlying vulnerability or helplessness. You’ve been wounded, feel exposed and just want to lash out. Or you turn the rage inward in depression and self-condemnation. Now it’s crawling under the covers escapism, or going through the motions of living or, even, straining as hard as you can to reign victorious over your basic unworthiness; to battle a fear of failure and lurking dread of being sucked into that compelling black hole of helplessness.
Consider this: in The Random House Dictionary: The Unabridged Edition, the first six definitions of the word “failure” describe it as an act or an instance. It’s not until the seventh and last definition that “failure” takes a personal direction. So losing a job or being confronted with other losses and separations are often more events or individual episodes than a judgment upon you.
4. Guilt and Ambivalence or “Damned If You Do or If You Don’t!” The feelings and old voices of guilt (not living up to an important other’s expectations or standards) and shame (violating or compromising an internalized core value or essential part of your self-identity, integrity and esteem) can become louder and more incessant Self-directed rage keeps taunting you for shortcomings, unworthiness, fumbled dreams, etc., and can ultimately drain you. If some energy returns or remains the battle may continue in other arenas. First, the classic approach-avoidance conflict: “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t; damned if I stay, damned if I leave.” Take the paltry severance or not; leave the faulty marriage or not. And while the uncertainty is terribly frustrating, at least there’s a struggle.
Some may turn to a spiritual source for relief or rescue: “Higher Power, just tell me what to do” or “Higher Power, I turn it over to you.” And, of course, some in desperation will proclaim newfound or “born again” allegiance if they are only saved. Yet, in the end, with or without your HP, one must get focused and cut the entangling emotional cord.
5. Focused Anger and Letting Go or “Turning a Lemon into Lemonade” and “Freedom’s Just Another Word…” This phase truly reveals the complexity and potential creative energy built into the grief process. To reach that powerful, purposeful and passionate state of focused anger one must often blend rage and sadness. Some rage can propel us out of a shocked, paralyzed or ambivalent state. Yet, you must also face your sadness and loss and struggle with uncertainty to temper uncontrollable aggression, to make sadder yet wiser assessments and decisions. Remember, rage unchecked much more often leads to self-destructive behavior than it does to “Going Postal!”
If you’ve worked hard to integrate the previous stages then the reward is “focused anger”: “I really don’t like what’s happened…but how do I make the best of it?” You’re ready to loosen — if not untie — the knot of hurt and humiliation. And best of all, you’re getting ready to knock on (maybe even knock down) doors again.
6. Exploration and New Identity or “Now You’re Ready to ‘Just Do It!'” (even if scared). Letting go is often unnerving. It’s not just the financial security that’s at stake. But losing a job or a vital relationship also profoundly shakes our personal/professional identity. We’ve invested so much time, ego, energy and/or money in this position or partner…Who am I without the job, without my mate or significant other?
Even with the most dear and painful loss or separation, the words of Albert Camus, Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher have the crystalline ring of essential truth:
“Once we have accepted the fact of loss we understand that the loved one [or loved position] obstructed a whole corner of the possible, pure now as a sky washed by rain.”
7. Acceptance or “The Glass is Half Empty and Half Full.” While submerging yourself in the stages of grief for a time will feel hellish, there truly is an opportunity for rebirth. Getting out of the black box is a distinct possibility if you can ride on and ride out this acutely emotional learning roller coaster. The grief encounter is definitely more than a learning curve. And there’s no absolute or fixed period of time for your movement through the stages. My blood starts percolating when I hear “well-intentioned” family members, colleagues or friends say to the grieved, “Hey, it’s been three months (or even six months) already.” (On the other hand, if after two or three months, you’re energy level continues to drain away, don’t suffer in silence. Speak to a health professional wise in the ways of grief, burnout and/or depression.) So remember, there’s a real difference between “feeling sorry for yourself” and “feeling your sorrow.” When you are feeling sorry for yourself you are mostly blaming others. When you are feeling your sorrow you are demonstrating the courage to face your fears and pain. There are poignant moments in life when we all must take time to embrace our sorrow.
As I once penned, reflecting on more than one soul shaking grief process: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.
“The Six ‘F’s of Loss and Change”: Strategic Steps for Growing through Grief
And finally, consider these vital psychosocial tasks that will be engaged productively or not in times of profound change:
2. Confronting and channeling the anxiety of an unpredictable future,
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