, ,

The Stress Doc’s Stages of Grief: Discovering Purpose and Possibility in Trying Times

With all the uncertainty and stress in our economic-job climate (not to mention natural and man-made disasters), most of us can use a refresher on how to grapple with loss and change, how to have the courage to both persist and to let go, how to transform the danger into opportunity…how to grow stronger, wiser and better supported-connected through genuine grief.
As I once penned:
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!
And then a soon-to-be author on motivation and dealing with stress from a break-up emailed asking if he could cite the essay below, which especially looks at job loss, career confusion and uncertainty . So here are “Seven Stages of Grief”:
1. Shock and Denial or “It Can’t Happen Here!” It’s no big surprise when given one day’s termination notice that an employee may experience a state of shock. There’s such total confusion and disbelief that a person often goes numb; the mind-body system has to shut down. Sometimes shock follows the downplaying or denial of bad news. For example, in the early ’90s, there was talk of significant restructuring in the US Postal Service. A number of employees took the early attitude: “We’re always dealing with change here…No big deal.” Alas, these folks didn’t count on “Carvin Marvin” Runyon becoming the Postmaster General. Talk about a shocker…Within a year 50,000 employees were restructured out of the service!
2. Fear, Panic and Shame or “Oh God, What Do I Do Now?” Once the shock wears off, you are no longer numb; there are some predictable next steps, such as profound anxiety and vulnerability: how will I survive this loss of income, identity, my daily routine, my social standing, etc.? There’s a mounting sense of being out of control, which for many also evokes feelings of shame and inadequacy. And lack of control, not surprisingly, can stir up childhood memories of the same, being or feeling tormented, rejected or humiliated by family, peers, teachers, etc.

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:

1. Shaking or breaking up life’s puzzle; letting go of a familiar past — rules and routines, roles and relationships
2. Confronting and channeling the anxiety of an unpredictable future,
3. Grappling with a loss of identity and integrity, with a loss of self-esteem and pride…with a loss of face,
4. Exploring and generating new resources — environmental, informational and psychological — for evolving a new focus,
5. Seeking and being open to feedback, both challenging and affirming, such as a variety of TLC — “tough loving care” and “tender loving criticism” — throughout the grief and rejuvenation process, and
6. Trusting in higher power faith, from a belief in a transcendental power to the synergy and confidence instilled by participating in a vital support group or counseling/coaching relationship; also the faith in knowing that if you have engaged these prior five “f'”s, that is, have done your headwork, heart work and homework, you are building the cognitive and emotional muscles necessary for effectively grappling with those transitional tempests..
Grappling with these “Six ‘F’s” can help you grow from grief and…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress and Communication, as well as Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services. Mark has also had a rotation as Military & Family Life Consultant (MFLC) at Ft. Campbell, KY. A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite”www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply