In cultures throughout the world people perceive death in many forms and fashions. People at very young ages begin to learn the life process as a whole: the circle of life, which begins at conception and ends with death.
Death is an absolute certainty that everyone on this planet will experience. I can remember as a small boy my father stating, “There are two things you can count in in your life: taxes and death.” And for some dealing with and/or accepting death is as easy as paying taxes. For others it can become a tragic and heartrending situation.
According to Elisabeth Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” “The stages of mourning and grief are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life.” Though some people may be more predominantly exposed to death and dying the grieving process with typically the same for everyone.
In her book, the author breaks down to a fundamental level the five stages of the normal grieving process. People ultimately fall into the five stages of grief because of the knowledge of a personal illness, the loss of a family member or friend or the death of a prominent member of society that holds a special place in their heart.
The five stages of grief are: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. During the bereavement period, a person will experience different levels of intensity and time period at each stage, and may go through the grieving process in no particular order.
Denial and isolation: For most this is the first stages in the grieving process. This is the “knee-jerk” reaction when first learning of a terminal illness or the recent death of a loved one. It is normal to immediately put up buffers. This is a mental defense mechanism used to cushion the immediate shock. By blocking out the bad news or by isolating ourselves from everyone we temporarily create a cushion to carry ourselves through the first wave of pain.
Anger: As the buffers of denial wither away reality once again sets in. Anger is typically the second emotion in which we respond to the news of death.
“The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry,” wrote Julie Axelrod on psychcentral.com.
Doctors, nurses and paramedics are often targets for such anger. Though they work in a field surrounded by the process of death and dying it does not make them immune to the emotions attached to the grieving process.
Bargaining: This is the body’s normal reaction in a “fight or flight” scenario. This is your body’s mental attempt to regain control of a losing situation. You might begin to second guess your decisions: If I would have stopped smoking sooner. If we went to the doctor sooner. If only we got a second opinion.
All the second guessing and what-ifs are completely normal during the grieving process. Secretly, many people will try to make deals with their God or deity. This is a way your brain tries to gain the upper hand in a deal to put the control or power back in your hands. Realistically this will prolong your grieving process until the reality of the death again sets in.
Depression: There are two types of depression: the sadness one will feel during the initial news of the death and the prolonged depression that one endures while accepting the reality of such a tragic event. The depression is caused by wanting to spend more time with that loved one, worrying about costs of burial procedures, and the dealing with afterlife affairs.
Most of this can be consoled by understanding and reassurance from someone else. The feeling and longing of wanting to be with that person again begins to heal as time progresses and reality sets in. A hug goes a long way. And as Annie sings, “The sun will come out tomorrow.”
Acceptance: Reaching this stage of the grief is a gift in itself for most people. There are some people who experience a death in their family or set of friends and they will live their entire lives in the anger or depression step, never fully accepting the loss. This period of the grieving process you may feel the need to withdrawal and have an overwhelming sense of ease or calmness.
Coping with and or living with the knowledge of death or terminal illness is an emotional process that you and only you will feel. It is common for many people to grieve the loss of the same person, however no one can tell you how to feel and when to feel it.
It is often recommended to talk with someone — a loved one, a friend or a professional — to release some of the emotion you may have pinned up inside. Resisting will only slow the grieving process down.
If you or someone you know is going through the grieving process, encourage them to talk about it, or start writing some emotions down.
If you have any other questions or concerns, or if you would like to talk to someone about a recent loss in your life, please feel free to contact me at the firehouse at 702-293-9228 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brian Shea is a Boulder City paramedic/firefighter.