February 20, 2014

The 5 Stages of Loss. ~ Audrey van Petegem

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One of the greatest lessons of Buddhism is that of impermanence—that what comes into one’s life will, at some point, leave.

I’m not saying that we all have to embrace the teaching of Buddhism but there is wisdom in this train of thought. We will, in fact, lose all that we have with the ultimate loss being one’s life. Essentially, we deal with some level of loss every single day.

Last year, I went through many losses and to recount them all here would take the whole post. But all these losses, monumental and insignificant, made me realize that each time, I grieved. When we rented out our home in California and relocated back to Canada, I had the sense of losing my home, my friends and simply my way of life. When we then sold our cottage in Canada and moved, once again, I felt a similar loss.

Even when I knew I was making the right decision to sell my share of my business, I had to go through a process to move forward. When a friendship ceased to exist it tore me apart but I needed to work through that also. When I lost a favorite pair of earrings (gosh, I loved those earrings!), I eventually had to come to terms with the fact that the chances of ever finding them was next to none.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a famous psychiatrist who led some ground-breaking studies on death and dying, created the theory that we all go through five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and finally, Acceptance. My feeling is that we do not have to experience the death of a loved one to go through these stages. This process fits for any kind of loss, and for that matter, sometimes it just takes the fear of losing something.

Even the most insignificant (although it may not seem so at the time) fear of not being able to find our keys or reading glasses will send us transitioning through the five stages.

If we, in fact, find what we fear was lost, then the process ends. If not, we proceed. Each stage can literally take a millisecond to progress or, as with a greater loss, may last for years. One can go through one stage quickly and get stuck in another. Any one of these stages can be damn hard to overcome. Some, sadly, never get through their grief because they can’t seem to cross the threshold to the next stage.

Using the simple example of my beloved earrings, I initially thought I just did not put them back where they belonged (Denial). Then I was mad at myself for not putting them back in their proper place (Anger). I start to think, “where the hell did I put them?” and I vow once I find them I will always put them back in the same spot so as not to lose them again (Bargaining).

Reality hits.

They are nowhere to be found (Depression).

I go through my jewelry box and choose another pair that are almost as good but not quite (Acceptance).

Understanding these five stages has helped me immeasurably to live my life in ‘Acceptance’.

This tool gives me a sense of calmness, knowing that I can move forward and enjoy my life without the ‘thing’ that I have just lost, no matter how big or small. I have known people who have lived their lives ‘stuck’ in a certain stage. Can you think of someone you may know that is stuck in say, Anger or Depression for example? I bet you do. Maybe even yourself.

Not surprisingly, our natural instinct is to avoid loss at all cost, even to the point of abstaining reality.

Look at the movies that have been made over the years that show the avoidance of death, such as Ghost, The Others, The Sixth Sense, all the Vampires stories (you know the ones). Clearly, we try to avoid growing old by heading towards a plethora of options to prolong the inevitable. As we get older we naturally will deal with a series of minor mournings such as the loss of smooth skin, eye sight and a waistline.

Being able to deal with unavoidable losses by using Kubler-Ross’s five stages as a tool would help in accepting the impermanence that Buddhism teaches. No one can move on without accepting whatever you have lost. Remember, the sun will always rise in the morning and set every evening.

Now, where did I put my glasses…


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Audrey van Petegem