Last weekend was the first anniversary of my dad’s passing.
Like all anniversaries, it offers a point in time for reflection, but birthdays and wedding anniversaries seem, understandably, a lot more upbeat. It’s easy to call someone on a birthday and add to the celebration.
When a loved one dies, there is a series of stages that most people go through, often depending on the circumstances of the death. The usual first stage is denial, a function of shock that tries to block out reality and replace it with a feeling that there’s a mistake, or this is a dream and it will go away. This is particularly common when deaths are accidental or sudden.
The second stage is generally one of anger. As it becomes clear that the pain is not a dream or a mistake, emotions switch to a mode of, ‘How could this have happened,’ with plenty of ruminations about who is to blame. In some cases, where the death was, in fact, caused by another person, through an accident, negligence, incompetence or intention, the legal system is often the outlet for that anger. From criminal charges to lawsuits, the courts deal with a lot of grief counseling or vengeance.
The third stage is often a sense of helplessness brought about by guilt. Could I have done something different? Is this a punishment for something I’ve done in my life? People are often very vulnerable during this stage and can be taken advantage of by those who recognize their grieving and will help them bargain for redemption. Unscrupulous religious or charitable promoters can often use this stage to gain benefit.
In the fourth stage, there is a darkness that descends when, at last, it is clear that there is no turning back the clock and things will never be the same again. It can be a time when the loss can seem so great that the mourning is all-consuming. While there are elements of our natural personality that can contribute to the depth and length of such a depression, it is unlikely that it will be a stage that can be completely avoided. I’m not sure anyone ever gets over the loss of a loved one completely.
And the final stage is that of acceptance, when thoughts no longer revolve around what was and what is, but begin to focus on what can be. Life begins to go on again and conversations and plans centre on the blessings of today and the opportunities of tomorrow.
There is no absolute time frame on these stages, nor even an assurance that all stages will be part of any individual’s grieving process. We all respond differently and at our own pace.
We all benefit from the support and love of those around us and the more of that we receive, the more likely we are to move to the stage of acceptance in a reasonable period of time.
My father was in his late 80s, was ill for some time and passed quickly, with very little suffering. Denial was brief and essentially was the sadness of the funeral period, when we all wished there had been just a bit more time. There was little anger because he lived long and died with dignity. My Mom certainly went through a short period of helplessness and, a year later, still misses him a great deal and has her moments of sadness. But as she has decided her own future, in a retirement home with people her age and who share her interests, she has taken a huge step forward towards acceptance.
I speak to her daily, and on the anniversary of my dad’s passing, not a mention was made of it by either of us. Instead, she read me out the list of things she wanted me to do in the next week when I would come to help her move into the home. My sense was that it was a bit forced, perhaps a tinge of denial, but also a very firm statement of acceptance on her part.
I believe that is the final piece of ensuring my dad is truly resting at peace.
Graham Hookey writes on education, parenting and eldercare (firstname.lastname@example.org).