There are five stages of grief: denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each looks different on different people and under each’s unique circumstances. When death happens at a distance, some of the stages may be more difficult to get past.
Denial and isolation
“This isn’t real.” Those words are spoken almost without fail when family and friends learn of a loved one’s terminal illness or death. Denial is a coping mechanism that allows the brain to process the reality of what is happening and to subconsciously prepare for what’s to come. Grief expert and author David Kessler explains that, “Denial helps us pace our feelings of grief.” When you are separated by miles, this stage may take a stronger shape than temporary abjuration of the situation. You might believe that since you aren’t there, they still are. No matter how hard you deny it, your grief will catch up to you, usually in the form of anger, the most commonly reported second step toward healing.
It’s okay to be angry at yourself or your loved one. Anger, frustration, and even rage, are a necessary and healthy part of the healing process. Don’t bottle your feelings, even though it feels as though it will never end. The more you allow yourself to feel angry, the faster those feelings will dissolve and allow your heart to return to the love it must focus on in order to heal. You may be angry with yourself for your inability to be present. It is important during this time to channel your feelings into something positive and productive. (For information regarding anger at the discovery of a secret following the death, visit the American Hospice Foundation online.)
In the months and days leading up to death, we bargain for our loved ones’ lives. You may pray to God that He spare them and make promises about your behavior moving forward if only they could survive. When they die, however, we continue bargaining with ourselves and hope that it was a bad dream. The guilt that comes along with bargaining is a heavy burden to bear, especially when you’ve been absent from your loved one’s life for any length of time. You must make a conscious effort to realize that the death is now in the past and that nothing you could have done would have prevented the person’s ultimate fate.
Once we have quit bargaining, we are snapped back into the present, often with a pain that feels as though it will follow us forever. Feelings of emptiness arise and the grief moves in deeper than could have been imagined. Depression following a loss is normal and does not point to a mental illness; however, according to a 1994 study by Stanford University, dwelling on negative emotions puts you at a higher risk for long-term depression. To avoid this, talk to people who will listen. Talking will not change your feelings, but will help you – and your surviving friends and family – recognize that depression is part of the process, and one that paves the way toward acceptance.
This is the final stage and the one that is rooted firmly in the present. When you accept what happened (even if you waver between stages beforehand), you begin a new normal. Avoid trying to live life exactly as it was before the loss. You must accept that it has changed. It may be a phone call you can’t make, a birthday card you can’t send, or the loss may have had a significant impact on your daily life. Whatever the changes, you must learn to fill the void with new relationships, activities, and interdependencies.
In times of grief, it is vital that you recognize each stage of the healing process and enter them without expectations. You may falter between anger and denial or get “stuck” in a depression for months or years. You will do yourself and your family the most good by focusing on each day until you are through the worst. Taking care of yourself during this difficult time is the best thing you can do – stay hydrated, eat healthy, and get plenty of sleep. Stay in touch with your support network by phone, video chat, or old-fashioned letter writing. Maintaining these connections will strengthen your resolve to remember your loved one and honor their memory.