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The cycle of loss

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five stages of grief. They are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression. & Acceptance.

When we think of grief, or loss, we tend to think of bereavement, but we can experience loss in so many other ways - the loss of a job, relationship, even a possession like a car. After illness or injury, we might experience the loss of our independence. When our children grow up and leave home, we might also experience this as a loss. 

Loss can be complicated by many other factors - sudden or unexpected loss, or experiencing a series of losses in a short period might make grief more complicated, . One loss might evoke memories of a previous loss, bringing old responses and feelings back to the surface. 

One important thing to remember about these stages are that they are not linear - that is to say, it's unlikely that you'll experience them all for a fixed period of time and in a fixed order. Instead, you might find yourself stuck in a single stage for months or even years - and also simultaneously able to experience and recognise many of the symptoms all at once. 

I'm going to use a car theft as an example, as I often find that having a fairly neutral topic gives more freedom to add and recognise your own experiences. So, imagine that you've spent the day shopping in a busy shopping centre, and then return to the car park to find that your car is missing, presumed stolen. 

Stage 1: Denial

Initially, we can't believe that our car is gone. Maybe we think that we're mistaken and check other floors. We might walk around beeping the keys. We check whether we're correct - did we really get the bus here? But soon, the reality sets in and we can no longer deny the facts - our car is gone.

Denial is a vitally important stage in this process. By not acknowledging our loss, we can imagine that it hasn't happened, and protect ourselves from the impossible reality that we would otherwise be forced to face. Denial protects us, powerfully, from all of the other difficult thoughts and feelings that we might otherwise have to experience. We are in shock, everything is meaningless, there is no sense in anything, things that we might otherwise have been able to cope with feel overwhelming. Rather than experience our feelings, we are numb to them. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day.

Stage 2: Anger

How dare they steal my car. Don't they know how much I needed that car, how hard I worked for it? The stupid car park attendant - why did he let this happen. We might even be angry at God for allowing bad things to happen, or at ourselves for leaving it in the 'wrong' place. Later, we might shout at our children for being too noisy when we're stressed, or at the insurance company for not being helpful enough. Our anger can be directed anywhere and at anyone including ourselves.

At this time, recognising anger and acknowledging its presence can be helpful. It can allow us to channel our energy into something productive - making sure that this never happens to anyone else. Anger can be powerful, hiding our pain, but it can also be scary, particularly if your previous experience of anger makes you fearful. Anger allows us to feel emotion again and to begin to express some of the desperation and futility that we might be experiencing. Instead of the numbness of denial, we feel the heat of anger.

Rather than trying to hide, or suppress the anger, it might be helpful to channel that energy into more constructive ways, for example going for a walk or run, writing an angry letter (therapeutically rather than something to post or share) or dong something physical like an exercise class.

Stage 3: Bargaining

What if I'd parked my car somewhere different. What if I'd taken the bus. If I'd been a better person, maybe this wouldn't have happened to me. 

The bargaining stage is about the what if's, often accompanied by a side serving of guilt. What if I'd done something differently? What if they'd told me how they were feeling. If only we'd taken action sooner. Maybe we'll try and make a deal with God or ourselves to be better person. Bargaining is about trying to think our way out of the situation, but our thoughts aren't helpful here, eventually we are forced once again to confront the reality of our situation.

Stage 4: Depression

Now we are forced to confront the sadness that our car is really gone. I truly loved that car, all it's little quirks and dings. Without it, there's so much that I can't do. How will I ever replace it?

At this stage, we stop thinking and start feeling. Emotions kick in. We feel unbearably sad. Although society has come to regard depression as a mental illness - something wrong with us, in reality, it's normal to feel sad right now, to strongly feel the absence of something or someone. In fact, if you weren't feeling sad, lost or lonely, maybe that would be more strange. Often, we don't only grieve for a person (or relationship), but for the changed future, and the many other implications that the loss can bring.

Depression might feel like other things - hurt, lonely, vulnerable, fragile, abandoned, isolated, powerless, remorseful, empty, numb, disappointed.

We might want to withdraw into ourselves and away from the world. Taking time to process, metabolise and digest those feelings is important right now.

Stage 5: Acceptance

I have accepted the fact that my car has been stolen. I loved that car, I miss it every day, and I know that I'll never be able to replace it, but I am ready to go out and look for a new car, a different model to drive around in.

Acceptance doesn't mean being happy about the situation but it does mean accepting the new reality. The person is gone, job, or relationship might have ended, and recognising that the new reality is a permanent one. We have to learn to live with the loss, to learn to do new things, to ask for help when we need it. Life might look different now, and we need to accept, and even embrace those differences. We might make new friendships and connections. We recognise that we are changed forever.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

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