I have a particular fondness for the work of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross because of her model of grief, and find that regardless of how great or small the loss I’m experiencing, her model serves me well by reminding me that my reactions are normal and to be expected.

By now, most of us know the stages of grief she observed among her dying patients: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Of course, one doesn’t have to be dying to experience these emotional and intellectual reactions to the death of something in our lives. Whether you’re in the ticket line and have someone cut in front of you or whether you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic cancer, you will most likely go through many of these reactions to a loss. The size of the loss isn’t as relevant as the fact that we can be so predictable in our responses along the path to acceptance.

voodoo1 by you.

Take, for example, an event to which my husband and I found ourselves uninvited.  I discovered that several people in our family had been invited to a function from which we’d been excluded, and my first reactions were a sinking heart (“Oh, no!”) and “realizing with a start” the facts of the situation—the reactions of shock and denial. This was followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. From this example, you can see how the grief we experience over our losses, whether small or great, takes a worn path.

If you’ll think about the last reaction of shock or “Oh, no!” you had, you will probably be able to play your initial “Oh, no!” reaction forward and see how it ended in some sort of acceptance, even if only a grudging one. You may also be able to accept that nearly every “oh, no!” reaction is part of a response to loss.

Many times we don’t acknowledge our losses as we go through the day, and finally erupt by day’s end in some surprising way because we’ve been unconscious to our own suffering. I’ve found that the more aware I am of the losses I experience throughout the day and the claims I have that back up my sense of loss, the more I am able to contain myself rather than projecting my unsolved mysteries outward.

voodoo2 by you.

18 responses

  1. How strange, coming across this! I just had a dream the other night where I was talking on the phone to my mother’s heart specialist, trying hard to block out peripheral noise as he described to me the different stages of grieving and loss! He told me about a book, which I couldn’t remember, but I woke up thinking of Kübler-Ross, a book my mum has in her library.

    Actions do speak louder than words. How frustrating this must be. I do hope your friends’ unconscious voodoo eventually makes its way to consciousness for them, for the sake of a resolution? Its astounding how something like that can stare a person in the face and be so invisible to only them. (I am contemplating this a lot lately for myself. What is it I cannot see?)

    • Irene, how strange indeed. When mentions or images of something recur, I consider them signals from the unconscious that act as road signs: THIS WAY. Kübler-Ross is calling you!

      This situation for us has gone from being frustrating to being simply grievous. I feel frustrated when I think I can still get to my goal, but some obstacle is in my way. In this situation, I no longer believe I can get to my goal, for the obstacles are immovable except perhaps to God. Since I still have moving, working parts I must do the moving and working.

      I also am not sure about resolution, but since I’m still going along the path and can only see what the lantern’s light shows (mere steps ahead), that’s OK. I’ll keep writing until I arrive at a place that looks like a sort of resolution, and will report back.

      Finally, about “what is it I cannot see?” Indeed! That’s always the question to me, for whenever I see my neighbor’s blindness I legitimately suspect my own. As James Hillman says, “People who are sure are unconscious,” something I’ve learned is true whenever I think I’m sure that I’m not blind, myself. In general, the rule of thumb of looking in myself for those traits I most reject in others has been very handy over the years.

      • “Finally, about “what is it I cannot see?” Indeed! That’s always the question to me, for whenever I see my neighbor’s blindness I legitimately suspect my own. As James Hillman says, “People who are sure are unconscious,” something I’ve learned is true whenever I think I’m sure that I’m not blind, myself. In general, the rule of thumb of looking in myself for those traits I most reject in others has been very handy over the years.”

        You have an interesting way of looking at yourself as what you see in other people, suspecting yourself of those things. How did you come to that conclusion to look for those things in yourself? Does it have anything to do with “you become what you hate the most”?

      • I see you posted this ten years ago, Eve — and I’m wondering if you’re around to tell me the source of your Hillman quote. I can’t find it anywhere! (thanks)

        • Hello, Vicky, I’m still here! I’ll have to look for my source on that quote; It doesn’t come up during a cursory Google search, which suggests to me that it came from one of my training videos. If I find it, I’ll post the direct source here.

  2. I have had so many emotional difficulties with my family. To make peace I have had to set firm boundaries and stick to them. I love them all, but I have to keep physical and emotional distance from some of them.

    One of my hardest relationships has been with my own brother. He loves to provoke people. I was so proud of him last year, though. When my sister was in her final week, I was giving him almost hourly updates. I was suggesting that he come, but he declined. He said that he knew that he was likely to set some people off and decided that it was better to be absent than to cause trouble. I was astonished and thankful. That was the first time that he had ever chosen not to pick fights with other family members that I know of.

    • RG, wow, good for your brother. And good for the rest of you that nobody held it against him that he decided not to come. That’s a rare sort of cooperation and understanding.

      The difficulties I’ve had with my family (family of origin and family I’ve originated) have the ebb and flow of the ocean. I find when my peace is being overwhelmed I do have to set firm boundaries, too. That’s not easy because things get harder, usually, for the other person. I feel bad about that. But yes, there has to be a way to maintain the quiet life that Christians are called to–the one modern man forgets all too often.

  3. Elizabeth, when I talked with my mother, she did apologize about the past events that I told her were so wounding. She also told me a number of stories about events that occurred when I was an infant and toddler. This filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of my own history and that of our family. She told me about some things she had done with or to me that took some humility to tell and that she might have taken to the grave with her. Instead, she pretty much ratted herself out in order to show me that my intuitive and subjective perceptions of her behaviors were, in fact, accurate. This was quite a gift and made it easier to move forward like the adult I was.

    I couldn’t have asked for a better response from her, but paradoxically our truth-telling weekend away together didn’t give rise to a real mother-daughter relationship like those I have with most of my daughters. There has been no change in my mother’s ability (or, presumably, need) to make use of relationships or to have them with her children.

    But I’m at peace with my mother and accept the choices she’s made with her life. I don’t agree with them or judge them as correct in interpersonal terms, but I accept them and we’ve live in a demilitarized zone for many years now.

    If she hadn’t responded as she did, but had in fact come unhinged and raged at me one more time, that would have been the end of my contact with her until she made amends. If she had never made amends, we would never have had a relationship. So, things might have turned out worse. But they might also have turned out better. For my part, I’ve had to find a way to show what I understand to be appropriate respect for my mother while maintaining an equal respect for myself. This (as I’d guess you will understand) has been no easy task.

    • Wow. I wish I could get some truth-telling from my mother.

      I’m glad you have found peace and acceptance with your mother.

      Thanks for answering.

    • Today in Bible study we read the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, of the famous “seventy times seven” command for forgiveness.

      We talked about how (and whether) to forgive the unrepentant. The pastor’s take on it was that if we don’t forgive, even the unrepentant who have hurt us, then we are the ones being damaged. The way he put it was: the Deceiver gets both of you!

      But he also talked about tough love. Once when he was new to a church, he had to “fire” a man who was their children’s education director because not only did this man do a half-hearted job but he also was caught looking at porn on a church computer! The pastor certainly forgave him (and the man was contrite) but had to remove him from the job for the health and safety of the congregation.

  4. People are endlessly disappointing and petty. I don’t know how to get around that.

    Like Deb, I’ve never thought of applying Ms. Kubler-Ross’ stages to small, everyday grievances, but I like the idea. It seems that by doing that, you can reassert that control originally snatched away by those ever-disappointing people. It’s good to be reminded, when you’re deep in the mire, that your “oh no!” will end with acceptance.

    Your description of these people of the broken covenant makes me sadder than the result of all this in your life does. Don’t think me harsh–I know how painful it must have been for you to go through that, but I also know you’ll be fine. But these people who can’t see how awful they’re being, and kind of lie to themselves that that’s not really how they are? That’s tragic. Wow. How can they ever get past that?

    • Aunty, yes, it’s good to be reminded that an “oh, no!” can end in acceptance if I keep working my way along the path. I have sometimes gotten stuck at one stage or another, and when that happens and I don’t somehow zig-zag my way forward to acceptance, I’ve found myself stuck in a different phase… not good!

      I actually agree with you about the people who let us down. I don’t find what you said harsh.

  5. I never really thought of grief like that before but you’re right, even small griefs go through the same process. I think I’ll need to pay attention to this more in my life. The big ones have always gotten my attention, betrayals, loss, death, but the small ones, not so much. I can see how they have added up over the years though, been swept under the same poor rug that now has no hope of every laying flat unless I tend to what’s hidden underneath.

    I had lunch with my mother today and as I sat across from her, I wanted so much to ask her why on earth she would send her fourteen year old daughter to the house of a drunk (my brother in law), to care for his children while he lay in bed, passed out. But I didn’t. My mother has no answer and I don’t want to hurt her. I would rather carry that pain around myself which makes me sound a bit of a martyr.

    I talk to my therapist, tell her things about my childhood, things that were normal in our family and she’s all, What? And then I realize how much work I still need to do, things I need to look at and understand their impact on me.

    The confronting thing for me still isn’t working. My husband doesn’t really talk to me, we are polite with each other. I tried to hug him the other day and he stood there with his arms by his side and I thought to myself, why am I doing this again? And I don’t want to open a can of worms with Katie home because we don’t really have much choice with her living with us. It feels awful, like a part of me is dying inside. The part of me that needs love and light.

    • My wise analyst, in whom I sometimes found a “good mother” archetype as I healed, once asked me why I didn’t ask my mother why she’d done some of the painful things she did. I answered, “Because all hell would break loose if I did.” She asked what then? “She’d be enraged.” And what then? “She’d stop talking to me.” And what then? “Then we’d have no relationship.”

      “Is what you have now a relationship?”



      This was a revelation about me and what sort of person I was. I preferred having something fake to being someone real. Her question was worth a kingdom because it showed me who I was at that time and helped me to do what I needed to do, which was to talk to my mother about the past. I felt finally grown whole when I did that.

      • Eve when you talked to your mother about the past, how did she respond? Did she apologize for any misdeeds or betrayals?

  6. Oh, the dreaded Bad Mother juju! What a way to fan the flames.

    I imagine it would be even worse to have made an agreement in relatively formal ways (as you described in a previous post) and then have that agreement invalidated in such an informal, roundabout way.

    • Heni, yes, exactly! It was an astonishing turn of events to have people who were originally uninvolved become harbingers of doom. Once I got some perspective on it, I had to appreciate the intriguing design of it all.

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