Understand the Stages of Grief You Go Through When Suffering Personal Loss
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
(Part 3 of “Why Did God Let This Happen?”)
It happened years ago, but I can still remember the presentation as if it had been yesterday. I was pursuing a graduate degree in counseling. The focus of this particular class was helping people recover from traumatic events in their lives, events that left them mired in grief, disappointment, or discouragement. Our guest speaker, Alana, told a story that was tragic, even heartbreaking, but at the same time encouraging and uplifting. By the time she finished her story, there wasn’t a dry eye in the class.
Alana had wanted children for years, but a series of doctors had cautioned that she wasn’t likely to conceive. Distraught, she and her husband were looking into the adoption process when Alana learned she was pregnant. The joy and relief she and her husband felt were beyond words. They had truly been blessed. Their prayers had finally been answered. The birth went well and Alana’s little bundle of joy seemed healthy and normal. But then one day Alana noticed something odd about her little girl. A trip to the doctor’s office brought the worse possible news: her baby had a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Within just months, Alana’s “little angel” was gone.
In the months following her baby’s death, Alana sunk into a state of deep depression. Her emotions ran the gamut from anger to hopelessness. Worse yet, Alana’s faith in God deserted her when she needed it most. Unable to focus on work, she lost her job. At home she was barely able to function. Dishes stacked up, trash cans over flowed, and the vacuum cleaner sat unused in a corner. There were days when Alana would lie in bed all day weeping. At her lowest point she contemplated suicide.
It took months and more counseling sessions than she could remember before Alana began to see a glimmer of hope. But eventually, she regained her faith in God. When this happened, her life began to slowly turn around. There were still bad days, but her life was on the mend. When she had sunk so low there was nowhere else to go, Alana went back to Christ and clung to Him. In the end, Alana did more than just survive a tragic situation; she restored her life and grew in faith. She now shows her gratitude to God by sharing her experience with others.
STAGES OF EMOTIONAL TRANSITION
Every member of our class was deeply moved by Alana’s presentation. After a brief pause, our professor brought us back to the night’s lesson by writing a list of seven items on the board. He then commented, “If you were paying attention to what Alana said you should recognize the stages in the grieving process she went through following the loss of her daughter.” Our professor gave no title to this list, but in my notes, I titled the list “The Seven Stages of Emotional Transition.” The stages he wrote on the board were:
The professor told us these are the stages people go through who experience a sudden unwelcome or traumatic event in their lives, at least the ones who recover and grow from the experience.
If you have experienced a traumatic event in your life that has left you mired in grief or anger and bitterness, it is important for you to understand these seven stages of emotional transition. They represent the process you will have to go through to heal your heart, grow in faith, and restore your life. But a caveat is in order here. When you know the stages of emotional transition, it is only natural to want to go directly from stage one to stage seven, skipping all the other stages in between. Don’t attempt this.
Each stage serves a purpose in the healing process. Further, while your mind might be able to leap over stages, your heart can’t. Don’t try to rush your heart. A broken heart heals in the same way a deep gash in your arm or leg heals: slowly and from the inside out. Trying to rush the process might close the wound on the outside while leaving you emotionally torn and bleeding on the inside.
Stage 1: Shock
Shock is a physical and emotional response to a sudden unwelcome event that is drastically at odds with your expectations. When you are shocked by an unwelcome experience, your mind cannot process the message it is receiving. You are stunned, sometimes to the point that you cannot think or act. You may experience a kind of mental and emotional paralysis that is as real as physical paralysis.
This kind of reaction to a traumatic event is not only normal, it is the first stage in the emotional-transition process. No matter what kind of unwelcome circumstance has intruded in your life—death of a loved one, divorce, life-threatening illness, debilitating injury, betrayal by someone you trusted—expect your first response to be shock. This is a natural reaction to emotional trauma. Although it does not always happen and does not happen to everyone, it is typical and when it happens there is nothing you can do to prevent it. The shock you feel will run its course, but this can take time, and it is best to give it the needed time.
Stage 2: Denial
Denial means refusing to accept that something traumatic has actually happened. Often, shock and denial run together in the aftermath of a heart-wrenching event, and though they are closely related, shock and denial are not the same thing. Shock, as stated in the previous section, renders your brain unable to process what your senses are telling it. Denial occurs as the shock begins to wear off and the brain begins to process the message. Because the harsh reality of the message is so unwelcome, you respond by denying what you are beginning to realize has happened. Denial is actually a defense mechanism that comes into play when you are so overwhelmed by circumstances you cannot cope with them. Hence, you deny them.
When counseling Christians who are in denial, I find that Jeremiah 29:11 can be helpful. It may help you. Jeremiah is so beaten down by discouragement, frustration, and grief that he wants to die. In fact, Biblical scholars often refer to Jeremiah as the “weeping prophet.” In this verse, the Lord reassures Jeremiah, explaining He has plans for him and those plans are for good not evil and for hope and a better future.
In your darkest hour, God is nearby and He understands what you are going through. As He did for Jeremiah, God has a plan for you. He will bring you through the unwelcome circumstances that have torn your life apart and give you hope and a better future just as He did for Jeremiah. To make sure this happens, cling to your faith in God. Do this in spite of the despair, anger, or hopelessness you feel and God will pull you through.
Don’t despair if you find yourself in denial over a tragic event. In most cases, the denial stage won’t last long. In those cases when it does, counseling help is advised. I have known people to become so traumatized by events they went into semi-permanent denial. Believers who get stuck at stage two of the emotional-transition process require the careful attention of a counselor or pastor. But for most, denial is a short-term defense mechanism that soon gives way to the next stage in the process: realization.
Stage 3: Realization
If I were to chart the seven stages of emotional transition for you, the realization stage would show a sudden drop in the chart, a precipitous downward dip to emotional rock bottom. Realization is often the most difficult of the seven stages. It is during this stage that your sorrow, disappointment, and discouragement are felt most intensely. This is the stage where clinging to your faith is most crucial. In this stage the message in Philippians 4:6-7 can be so important to you. In these verses, you are told to avoid being anxious. Rather, you are to lay your troubles at God’s feet in prayer and supplication. If you do this “…the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
During the realization stage you can be so overcome by grief that you become depressed and cannot function. It is also during this stage that you are most vulnerable to Satan’s devious machinations. This is where the message in Philippians 4:6-7 comes into play because it is the stage in the emotional-transition process where Satan will try to undermine your faith. Fortunately, the message in these verses from Scripture provides everything you need to repel his devious efforts.
It is not uncommon for believers to feel their faith slipping away during this stage in the emotional-transition process, nor is it uncommon for them to sink into a state of depression. This is where you might become angry at God, where bitterness and resentment might seep into your heart. This is the stage where you have to make a conscious choice to run to God or run from Him. If you feel Satan pulling you away from God at this stage, get help from a Christian counselor or pastor right away. Don’t allow Satan to use your depression to rob you of your faith at the point when you need it most.
Stage 4: Acceptance
“Acceptance” is a bit of a misnomer. It does not mean you agree with what has happened or believe it should have happened. Rather, it means you have progressed to the point you are ready to face the harsh reality of the situation and begin the rebuilding process. In this stage, you are ready to say, “This situation breaks my heart and I wish it had not happened, but I know it did and now I must deal with it.”
Grieving Christians I counsel sometimes find solace in the words of 1 John 5:13-14: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” It is the portion of these verses that assures us God will hear our prayers that is most comforting to believers I counsel.
The acceptance stage is where progress toward recovery begins to be seen. This is the good news. The bad news is that this stage can take time. It is important that you give yourself the time needed to allow your acceptance of a bad situation to take hold. I am sure you want the pain and heartache to stop and the sooner the better, but don’t try to rush this stage. Emotional wounds are like physical wounds in that they take time to heal, and trying to rush the process can just reopen the wound. Instead, spend this stage in constant prayer, asking God to help you heal, recover, and rebuild. Also ask Him to help you do so in ways that will increase your faith in Him.
Stage 5: Rebuilding
The rebuilding stage of the emotional-transition process is where you pull yourself up from despair and start down a path that leads to restoration. It is in this stage that hope and healing gain a foothold and begin pushing aside the lingering anger, bitterness, and resentment that can inhibit the healing process. In this stage you begin to act on the admonition in 1 Chronicles 16:11 to seek the Lord’s strength and presence every day. By doing this you take a major step toward restoration and growing in faith.
You rebuild by praying continually, seeking guidance in Scripture, and undertaking specific actions that are positive, productive, and helpful. When you pray, ask God to lift you up and keep you on the path to restoration while also strengthening your faith in Him. This is important because even in this stage, the healing process can consist of taking two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back. You might have periodic relapses into anger, bitterness, and resentment. Your faith might yet falter on the bad days. Don’t despair when this happens. It is normal and understandable. Emotional healing is seldom linear. Rather, it is an up-and-down, back-and-forth, good-days-and-bad-days kind of process. This is why it is important to pray continually so that God will help keep you on the path to recovery.
When you seek guidance in Scripture, dig deeply and find those verses that are most helpful to you. I have always found James 1:12 helpful when life hurts. This verse assures us that “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God promised to those who love him.” Psalm 27:14 is also helpful: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” Of course, by this stage, Romans 8:28 and Romans 5:3-4 will be helpful too. But people are individuals. We respond in different ways to different verses, so seek out those that are helpful to you.
Now that you understand that God is using and will use your bad circumstances for good, you need to follow His example. Do this by pursuing specific steps that allow you to do your part in deriving some good out of a bad situation, even in the smallest of ways. When it comes to undertaking specific actions that are positive, helpful, and productive, the actions you take depend on the circumstances from which you are recovering. If you have lost a loved one, you might create some type of memorial to honor the memory of the person you lost. For example, in my community, we have a beautiful boardwalk that winds through lush woodland paralleling a gently-flowing stream. It is a place of serenity and peace.
Halfway down the trail, there is a remembrance pavilion set aside for people who have lost loved ones. This pavilion gives those who have suffered a personal loss a refuge where, surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation, they can sit in undisturbed tranquility and remember their lost loved one. I know a couple who lost a baby during child birth. They find great solace in visiting the remembrance pavilion to rest, pray, and think about their baby. Another couple I know who lost a teen-aged son created an extensive scrapbook of his life. What you do to help yourself move forward in this stage is entirely up to you, but it is important to do something positive, productive, and helpful.
Stage 6: Understanding
In this stage of the emotional-transition process, you begin to understand the situation that turned your life upside down as well as why you responded as you did. You now understand that God did not single you out for loss, pain, or hardship. You were not being punished when tragedy or unwelcome circumstances intruded on your life. Additionally, you now understand that in a fallen world, bad things do happen to good people. Consequently, the only real protection you have from life’s difficulties is the armor of God.
You also understand that the armor of God is donned not to prevent bad things from happening to you, but to provide the strength you need to bear up when they do. You also understand that the peace, comfort, and assurance you need in a world that can be cold and bleak is found only in the loving arms of Jesus Christ. Finally, you understand that the pathway to Christ is illuminated by your faith.
Stage 7: Recovery
This is the stage in the emotional-transition process where you discover the healing power of sharing your experience with others who are hurting. Returning to the story of Alana from the beginning of the chapter, speaking to a class of graduate students in counseling was part of Stage 7 of the emotional-transition process for her; an important part of her recovery. When we complimented Alana on having the courage to stand up in front of a college class and share her heart-wrenching story, she told us that doing so was part of her recovery and it helped her as much as it did us.
This was a bit of an epiphany for me. I assumed—wrongly—that sharing her story would dredge up sad memories, memories she would rather leave behind. My mistake was in assuming that our memories of those times when life hurts are best repressed or even forgotten. They are not. You don’t recover by repressing or forgetting the unwelcome events that knock you down in life. Rather, you recover by acknowledging them and trusting God to help you face up to them in faith. Only when you deal openly, frankly, and in faith with your losses in life have you truly recovered from them.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com