Every broken heart has screamed at one time or another: Why can’t you see who I truly am? ~Shannon L. Alder
When you experience loss, people say you’ll move through the 5 stages of grief … Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance … What they don’t tell you is that you’ll cycle through them all every day. ~Ranata Suzuki
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me. ~C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Most of us have heard of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). It is a standard way of looking at grief and how we as humans process it. Sometimes folks think it is a linear progression, that once we finish one stage we’re done with it and move onto the next. And grief doesn’t actually work that way. We may feel each of the stages at different times or we may feel them all at once or we may have both experiences at different times.
During my clinical internship we utilized Worden’s Tasks of Grief, which are a bit less known, and I feel more powerful and representative of how we actually process grief, whereas I see the stages of grief as the emotions we cycle through when grieving.
The tasks of grief are:
Task 1 :: To accept the reality of the loss
Task 2 :: To work through the pain of grief
Task 3 :: To adjust to an environment in which the deceased are missing
Task 4 :: To find an enduring connection to the deceased while embarking on a new life
As I’ve said before, we don’t only grieve the deceased though. We grieve relationships that have come to an end. We grieve our children growing up and leaving home (which we also simultaneously celebrate their achievement). We grieve paths not taken and choices not made.
We have the opportunity to grieve what was taken from us when we were young, either through abuse or neglect.
And we can utilize the information of the stages and tasks of grief to do this work.
When I look at my own abuse, I think about the little girl who existed before it and then who essentially died because of what was done to her. That may sound dramatic to some. And it is true that the abuse any of experienced changed the course of our lives, irrevocably. The young, innocent, trusting person who existed prior to the chronic abuse and or neglect ceased to exist and grew into the people we are today.
We will never know what our lives would have been without the abuse and neglect we experienced. We will never know who those innocent children would have grown up to be.
When we are able to begin to consider all that was lost, we can then start to feel the emotions that come with that loss. The denial (which can also show up as it wasn’t that bad). The anger (or rage of what was done to us). The bargaining. The depression. The acceptance (which isn’t about it being okay, but about understanding these things happened and they deeply impact us).
We will cycle through all these emotions, often having more than one at the same time. This is part of grieving what was lost, yes. It is also part of processing the trauma itself. Of allowing ourselves to come into our bodies and actually feel the sadness of what was done.
And while feeling the emotions and sensations is vital, we also need to find ways to process them, to allow them to flow and move out of our bodies, minds, beings. We need to feel yes, and also to not get stuck in the feelings.
Emotions want to flow. They want to move. They want to come and go.
And since many of us have lived our lives at least partially dissociated and suppressing our feelings (emotions and the physiological sensations that go with them) we need to learn how to process them.
Worden’s tasks give us a way to do that. They give us a framework. One where we can acknowledge and accept the losses we experienced because of our trauma. Once we have acknowledged them we can then work through those emotions and sensations, feeling them, allowing them, and knowing they are valid and real. To accept the impacts of the abuse and how it has influenced our choices and lives and to create the space to ask all the what if questions we want. And to find ways to connect to those younger parts of us, to let them know they are safe now, and that you will keep them safe.
It is intense work. It is non-linear. Each individual comes at this work in the ways that are right for them. Often we move back and forth between tasks or are working through more than one task at a time. There is no one right way to process our trauma or our grief associated with it. We each come to this work in our time and work through it at our own pace.
And it is important work, I believe. Vital. So that we don’t perpetuate harm. So we don’t continue cycles and patterns that hurt us and can hurt others. So we can begin to live our lives on our own terms, becoming more and more self-aware and learning to shift and change the ways we respond to others and ourselves.
This essay was originally written for my weekly(ish) newsletter on September 8, 2019. It has been revised and edited for publication here. To receive my most recent essays (and more) you can subscribe here.
We will be utilizing both the stages and tasks of grief in the seven week writing program Embodied Writing :: Unspoken Grief. To learn more and register you can go here. We begin on September 16, 2019.