Grieving is a part of human life. However, it is not something we do well in the West. Most of us don’t take time for it, don’t allow it to each other and also don’t know how it actually works.

In the West we have banned decay and death out of our lives. We put elderly people in retirement homes where we don’t see them pass away. It is only when someone in our family or a close friend or colleague dies that we are confronted by it. And then it can hit us hard, really hard.

Actually, any change in our lives, is kind of the death of the old situation and the birth of the new one. Again, since we are not used to deal with death in the western world, this might be another reason why many people can’t handle change well even if it’s not about the physical death of a person, but the proverbial death of an old way of doing things, the structure of a company, a brand or a logo. In other words, grief happens when we have to say goodbye to someone or something. Most people only think of grief when a loved one has passed away.

However, every time we need to let someone or something go, grief occurs. It is felt much harder when it is about a goodbye that is clearly final, like the passing away from a partner, parent, child, friend or co-worker. In other words, we go through grief the whole time. When we change jobs, when children leave the house or when we return from a holiday, we go through the grief process.

The more we enjoyed or were dependent on the person or thing we say farewell to, the more sadness we feel.

That’s why some people get emotional when their first car breaks down or their favorite sweater is lost. For other people, grieving over the loss of something material might seem ridiculous, but it is just part of saying goodbye to something they were attached to.

The same can happen when we say goodbye to habits, patterns or identifications.

That’s the first reason why I share this topic: to understand what is going on with yourself.

The second reason is that you can better understand what is going on when other people go through the grieving process when they have to say farewell to the things they were attached to. And not only when it is about the death of a beloved one.

Next to people (loved ones), experiences (holidays) and objects (car) a grieving process might also occur when the way of working is changed in companies. Or when one of these events happen: a collective dismissal, a new company name, a disaster, a bankruptcy, the exclusion of the founders, a merger, an acquisition, …

As a Compassionate Leader, it is important to know how grief works so you can support other people or yourself when going through the process of saying goodbye. Of course the more impactful a loss was, the more intense this process will be and the more time it will need. For smaller losses you might hardly notice that you or someone else went through this grieving process.

Five Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was the person who has developed the ‘Five Stages of Grief’ model that is widely used in the West to understand and deal with the process one goes through when a beloved one passed away.

She wrote many books about the topic. A few of them together with David Kessler.

Although the focus of her model is grieving the loss of a person, in my opinion it can also be applied to any other situation where we need to say goodbye to someone or something.

The more we were connected, committed or attached to the person or thing, the more intense the process will be. However, the intensity and duration will vary from person to person.

The explanation below is an adaptation of the article ‘The Five Stages of Grief’ by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler on the website grief.com

Introduction

The stages of grief have evolved since their introduction and have been very misunderstood over the past four decades. They were never meant to help put unpredictable emotions into nicely ordered boxes. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.

The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling and understand what others are going through. But they are not fixed points on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all the stages or in the same, prescribed order. Some people might even go through more stages. Grief is as unique as an individual is.

Denial

Denial is the first of the five stages of grief. It helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. 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.

Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle.

As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.

Anger

Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.

There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this?”

Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger. Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.

At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died. Suddenly you have a structure – your anger toward them.

The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing. We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.

Bargaining

Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. “Please God”, you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.”

After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” We become lost in a maze of ‘If only…’ or ‘What if…’ statements.

We want life returned to what it was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion.

The ‘if onlys’ cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we ‘think’ we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.

People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.

Depression

After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined.

This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss.

We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all?

Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not the situation you’re in is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response.

To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way.

Acceptance

Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being ‘all right’ or ‘OK’ with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one.

This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing.

In resisting this new norm, at first many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on ourselves.

Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections, new meaningful relationships, new inter-dependencies.

Instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve. We may start to reach out to others and become involved in their lives. We invest in our friendships and in our relationship with ourselves. We begin to live again, but we cannot do so until we have given grief its time.

Dealing with the Five Stages of Grief as a Compassionate Leader

These are the five stages of grief related to the loss of a loved one as explained by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler.

As I mentioned before, for me this process applies to any form of saying goodbye. The less impact we had on the event and the more we were connected, committed or attached to the person, object or situation, the more intense the process will be. However, the intensity and duration will vary from person to person.

As a Compassionate Leader, it is important to understand this process. It is important to understand that this is not a linear process and that other people or you yourself can go back and forth between the stages.

It is also important to understand that for example anger and depression are part of the healing process. In the Western world we are not really used to deal with these emotions.

The way we respond depends largely on where we are on our own path of consciousness.

If we are in the Orange wave of existence (which is the center of gravity in most Western companies at the moment)we might not like it when people are not happy or not taking control over their life. So we want them to get back on their feet as soon as possible and we will push them to do so. This includes not only other people, but ourselves as well.

The problem with this approach is that the emotion and the related event are forced into the unconscious. As a result, they occupy development points.

We might also look at the people who are going through a grieving process as people in need. We want to take care of them. Although this is in theory a noble and compassionate deed, the pitfall is that we might see them as victims and ourselves as saviors. The result might be that we get stuck in this pattern. Since being a savior feels good, we might tend to keep the others in a dependent (victim) role. So, we are actually acting more out of sympathy or empathy than out of real compassion.

If we are in compassion mode, we can see the bigger picture of the grieving process. We can be present with them and ask them what they need. Not from a savior point of view, but from a fellow human being one. Depending on where they are in the process, they might need some suggestions and some invitations to act.

If you feel inclined to provide them with suggestions, ask yourself: “What is my motivation to do so? Do I want to get rid of a feeling myself, do I enjoy being a savior or am I just following my intuition without expecting any particular result?” The last one is the reaction of a true Compassionate Leader.