“The five stages of grief”, developed by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying”, is one of the most well-known analytical frameworks of modern psychology. Based on Kübler-Ross’ comprehensive fieldwork on terminally ill patients, the model originally aimed to understand how people cope with death, and not grief per se. In later years, Kübler-Ross extended her model to the process of grieving as well, to correct widely held misconceptions about the model, showing in particular that these stages are not consecutive stops in some linear timeline in grief. This was indeed the main thrust of her book “On Grief and Grieving” that she co-authored with David Kessler in 2004.
Noting that, “there is no correct way or time to grieve,” Kübler-Ross and Kessler begin by exploring the notion of “anticipatory grief”, which they describe as the “beginning of the end”. During this initial phase, one operates in two different worlds at the same time; the familiar world in which we feel safe, and the unfamiliar world, deserted with the death of the loved one, where we no longer feel safe. Anticipatory grief, the authors say, is one of the mechanisms the subconscious deploys to prepare us for a new, uncertain world.
Anticipatory grief is more silent than grief after a loss. It is experienced introvertedly. It is impervious to external reactions. It does not like to talk, and often it cannot be verbalised. For that reason, a person experiencing anticipatory grief prefers silent interactions, such as being comforted by a gentle touch or silently sitting together.
The person facing death starts grieving “in advance” so as to prepare herself for the inevitable end. The people who love her grieve with her, sometimes without even being aware of it. The five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – help us understand anticipatory grief as well. Grief is not only experienced after death; it may precede death as well. Kübler-Ross and Kessler note that going through these five stages during the period of anticipatory grief will not make the process of grief after death easier. Anticipatory grief has its own dynamics; it takes its time.
The five stages in question are not chronological and neatly separated from each other. Not everyone experiences these stages in the same way and in the same order. These are all ways of coping with the loss of loved one and learning how to survive without her.
The first stage, denial, does not necessarily entail the repudiation of death itself. We know that the loved one has died. The feeling of denial is more symbolic in this sense. It is about not being able to accept that the loved one is not going to open the door and greet us again when we come home.
Denial is a state of being paralysed, of numbness. It helps us to survive the loss, and the shock of death. At this stage, life is meaningless. Everything is “too much”; everything annoys. We do not know whether we can go on living or how we will go on. Our sole purpose is to get through the day. Denial is the mechanism that makes this possible.
People who have lost loved ones often find themselves telling the story of their loss over and over again. This helps us to cope with the trauma of death. As denial fades, acceptance creeps in. Slowly, we start asking “how” and “why”. As we review the circumstances that have led to the loss of the loved one, we try to find an answer to the question “could it have been different? Was there another way?” Asking those questions means that we begin to accept the reality of loss and its inevitability. She is not coming back. She won’t open the door to us again. This time she couldn’t make it and defeat death. As the feelings of denial fade away, other emotions we suppressed in that process spring to mind.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross passed away on 24 August 2004 at 20.11 after a prolonged period of struggle with disease, without seeing her book “On Grief and Grieving” published.
The death of Kübler-Ross leads David Kessler to go through the five stages of anticipatory grief and grief himself that they have written about one more time. “I have to say that if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I might not have believed it, “he said in the preface to their book. “Many people agreed that in some way they thought she was immortal. She always said that when she ‘transitioned and graduated’, it would be cause for celebration since she would be ‘dancing in the galaxies among the stars.’”
He, on the other hand, did not know the meaning of death. Or the death he knew of was something that would happen in games. Only “bad guys” died. Good ones never died, and even if they died, they would come back to life with a blow. Sometimes in order to continue playing, it was required to blow the bad guys back to life as well. All in all, death itself was a game.
Real death was boring. Life was fun. That was what he said to mamma one night. But to me, he said he was afraid of death. His grandmother was with us too. She had come all the way from Turkey to see him, to kiss him one last time, despite a healing broken hip and an injured knee. The Swedish and Danish police were mobilised to make it possible for her aging, worn-out body to meet her grandson.
“Baba”, he said while playing with his Lego. “What if the cancer becomes 100, 1,000? Wouldn’t I die then?” I could not answer. Me and mamma never lied to him either, so I replied his question with a question, like mamma used to do. “Why oğlum? Are you afraid of dying?”. “Yes”, he said. His eyes were full with tears. I started crying as well. “Don’t be afraid. No matter what happens, mamma and baba will be with you, you know that, right?” was all I could say. “Yes”, he replied in a certain and confident tone. I was relaxed somehow.
But now, I cannot relax. Yes, I was by his side, we were by his side until the last moment, and even after that. But he is gone. He is not with us anymore. All these clichés, “He doesn’t suffer anymore”, “He will live in your hearts forever”, “He is watching over you from the sky”, they are just empty talk. You know it; they know it. They are trying to share your pain as best as they can. This the only thing they can do. If I were them, I couldn’t do any more either.
But I am not them. I am the one experiencing the loss. I am the one suffering. In this sense, I am alone. And I am not ready to accept it. Not yet.
A note to readers: I know you are bored with that story. Your life is hard, with the dollar rising and the lira falling capriciously, people languishing in prisons for no reason. Evil is everywhere. At least on the weekends, you would prefer to read something light, something beautiful. But I don’t let you. The editors of Ahval are complicit in my crime as they continue publishing my morbid tales. And yet I am not going to apologise, for this is my reality, at least for the time being. In this reality, in this parallel universe, there is no dollar, there are no prisons. There is only cancer and death. I am trying to get through the day, and I do it by writing. I will however stop writing about this once I write about all five stages of grief. The real grief will not end. I don’t know whether I will be able to write on other, more mundane, topics for death has transformed me. But I am sure I will give it a try. I will give life a try. The show must go on, right? Or... Should it?