How I’ve Redefined the Stages of Grief and Realized It’s Not at All Linear

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I’ve lived with grief for 17 years, so nothing surprised me more than the guilt I felt for feeling sad on my mom’s birthday. On February 24th of this year she would have been 61, but it wasn’t the math on her age that wasn’t adding up—it was mine.

I kept thinking that at 27—almost two full decades from when she passed away—I shouldn’t feel this affected by those days filled with grief. I’d spent my entire career writing about how we grow up with grief and how it ends up manifesting in different ways as you grow, but along the way I’d stopped believing for myself what I so strongly believe for others.

When I hopped on the phone with licensed clinical psychologist Jordana Jacobs, PhD, I wanted to ask about how others could reassure themselves that they aren’t failing if their experience with grief isn’t linear. I wanted to talk to her about how someone with 17 death anniversaries under her belt could stop believing that time created distance from the pain of the loss instead of what had actually happened, which is that there are new circumstances for the pain to sit in.

“For someone that’s been told that their grief is very linear and believes it to be so and maybe isn’t checking those boxes, what would you tell that person?" I asked.

"I would remind them that there’s no right way,” explained Dr. Jacobs, who specializes in the intersection of grief and love. “Grief is an emotion and an experience that we have to surrender to. I think it can take many different forms and that the more you try to fit yourself into a box when it comes to grief, the less likely you are to move through it. The more you allow it to naturally unfold, the more likely you are to move through it faster.”

When I first lost my mom I was introduced to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief and how along the way denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance would provide markers for how far I’ve come in coping with my loss. I feel like I’m jumping between denial and anger right now and I know I’m feeling guilty about it.

For instance, I’ve used Instagram as a journal for my grief since I was 21 years old when I lost my grandmother, who raised me. This year I felt so embarrassed for again wanting to share with my community that I was having another grief day and that another big day without my mom was weighing on me. My grief isn’t young, but it still feels new and fresh sometimes and that felt wrong.

According to Dr. Jacobs, I’m not the exception, I’m a part of a larger reality.

"Grief can be undulating. One day you might feel okay and then the next you’ll almost be knocked over by the experience—that’s absolutely normal," she says. "It's almost [best] to expect that you don’t know what you’re going through. Predict the unpredictable when it comes to grief."

"Grief can be undulating. One day you might feel okay and then the next you’ll almost be knocked over by the experience—that’s absolutely normal." —Jordana Jacobs, PhD

Dr. Jacobs’ insight made me realize something my feelings of shame were eclipsing, holding on to what I do know about grief has made what I don’t know feel less overwhelming and more survivable. Coining a word for myself, “grief days," to describe the bucket of days when the grief is just too heavy helps me at least have a starting point of knowing what kind of day I’m dealing with. I turn to social media as a safe haven because with Instagram and Facebook pages and groups that are dedicated to conversations around grief, like Option B, Modern Loss, or The Dinner Party, I don’t have to work to remember I’m not alone. Anyone else choosing to share their grief with the community takes the heavy lifting off of my shoulders and makes me responsible for sitting long enough to embrace the reality of what I’m feeling.

"I think our culture in an attempt to try to understand something that is so difficult to understand has actually created more linearity than exists to give people a sense of comfort and safety which actually does the opposite,” explains Dr. Jacobs. “It ends up making us feel like we’re grieving in the wrong way. That will add more grief onto grief, like 'I’m doing something wrong.'"

Participating in conversations and groups that are centered around grief help me counter the expectation that we aren’t meant to talk about loss and we aren’t meant to feel grief outside of the expected days. I think this is where my own embarrassment, or anyone’s embarrassment, with regard to grief may stem from. While conversations around the reality of grief are becoming more popular, our everyday lives aren’t flooded with them unless we seek them out.

On my mom’s birthday, I felt like I was holding on to a grief that only I knew. Expanding my definition to include everyone else’s experience helped alleviate some of the shame and got me thinking of how non-linear the entirety of a relationship with grief actually is.

"I don’t know if we ever really stop grieving when we experience a significant loss," explains Dr. Jacobs. "It depends [too] on how you’re defining grief, there are more acute phases than others, but when you lose [someone], there is a certain kind of pain you can [always] carry with you."

How joining the "Dead Parents Club" was the best thing this staffer did after losing her dad. Plus, how to deal with ambiguous loss—or loss where closure isn't an option. 

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