"There is nothing permanent except change." Heraclitus "Weep not that the world changes--did it keep a stable, changeless state, it would be cause indeed to weep." William Cullen Bryant "One's philosophy is not best expressed in words. It is expressed in the choices one makes . . . the process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility." Eleanor Roosevelt 4. GRIEVING, CHANGE, AND CHOICE When sailing across an ocean, many changes and choices will require us to act. These can be resisted and cursed, but in most instances we will still need to deal with these dilemmas until we take the necessary actions. The best approach to such problems is to accept the inevitability of changes and choices on our voyage, and then try to deal with them better. This approach will enable us to most efficiently deal with the changes and choices as they occur, instead of wasting time and energy in coming to accept each new situation before we begin to deal with it. The same type of approach can also be applied to our day to day living; when we accept the inescapable aspects of life, we then can deal with them more efficiently. The term in the helping professions for dealing with losses in our lives is "the grieving process." This process is usually related to the loss of a person significant to us, but it is also associated with the loss of an object or the ability to do some activity. The greater the significance of what is lost, the more significant the grieving process will be. Ultimately, the process involves dealing with our own aging and eventual death. By understanding how this process works, we can improve the way we work through our own grief. This understanding can also help us develop a more efficient approach to dealing with two fundamental aspects of life: the constancy of change and the freedom to choose. Five stages in the grieving process are explained well in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying (1969), but I also add another stage which precedes those five. Thus, the six stages are: Alarm, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Alarm is usually the first reaction to a loss, and is characterized by a heightened anxiety due to the fear of an altered situation. Although this anxiety generally decreases in the following stages, it still weaves in and out during the process. In denial a person rejects the idea that a loss has occurred or is occurring. When a person completes this stage, the loss has been acknowledged and he or she can advance through the other stages towards acceptance. To complete the grieving process successfully, denial must be overcome. Some would say that overcoming denial is the most difficult and important step in growing, but it's also only the beginning of a long journey. Anger is the stage in which a person is feeling this emotion about the loss, whether it's expressed or not. Frequently it's expressed in inappropriate or harmful ways, or it may be repressed. But for a person to leave this stage and come to a healthy state of acceptance, the anger has to be acknowledged and dealt with so it can be left behind. Sometimes it remains hidden and unresolved, tucked deep inside where it seems to simmer until some stimulus causes it to surface, often in an unhealthy way; in other instances it may fester like an infection that eventually erodes one's quality of life. Bargaining occurs when a person tries to make some kind of trade-off so the loss can be avoided or restored. The bargaining might be attempted with another person, an organization, or a Supreme Being or higher power. It usually involves something the grieving person would do or give in exchange for preventing or reversing the loss. Depression is the period of sadness when a person is out of denial and to a large extent through with bargaining and anger: he or she is getting closer to acceptance. This can range from short-lived gloom to an incapacitating long-term despair. Usually some sense of guilt is also involved; the person has thoughts and feelings related to what he or she might have been done differently. In normal proportions depression is a healthy part of the grieving process and shouldn't be avoided or repressed. But if it becomes prolonged, more than six months to a year for significant losses, the person grieving may need outside therapeutic intervention. Acceptance is the final stage in the process and is achieved after the other stages have been successfully resolved. It is characterized by a surprising sense of well-being and tranquility, regardless of the loss; by reaching this deep acceptance, we enable ourselves to enjoy greater peace and happiness. The intensity of the first five stages can be quite varied, and sometimes one or more of them may be minimal. Even their order may vary, and one stage can recur later in the process. But regardless of their intensity or order, to the extent that they are present they need to be worked through before the genuine state of acceptance can be achieved. Efforts to speed the process or avoid any of the stages by suppressing or ignoring them only prolongs the process. Doing so also causes us to become less in touch with our feelings, and therefore alienated from an important part that can add to our wholeness. In addition, feelings that are not dealt with have a way of remaining stored up and then resurfacing in subtle ways. NOT RESISTING The key to easing our way through the grieving process is to not resist it. By acknowledging and being open to what we are going through, we enable ourselves to work through our grief and then move beyond it. But if we resist those feelings that are bound up inside us and need to be experienced, they are more likely to linger unresolved and hidden inside. We stay in denial partly to avoid anger and depression, yet this really only delays working through these stages. Once we get over denial, we are more able to make progress. Then if we are angry, we need to acknowledge this so we can deal with it and let it go. If we are depressed, we need to not mask it with phony cheerfulness or numbing stoicism. Sometimes people become stuck in stoicism or a false cheeriness because they're afraid to be depressed. But by allowing ourselves to be depressed for a reasonable period of time, we are allowing ourselves to work through the feeling. If we are trying to strike a good bargain, we need to give it a good effort, so later we won't be as likely to wonder if we should have tried harder. However, when we try to avoid grieving, our grief is more apt to affect us in obscure and perplexing ways. CHANGE Through all of life there are some immutable principles that do not change (such as the law of cause and effect), but everything else is constantly changing. Often we are not aware of these changes because they are too subtle for us to notice. Sometimes we don't notice changes taking place simply because we haven't sufficiently developed our awareness. Usually the changes most obvious to us involve our personal and professional relationships, and our physical and mental abilities as we grow older. But from a larger perspective some of the more mundane things we ordinarily view as permanent take on another appearance. From this perspective even supposedly permanent things can be seen as being in a state of change, and thus not as stable and enduring as we once might have thought. We think of glass as being solid, yet we can see evidence of the change that takes place in glass by looking through the original windows in very old buildings. At one time this old glass had less distortion, but over time the gradual effect of gravity causes the glass to flow slightly downward, producing distortions that appear in horizontal alignment with gravity. Rather than just being defects from of the manufacturing process, the distortions reflect the pull of gravity; the glass actually flows minutely downward and becomes slightly thicker at the bottom. As glass is always in a state of change, so is our planet. The earth's continents continue to shift minutely as they have been flowing for eons. The power of water when it freezes splits rock, and as water flows it slowly grinds mountains into sand. Our solar system's star, the Sun, is changing and will eventually go out. Everything is composed of molecules and their sub-atomic particles, and these are always in motion. Physicists call this motion "constant flux"; even rock is therefore in "constant flux." We may not always be able to see how change is taking place--nevertheless, it is still occurring. As our planet, and the universe as well, is always in a state of change, so is each of our lives. One of our challenges is to increase our awareness of the constant changes going on around us, just as we don't actually see the movement of a clock's hour hand, yet we know that it is moving. A major problem we all face occurs when a valued relationship changes and then how that relationship meets our expectations is altered. Such a change can involve a relationship with a mate, child, parent, boss or friend, or it can be a relationship involving our work setting or housing situation. The most intimate relationship that change affects is the one with our own bodies and minds as we grow older. Every change in a relationship involves the loss of something, whether it's familiar surroundings or doing some activity. However, not all change is perceived as a loss; some changes are welcomed. But when change is seen as reducing our overall pleasure or satisfaction, it is then regarded with some fear, and this fear causes the change to be perceived as a loss. Even what could be a positive change can be seen as a loss. The change from a familiar, though self-defeating relationship or job to a more positive one can be perceived as a loss due to the overriding fear of the anticipated risk, discomfort, and anxiety of a new situation. When we were children, we clung to those things that made us feel good--and we didn't want them to change. As adults we have relationships that bring us pleasure or satisfaction, and we don't want these to change. Whether it's hidden or not, we all have at least a small degree of fear that perhaps our job, mate, body, or environment will change for the worse. This fear occurs because of the possible loss we associate with the change. However, the greater this fear is, the more it activates our "fight or flight" response. Then instead of trying to understand and deal with changes more effectively, we either try to fight them or try to avoid them. Inevitably though, all our relationships change whether we want them to or not, and we will still need to deal with those changes. To best come to terms with changes that are felt to be losses, we have to work through the stages in the grieving process that go along with the losses. Often people get stuck and are never able to move on to acceptance. But if our fears activate our "fight or flight" response and prevents us from reaching a true state of healthy acceptance, then moving on to further challenges is hampered. By moving beyond our fear, we gain the power to advance to greater things. In addition, accepting that change will occur gives us more power to alter our approach to those changes so we can better control their outcomes. To the extent that we haven't accepted change, we are less able to influence its effects. CHOICES Not only are changes constantly taking place around us, but in every situation we have choices about our responses. Just because we might not like these choices doesn't mean that they don't exist. Frequently though, many people are not even aware of this freedom to choose. They often say they have no choice because they don't like the alternatives. Phrases common to this view are "I have to, because I don't have any choice," and "They made me feel (or act) that way." If we make either of these statements, we are giving up our freedom to choose how we respond, while usually not even realizing that we have thus made an important choice. Actually, in making this choice we are choosing to continue with our present approach, instead of deciding to change our way of thinking. By doing so we also try to avoid the reality that we can change how we think and act, and we continue to deal with the situation in our old, familiar way because it seems easier and more convenient. In realizing that we can choose how we respond, that we always have choices in our thoughts and actions, we expand our ability to respond. Then we can choose new responses--though at times it may be difficult--or we can continue with our old responses with the knowledge that this is our favored choice, rather than something we actually have to do. This realization also gives us the important ability to change our feelings, because as we alter our thoughts and actions, we also influence the way we feel. In recent years much has been said about needing to push ourselves past our "comfort zones" in order to grow. This means we have to force ourselves beyond the familiar and relatively comfortable confines of our present lives if we are going to come closer to achieving our potential. Although this is true and sounds great, it's a tremendous challenge because it requires that we rise above our fear of change, and that we accept the responsibilities and difficulties in making choices. To understand that we choose our course, and can choose it more consciously, is a great source of personal power. The alternative is to become stuck in familiar mediocrity and discontent. UNAVOIDABLE GRIEF Understanding the grieving process can help us deal with the reality of changes and choices. Although we can't eliminate all the discomfort associated with this reality, we can reduce it. Beginning early in our lives we frequently try to deny the choices presented to us each day. As we gain maturity, we slowly come to accept many responsibilities by making choices in a multitude of situations. Similarly, at first we try to deny changes we perceive as losses, and gradually we may come to accept them one by one. Yet each time, before we can come to accept an individual change and choice, we need to overcome any denial of it. Then we may become angry, depressed, and try bargaining before we make each choice and deal with each change--but when these stages occur, we need to resolve them before we can come to fully accept each change and choice. However, we can not completely avoid the grieving process before coming to an acceptance of these changes and choices. If we try to hurry the process by repressing our feelings, we cut ourselves off from them without ever resolving them, which in turn can cause us problems later. LOSING ILLUSIONS: GRIEVING EFFICIENTLY But just as we can sail across an ocean and become more adept at dealing with the changes and choices inherent to the undertaking, we can also become more efficient in accepting those we face in daily life. When we understand the inevitability of changes and choices throughout our lives, we can work through the grieving process in coming to accept this all-encompassing reality. In achieving this overall acceptance we reduce the amount of grieving related to accepting each of our smaller, daily changes and choices. By doing so we free ourselves from some of the denial, anger, and depression we once experienced when faced with each small, individual problem. We then won't go through as much grieving again and again with each change and choice we encounter. Therefore, we will be able to more efficiently choose how we think and act in response to all changes and choices. Many people wish they could have again the best happiness they experienced during childhood, and also that it could remain unchanged. But the greatest happiness we can have in adulthood is grounded in maturity, and it will always fluctuate. To accept this reality fully, we have to grieve over the loss of our childlike illusions. Once we have accomplished this, we will be more able to embrace the constant changes and responsibilities of life. How can we facilitate the grieving process involved in losing our childlike illusions of stability and our illusions of not having choices? The key again is--do not resist the process. To routinely repress our anger or sadness and cover it up with a phony image is to live a charade in which we are the losers. By trying to deny our grief we cause it to remain within our personalities, where it subtly contributes to our problems. Denial is an attempt to avoid experiencing anger and sadness. Instead of resisting these feelings, we need to be open to experiencing them. When we feel anger, we need to acknowledge it. Yet if we express our anger, it needs to be expressed appropriately--anger shouldn't be used as an excuse for acting harmfully. If we feel sadness, we need to experience it, rather than try to repress it because we think we shouldn't feel or look sad. When we stop resisting our grief, we are more able to overcome it and move on. Any experience we are going through will always change--and by not resisting it we help it to flow and dissipate! Sometimes when a person acts angry and people call attention to this behavior, the person will deny being angry because he or she doesn't want to acknowledge it. Then, instead of getting over the anger, the angry person continues to experience a problem due to the unresolved feeling. But such anger can often be defused by a discussion which appropriately acknowledges the anger. Similarly, when people cry in acknowledgement of their sadness, they seem to get over it sooner. But if they repress the need to cry, their sadness seems to carry on, hidden inside, for a longer time. However, we also shouldn't cling to sadness or anger, because this clinging would be resisting progress to the state of acceptance. Yet to let go of what we are clinging to is difficult: it means giving up the relative comfort of our present situation and moving past our fear of the unknown. But we can help ourselves overcome this fear and let go of our resistance with the knowledge that embracing change and the freedom to choose are the optimal ways to achieve our potential. Occasionally, though, despite all the knowledge we have gained, we may still become stuck in our grief. If this happens, we then have to consciously force ourselves, despite how we feel, to change our course by focusing on a different and more constructive activity. By further embracing change and choice in this way, we help ourselves get back on the journey of growth. The acceptance of change and loss on the overall scale, however, will not eliminate the grief of the more life-shattering losses, some of which are inevitable. But this overall acceptance will help prepare us emotionally for more severe grief. If we are used to facing losses in healthier ways, then when we suffer a major loss we will be better at progressing through the grieving process; our practice will make it easier. In addition, as a result of achieving more of our potential and living better, our lives will be filled with greater joy and love, and we will have fewer regrets and less guilt about how we used our lives. Questions we can ask ourselves: 1. What losses in my life have I left behind without ever fully resolving them to the point of acceptance? Does my anger or sadness ever stem from these unresolved losses? 2. How do I deal with change? Do I usually expect it? When have I resisted it and ended up hurting more? How can I accept changes and work to make the best of them? 3. Do I choose my responses to situations, or do I give my power to choose away to others by blaming them for what I am feeling and doing? When do I realize and accept the choices in my life? When do I become angry or depressed because I don't want to assume responsibility for myself? 4. How easily do I accept changes I am faced with? When do I reject the reality that I have choices? How can I increase my awareness that in every situation I have several choices? Suggestions for further reading: "Life's Parachutes: How to Land on Your Feet During Trying Times" by Paul Coleman "The Wisdom of Insecurity" by Alan Watts "Choices: Coping Creatively With Personal Change" & "The Secret Strength of Depression" by Frederic Flach "Coming Back: Rebuilding Lives After Crisis and Loss" by Ann Stearns "The Art of Dying" by Robert E. Neale
Copyright 2001 by Keith L. Kendrick
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