Copyright 2001 by Keith L. Kendrick
"There is nothing permanent except change."
"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."
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
"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