The Five Stages of Grief, revisited

Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages of grief in her terminally ill patients: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.   There has been some controversy over this progression since she introduced it in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, although Kübler-Ross clarified that these stages do not necessarily occur in any order and that some will experience only a few, or none, of them.

I found myself thinking about this yesterday in the context of my recent loss of two of my oldest friends, their adult children, and likely some common friends of ours, forced to take sides in a senseless conflict that will only end with death.   I was suddenly filled with anger at being defamed and hacked up this way while still alive, the irrationality and injustice of it, and wondering where the unexpected flood of anger came from.

This death during life is a hard business, and it is natural, I suppose, to deny that you are carrying a dead friendship around with you, once you enter the danger zone where every comment can lead to new accusations, threats and angry indignation.  So denial was certainly at play in the year or more that I fought to keep the dead friendship alive. 

Try facing folks incapable of solving conflict, compelled to fight any suggestion that they are less than perfect. They fight each other this way, the mutual silent treatment goes on for days on end.  They are both of a particularly rigid, competitive type, with perfect social faces and terror and rage at being seen as less than perfect.  I kept denying this could be true in two people I loved, laughed and cried with for so many years.

There was bargaining, every step of the way: if you calm down, and stop threatening me, I will prove to you that I have your best interests at heart, that I am the same as I always was, that we are friends for life, as we’ve been for decades, that I will always forgive you.   It was futile to bargain, since I was unwilling to yield the most essential point: that I was completely to blame for all the bad feelings between us.  It was the same kind of bargaining Kübler-Ross observed in her dying patients trying to bargain with Death.

I tried my best not to succumb to anger during the long, frustrating, life-draining cold war that followed a relatively straightforward and easy to sort out conflict (for anyone with minimal conflict resolution skills). I did my best, and refrained from venting, though my restraint and the look on my face as I restrained myself was apparently infuriating, and the fury directed at me was constant.

Depression certainly was a feature of the long struggle to not see the unsettling horror that was suddenly thrust in my face.  It was an agitated depression, sleep robbing and sharp-edged, filled with self-recrimination because I was somehow unable to reanimate the rapidly decomposing corpse of a beloved friendship.  Expecting the impossible from yourself, and berating yourself for your inability to do the impossible, are features of depression.

With luck you learn, in the end, to accept what you cannot change, no matter how hard you work, no matter how unacceptable the thing you must accept is.  Sometimes you get help, in the form of confirmation that you are not crazy, that the interpersonal conflict is not yours alone to solve, that you are not the one driving the bus that is heading over the guardrails and into the gorge.  

So you accept in the end that all of your goodwill, patience, your bargaining, your attempt to refrain from judgment, and anger, your attempts at reconciliation, making amends, extending understanding and the benefit of the doubt, self-reflection, are of no use in the situation you are up against.  Implacable anger that arises from a deep sense of shame does not yield to these things and, after enough pain, you hopefully understand and accept your powerlessness against this.

After accepting all that, and sleeping better, I was surprised to find myself feeling so fucking angry yesterday.  I don’t blame myself for the now eternal falling out (neither do these two blame themselves, of course) but I find myself in the position, with our mutual friends, of dancing around the supremely ticklish question of how I lost the love of these two saintly pillars of their community.  I find myself avoiding old friends out of discomfort I never felt with them. They believe a certain amount of the lies that have been deliberately told about me, or so it would appear. One has chided me more than once for being unforgiving. Without a short, frank discussion, I’ll never know how things actually stand, and possibly even with that discussion I may not know.

I find myself composing talking points like this, should I speak openly about the uncomfortable subject of being suddenly deemed unworthy of my old friends’ love (and how can it not come up, except through strenuously applied denial and avoidance — who do you talk to about such things if not old, trusted friends? [1]):

A terrible challenge is how the unthinkable end of this long friendship has impacted my relations with other old friends.  If I mention anything about our falling out with your friends, until recently my very close friends, it’s not to start a painful discussion or put you in the uncomfortable position of having to take sides.  I make mention of any aspect of it only in the context of talking about something I learned, and I hope that can be separate from sounding judgmental or influencing you one way or another in your feelings.

Trying getting your mind around delivering that talking point about the sinister shadow now hanging over your friendship with just the right fucking nuance.   Why must you master this delicate bit of high wire walking when your old friends have already spattered the walls with your blood in defending their perfectly moral actions?   Because your old friends are angry, judgmental, unforgiving, childish adults who have justified themselves by lying about the falling out between you, putting the entire blame on you, placing it squarely where you stubbornly, unforgivingly, refuse to accept it.  Fair is fair.

Chew on that one, if you love the taste of bile.  

[1] The answer to that, of course, is a skillful therapist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s