When you first hear that you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a life changing or life limiting condition, there are 5 stages of grief that we can all experience. Some don’t travel through all 5 stages, some experience them in a different order, and others will bounce around, re-visiting some of these emotions a number of times.
It is crucial to understand that these responses are all valid. There is no right or wrong way to travel through them, no rule book as to how long someone should spend feeling in any particular way before ‘moving on’ to the next stage. Loved ones, family and friends need to acknowledge these emotions, and support each other through it all.
“No - it must be wrong. This isn’t happening.”
Denial gives us time to process what we’ve heard, work out what it might mean for the immediate future, and the longer term. This reaction is a shock absorber, allowing us to deal with only as much as we can at that time. Denial allows us to focus on the immediate necessities, the now.
“Why me? I don’t deserve this.”
Anger is a more familiar emotion. We are used to suppressing it, but right now, we are angry. This anger can be directed at a few people, or at everyone. Loved ones, medical professionals, people providing support; they can all be in the firing line. Anger makes us feel stronger, more powerful, as we understand anger. However, all involved need to understand that the anger is there to mask the pain being felt.
“If the treatment cures her, I will devote my time to fundraising.”
Bargaining can be for different things. The patient themselves might bargain for a lesser form of the diagnosis, for a reduction in pain, for a release from the confusing tidal wave of emotions, for a break in the merry-go-round of appointments, medications and therapies. Relatives and spouses might bargain for a more positive prognosis, to ask for the diagnosis to somehow transferred to themselves, for more time with their loved one. People also start to question “What if ….”, and “If only …..”(what if I had led a healthier lifestyle / eaten better, if only I had not partied so hard when younger / got that lump checked sooner). This in turn can lead to guilt. Guilt very much focuses on the past.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Depression is experienced when thoughts turn to the future. “I'm going to be a burden.”, “Why should I carry on?”, “I should just give up this fight.” This is a tricky emotion for any person to manage, but also for the support people. Depression is a valid emotion (as are the others). It is an important part of the emotional healing process,and people should be supported with compassion and understanding.
“It is what it is - now let’s get on with life, albeit differently to how I first imagined.”
Acceptance is generally the final destination of this emotional rollercoaster (though not everyone gets off the ride first or second time around). This does not always mean that a person says “This is okay, I’m fine with it”. It is an understanding that the goalposts have changed - maybe even the game has changed! There is a new ‘normal’, a different baseline, but the game is still on.
Grief, in all its stages and forms, presents differently for every person. It is important to know that grief is a journey, though we can travel along separate paths. There is no timeline for grief, but we need to have that time in order to learn to cope. Love, patience and understanding will help us along the way.