As a hospital chaplain, I’m often asked what “normal” grief looks like. For instance, a staff member may notice a wailing hospital visitor and ask, “Is that normal?” or a weeping family member will ask, “Is it normal to be so angry?”
Few people have done a better job identifying the grief process than Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her 20th-century research named five grief components: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Ten years ago, I watched those characteristics unfold in the email of a 28-year-old mother that I’ll call Alicia. The email expressed “unanswered questions and concerns” after her baby daughter, Sarah, died in our hospital. While I can’t print the entire email, I want you to notice the normal grief stages in the excerpts below.
She begins her email in denial. “I am second guessing what more could have been done. I am still not 100% clear what exactly happened. … Even though I saw Sarah and held her as she died … it just still has not sunk in.”
The letter also expressed anger at the staff for not calling the grieving family in the days after the funeral. Alicia remembers, “We had everyone’s support, and then my daughter died and all the support ended.”
The letter’s bargaining paragraphs teeter between belief and doubt. First she says, “It provides me comfort in believing Sarah’s in heaven and with God.” But then she challenges her own faith by suggesting that heaven could have been “started by grievers who needed some solace in believing that there is more after death, that believing that it exists just helps people cope.”
Then, she stumbles back into believing: “Because to think that heaven doesn’t exist and that Sarah doesn’t live on … is more than I can handle, more than I can truly bare.”
Her depression stains the email with tears, crying: “Being in constant sadness and turmoil is such a difficult place to be. Sometimes, I am just not sure what to do to get through this; it is so painful. Sometimes I just want to hide from the pain, because it is more … than I have the strength to take on.”
She closes her email introducing the notion of acceptance. “But yet here I am, still moving forward … a day further than yesterday, so I must have the strength to do it. … I will get past this time and I will see better times, but of course I will never be the same. I will never forget her, and she will always be a part of me and there will always be a part of me that died along with her.
Alicia ends her letter by saying: “I have been lucky enough to dream about my daughter. … One in particular, my daughter was about the size and age when she died, she was sitting in my lap and just as happy as can be, smiling at me with this big opened-mouth grin.”
Alicia began her letter with “unanswered questions and concerns.” While I don’t remember my exact reply, I avoid the questionable answers that are often given in the name of religion. Answers like, “God needed your child more than you,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
If there’s anything I know from being a hospital chaplain, it’s that I have few answers. Instead, I find that when I invite people to speak the unspeakable and ask the unanswerable questions, they begin to discover the answers that fit their needs – not mine. And at the end of the day, their answers are likely to be the most normal ones to be found.