Unfortunately, sometimes children are forced to deal with their grief when their parents get divorced, or one of them dies. There have been many strategies put forth over the years. However, it is the landmark work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published nearly 50 years ago that has become the standard in the field giving grief counselors a critical structure for their indispensable work.
She has identified and explained the five main stages of grief, referred to as DABDA.
Denial is often characterized by such variant reactions such as avoidance, confusion, shock, and fear. It may seem counter-intuitive, but denial is the stage that very often is necessary to survive the immediate impact of the loss. By thinking that life no longer makes sense, or is too overwhelming, the psyche is shutting down and retreating into an unreal world that protects it from the frightening reality.
A child may harbor a false hope that none of this horror is true. Mommy or Daddy will soon walk through the door, and this terrible nightmare will abruptly end. Denial is crucial to help the child cope and survive the grief event. Denial shields the child from becoming completely overwhelmed with grief and thereby prevent its full impact to be felt all at once.
Once the denial and shock start to fade, the healing process begins. At this point, those terrible feelings that the child was suppressing rise to the surface. This next stage often involves frustration, irritation, and anxiety. Once reality begins to descend on the child, the questions arise, “why me?”, “is life fair?”, and on and on.
Because the child cannot comprehend that this could happen, she may direct blame and anger towards others in the family, or towards The Divine. Researchers and mental health professionals agree that although this anger is painful, it is essential for these feelings to be expressed. Anger is indeed a necessary stage of grief.
Experts in the field believe that although it may seem that the child is in an endless cycle of anger, it will dissipate. It has been found that the more truly the child feels the anger, the more quickly the anger will dissipate, and the faster the child will heal.
Whereas in everyday life, the child is instructed to control his anger, there is a different calculus regarding a grief event. Very often such profound loss is accompanied by the sense of being disconnected from reality, that the child is no longer grounded in this world. The child’s life is shattered, and there is nothing substantial upon which to hold. Strangely enough, anger is something to grasp onto- a necessary step in healing.
After the anger begins to subside, very often you will find the child attempting to make a deal with The Divine or some family member perceived to be powerful. Perhaps the child will say, “I will never be bad again if you just bring my daddy back!” This is called bargaining, and it is the way the child clings to a desperate yet false sense of hope.
The child feels that perhaps the pain and grief somehow could be negotiated away. So desperate is the child to rid himself of the pain that he is willing to commit himself to substantive changes in his life if that is what is what bringing back his home or loved one requires. The child is saying, “I am willing to do anything it takes to return life to normal.”
Based upon criticism over the years, Kübler-Ross acknowledged that these stages are not necessarily linear and some people may not experience any of them at all. Still, others may experience some of the stages and “skip others”entirely. Despite these qualifications, most who suffer grief do indeed travel through these five stages.
Once the child realizes that the negotiation isn’t going anywhere because no one can “make the deal,” she often feels overwhelmed, helpless and empty. These are the telltale signs of depression. Finally, the powerful realization that the person or the home that once was central to life itself is really gone, never to return.
When this finally sinks in, the child may be seen to withdraw from life, walk around in a fog, feel completely numb, or even decline an invitation to get out of bed. Being part of the world is overwhelming, there is no interest in being around others, and there is a reluctance even to talk. The “new reality” renders life utterly hopeless.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. However, acceptance doesn’t mean that it is okay that my parents are divorced, or one of them died. Instead, it is the felt sense that I am going to make it and be alright anyway. In this stage, as the child reenters reality, her emotions begin to stabilize. The child comes to terms with the fact that life will never be the same, but life can be lived nonetheless.
This is a time of adjustment and readjustment. Some days are good, some days are bad, and then the good days return. Don’t expect the child never to have another bad day – filled with uncontrollable sadness, but the good days will begin to outnumber the bad days.
The fog will leave and engagement with friends will begin anew. Perhaps most importantly, the child will start to understand that while the home will never be the same, nor can the loved one ever be replaced, there is the sense that it is possible to live a new reality.
Reaching his stage of acceptance completes the metamorphosis. This child is now a different person whose capacity to live and experience life is far beyond that child who suffered the traumatic loss that began the process.