by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

This summer in Colorado Springs, with over 300 houses in flames, there were firefighters trying to save salvageable homes while they knew theirs were burning to the ground. How do you cope with that?

Most who deal in rescues know you don’t—at least right then. You put it in a little corner of the back of your mind, and it smolders … and smolders. If you don’t finally deal with it, it can (like the fire to the houses) permanently damage, even destroy you, both mentally and physically.

Whether it be injury, death, loss of property, or loss of a way of life, coping with loss is central to moving on. As a doctor, I’ve seen too many times of major loss to remember them all. And like most of you, I’ve experienced it also.

One of the best books you can ever read about coping with loss is On Death and Dying, by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. After spending intimate time with multiple patients who knew they were dying she came up with five stages of grief common to them all. These stages can be found in not only people who know they’re dying but in anyone suffering a loss. And knowing the stages can help you better cope or comfort those suffering.

One thing you need to remember is these stages can last varying periods of time, from minutes to months. It’s healthy to have time to complete each stage and go on to the next so you can get to the last one—acceptance. In fact, I’ve seen people time and again not be able to finish a stage only to come back a year later and have to relive the situation. Eventually, everyone mourns a loss.

On the other hand, some get stuck in one of the stages. At that point, expert help is needed. If it’s not available, it can be very helpful to talk to someone with an empathetic ear—someone who’s a good listener.

Stages of Grief
  1. Denial: Our mind has to have time to sort through a shock. When first told of a terminal illness or that your house has been robbed, the initial reaction is denial. No, there’s no way. This a dream or it’s a lie, or someone has the wrong information. This stage hopefully lasts only a few minutes, but sometimes days. It becomes more important to get through this stage quickly if there’s action you need to take—like call the police or put out a fire. The only way I know you might do this is to become mentally prepared for likely disasters in your area. If you’re helping someone through a loss, just give them some time.
  2. Anger: Accept this as a stage you have to go through. It can be anger at yourself, your country, the doctor, the disease, or God. If you’re trying to help someone through a loss, remember it can be anger at you. You need to try not to take it personally and retort. After the person gets through this stage, they’ll need your help.
  3. Bargaining: This is the “if only I had done” such and such. Or the, “Please, God, if you’ll take away this, I’ll do whatever you want.” I’m not saying God doesn’t answer prayers. Just sometimes not the way you’d like.
  4. Depression: This is when the event fully hits you. You become sad, cry. It’s normal. Let yourself or the other person feel this. It’s healthy, to a point. Unfortunately, some people don’t go through this right away. But it’ll hit them, whether it be days, months, or even years later.
  5. Acceptance: At some point, you accept the reality. It doesn’t mean you’re not sad, and it doesn’t mean you might not go through the stages again. It just means you’re learning to live with it.

Now during a disaster, these stages might be delayed or get all jumbled. You may have no time at first because you’re trying to save your life or property. But at some point, they’ll come. Recognizing they will can help you get through them.

Do any of you recognize these stages from past grief? Do you have any tips on how to get through them?

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Photo by Konrad Summers on Flickr. (Photographer’s description, truncated: Monument for Jennie Roosevelt Pool, cousin of President Theodore Roosevelt, in Cypress Lawn Cemetery, California.)