Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance; the classic ‘Five Stages of Grief’.
Personally I remain unconvinced that this is necessarily a sequential set of ‘stages’ through which we pass in bereavement, but I do recognise that these experiences – in whatever order they may come - are very common in those facing loss.
In my own journey of these last 8 years in terms of my diagnosis of MS I have experienced denial, anger and depression, but not in that order and sometimes I find myself returning to one I thought I had passed through. Have I reached ‘acceptance’? I think I move towards a greater acceptance and then revisit denial or anger before moving on again to still deeper acceptance and so on back and forth.
So, for example, in the aftermath of my diagnosis I did experience ‘denial’. I moved on from that to a limited sense of acceptance, but in these last few months I found myself returning to denial before moving back to a still deeper (although neither a ‘happy’ nor ‘resigned’) acceptance.
I had no conscious feeling of anger until a few weeks ago, some 8 years after my diagnosis! And I do not recognise or recall any attempt at ‘bargaining’.
And yet, I wonder if I have in fact been experiencing these emotions, but simply not realising that they had anything to do with grieving or with my medical condition.
Why do small insignificant things so irritate me?
Why do I sometimes feel so strangely sad for no apparent reason?
Why do prayer about my family or my ministry or whatever sometimes seem so much like bargaining with God?
I reckon we all go through something of this when life changes and loss is experienced, whether that be in terms of bereavement, health challenges, ageing, loss of status, employment or workplace changes, or – indeed – changes in a congregation, its style, its worship its key people etc
In the face of loss (whether that loss is recognised or unrecognised) relatively minor things assume a disproportionate significance and can attract a great deal of emotional investment.
Perhaps, for ministers, that is worth us bearing in mind. When some seemingly small or insignificant change or innovation in the congregation occasions a great deal of emotion, what is really going on? Are people experiencing or feeling a deeper loss? Not that we can always tell (and even if we can, not that we can always do something about it!)
For me the irony is that one of the most painful losses I experience when I go through a dip in my health (as I am currently experiencing) is the loss of a certain degree of cognitive function, discernment, decision making ability and good planning – the very things that are required in ministry when others are experiencing their own unrecognised losses!
Most people think that MS mainly affects mobility and sensory functions etc. While not entirely free from these, I have to deal with them only occasionally and at a relatively mild level. But the commonest symptom of MS is chronic fatigue and emotional lability and cognitive dysfunction are also very common. These are the three which most affect me, and there it is that I feel the greatest and deepest loss. And still I keep swinging from denial to acceptance, from mild depression back to acceptance, and now also anger to (I hope) a still deeper acceptance... and the hope that – as has happened in the past – I will again emerge from this dip and normal service will be resumed.
In and through this journey, the Psalms have been my companions. In their honesty, confusion, comfort and hope I find a great deal of strength. There are few ‘answers’ in the Psalms, and I am thankful for that. Right at the moment I don’t need ‘answers’; I need hope.
‘Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.’