Updated: Jul 11
It's the middle of the night in 2005. My Nokia cell phone vibrates me awake somewhere under the covers, and I manage to locate it quick enough to hit silent. A few moments later, the vibrating is present again. This time I look to see that it's my brother in a time zone three hours behind me, but it will have to wait until tomorrow. I'm just too sleepy. The third round of vibration begins. "Alright, I better answer this"….
Brother: "Mom's dead! Mom's dead!" (Heaving and sobbing).
What happened after that is mostly a blur of tears, sleepless nights, and terror. Sheer terror.
How could life be this fragile? I just saw her two days ago. I didn't get to say goodbye. Why did she die, was she murdered? Poisoned? I should've gone on that trip with her to the mountains this summer…
My mind couldn't rest. My brain couldn't make sense of this harsh new reality. She was healthy, from what I knew, besides the fact that she fainted the other night.
After a week or two we had our answer. A blood clot in my mom's leg led to a pulmonary embolism (PE) that killed her instantly. A freak death nobody could've predicted, not even the doctor she went to the day before. Looking back, she had signs like weakness in her arms, moderate leg pain, and that tell-tale fainting episode, but nobody put all of this together into a diagnosis, not even her doctor. The sad truth is that if we had known the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism at that time, she could be alive today to meet her only granddaughter.
Thankfully I had family and friends who surrounded me with love and support leading up to the funeral, but rightfully everyone needed to return to their everyday lives, and then I was on my own. For the first time in 26 years I had to learn how to survive without my mother. So, I went to the only place that had all the answers in 2005, the self-help aisle at Barnes and Noble.
As I perused the shelves for an instruction manual on how to live without my mom (as if that was possible), I came across several books that mentioned Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's Five Stages of Grief.
"Yes!" I thought to myself. "The instruction manual for how to grieve… ok, let's go."
The Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Dying (Grief)
Denial - "Sure, denial sounds better than the truth. No problem. Done."
Anger - "Perfect, I'm already an expert here."
Bargaining - "What the? Oh, this is the "if only" stage. "If only we knew the symptoms of PE.”
Depression - "This will be tough, but I got this. Just let me find the depression shelf."
Acceptance - "Um, that's going to be a tall order, but maybe one day? Nah, not happening."
Kubler-Ross's studies on the dying took place in the 1960s and are still falsely believed to be about those who are grieving. After examining the research, it turns out that Kubler-Ross's work is widely misunderstood. Kubler-Ross developed the five stages of DYING, not grief. Her studies were based on people with terminal illnesses, not those who were grieving the loss of a loved one.
Research on people who are dying versus those who are grieving is a critical distinction. We think this misinterpreted information spread so quickly and deeply into our belief systems because there was little research on grief in the 1960s. People were eager to adopt any support they could find for the painful suffering caused by bereavement and the stages of grief filled a need. Plus, humans love instructions and simple formulas for things we don't understand.
I admit that the five stages were a place to start, and looking back, I can see how slivers of these stages entered my grief journey in different ways, but the stages didn't resonate with my inner experience with grief. Don't get me wrong, I look up to Kubler-Ross as a pioneer in psychology. She brought death, a topic most people were too afraid to talk about back in the 60s, into the conversation. Even today our culture refuses to acknowledge death by using words like "passed away" and "put to sleep", but we've come a long way thanks to Kubler-Ross's work and I am grateful for her incredible contribution to the field.
However, if we don't clear up the misunderstanding of her research, the five stages can feel like the five expectations, and unfortunately, I know from experience that grief doesn't come with a checklist of steps to complete.
Grief is one of the most painful emotions, and it shows up uniquely for each person, even close family members who are grieving the same person. The five stages of grief can create a judgment about how others grieve and create ruptures in our relationships with people if they aren't grieving "the right way." How you react to the death of friend or family member is yours to hold, regardless of what anyone says or believes.
In addition to the expectations, the stages of grief can create shame within ourselves. We could feel that we haven't adequately reacted to the death of a loved one if we didn't experience specific stages. So, while the stages did give us some information, they aren't sufficient and could cause distress on top of the already existing grief.
For example, my grief crushed me with anxiety, panic, and intrusive images of what my mother must've looked like when the police broke down her door to find her. Mornings were the worst. Upon waking up, my brain had a moment of amnesia where it didn't remember she was gone, but soon the truth and the nausea would set in.
It's been almost 17 years since my mom died, and now my grief looks much different. Although it is still ever-present, my grief has softened and matured over the years. Thankfully through therapy and doing the work to help myself, I found a way to turn my pain into purpose and my mess into a message. Of course, it still hurts and it will always hurt, but I don't want my grief to end. I don't want to find closure on my mother's life.
My grief is one of the only remnants of her existence in this world, which is something I take great comfort in knowing. It is the way I stay connected to my mother. Crying about her makes her real again. It reminds me after all this time that she mattered, that her life had meaning.
If you are or a child you love is grieving, I recommend the same path. Death does not end our emotional attachment to our loved ones. Instead, our relationship with them continues in our hearts and minds. So while death requires us to shift to a spiritual connection, it doesn't mean the end of the relationship altogether.
Here are some simple practices that helped me through my lifelong journey with grief. You can also encourage children to do these activities to honor their relationship with their parents or caregivers.
How to Maintain a Relationship with the Deceased
Praying or speaking to them as though they can hear or receive our message
Asking them for a specific sign to show us they are listening, and keeping an eye out for that sign
Writing letters to our loved ones, filling them in on what they've missed and how we’re feeling
Asking them to visit in a dream. This is a frequent place I spend time with my mother's spirit
Writing a narrative or drawing a picture of what happened the day they died
Visiting places they loved and seeking to feel their presence with us.
Doing activities and hobbies they enjoyed doing, even things we’ve never done before.
Sharing memories with those still living, even if they didn't meet the loved one. My daughter didn't get to meet her grandmother, but she knows all about her and tells me she misses Grandma.
Join a Facebook group to surround yourself with people who are also grieving so you don't feel alone. I find the group Motherless Daughters to be very therapeutic for me.
Creating a yearly ritual on their Birthday, holidays, and deathaversary. It can be as simple as lighting a candle in their memory or sending leaves down a river.
Going through old photos and videos. Spend time thinking about our love for the person. I would avoid the "what if's" and the "if only" thoughts. Focus on being present with the feeling of love and longing for the person and where we feel it in our body.
These are a few ideas that might help, but they are for educational purposes only. If you find that grief is interfering with daily functioning, sleep, and eating habits, or you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek the help of a licensed mental health professional immediately.
Although these practices helped me, they might not be the right fit for you, and that's ok too. Keep trying things until you find what works, and remember that there isn't a right or wrong way to grieve. Do what feels natural to you and give yourself or the child who is grieving time to probe into the grief a little each day.
Beth Tyson, MA, is a childhood trauma consultant, 3x best-selling author, keynote speaker, and an advocate for children in the child welfare system. She provides international training and consulting on childhood trauma and loss, and is currently creating content for a trauma-informed animated series for teens.
To collaborate, schedule an event or inquire about consulting projects please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.