The Stages of Grief, Explained

Stage One — Denial

When you first find out that your mother has died, call your best friend whose mom died when he was a sophomore at Amherst. While on the phone with him, notice that the case manager has followed you outside of Converse Hall. Joke on the line with your best friend that you’re going to run away just to worry the case manager. Seeing your laughter, the case manager will go back inside.

When you find out that there will be two memorial services for your mother, joke that she’s going on tour. When your family invites you to pick out the casket, think about how lovely it is that your input is valued. Walk the showroom with only your mom’s younger brother. Pretend to climb into one of the caskets and ask him to take a picture. Even though he says no, he’ll laugh.

When you’re waiting for the first memorial service to start, go on a walk with that same uncle. Ask him if you can practice your eulogy. Practice it but add an interpretive dance and some curse words. Even though he double checks that you’re not actually planning on doing all of that, he’ll laugh.

When it’s time to deliver your eulogy, think about how the previous song was much shorter than you thought it would be. When you read your eulogy, your mom’s parents will lose it. In fact, most people will completely lose it, but you won’t — not here in front of everyone, at least. As you take your seat, comfort your mom’s dad. Try not to wonder who will comfort you. When the preacher asks the heavens to protect and strengthen you, laugh to yourself that you’re doing just alright and that it’s really your mom’s parents who need protection and strength.

When the first memorial service ends, fly back to Amherst without missing a beat. Spend a week with people whose lives haven’t been affected, in the slightest way, by your mother’s death. When you return to your room to find cookies from Schwemm’s slid under your door, fake-sigh that your friends didn’t take the extra time to walk into town for donuts from Glazed. Joke with your best friends that you should tell people you’re registered at GoBerry and Dobra Tea.

When your aunt steps up to the podium during the second service to deliver her eulogy, feel threatened because she is really killing it. Get serious: you can’t be upstaged by your aunt. Once it’s your turn to speak, decide to deviate from your script. Set it aside. Everyone will lean in expectantly. It’s show time, you tell yourself. After a moment, realize that you’ve got nothing exceptional to say and that you don’t want to cry in front of everyone. Make a joke, one that you’ll soon forget, and go back to your script. Everyone will find it charming even though you’ll find it a train wreck.

Stage Two — Anger

At the burial site, be anxious to get out of the car and get reunited with your mom, your mom’s body, the casket, whatever. Now is not the time to figure out what happens when we die. You’ll be told to wait. Get angry that there is a protocol that must be followed. Get frustrated that, before walking towards the grave, you have to wait for dozens of people to line up and receive flowers. Try to be patient.

At the grave, after the casket has been lowered, notice that everyone is retreating back to the cars to head to the repast. Question why everyone is so excited to get to a buffet. Wait patiently for the casket to be covered with dirt but after several minutes of inaction, ask the lone guy with the shovel what’s up. You’ll find out from him that three other caskets have to be buried before they can start in on your mother’s. This seemingly insensitive procedure will make your blood boil: let it.

At this point, it is just you alone staring confusedly at the casket. You still do not understand what has happened to your mother. You doubt she is actually in there. It can’t be the case. She can’t be actually gone. Soon your father will approach you and talk about god. Speak up for yourself and ask him to be quiet or to go away. He’ll understand and stop talking. Stand in silence with him and feel the weight on your heart, on your life. Allow yourself to cry, it’s okay. Realize that you don’t want to leave this very spot. Feel certain that your life has ended too. Picture yourself lying next to the grave under the sun and never leaving your mom’s side. It’ll feel as if time has stopped, and, in some sense, it has. When reality sets in that you can’t stay and that time is still moving, grit your teeth. Again, it’s okay.

At Amherst, for the second time now, everything will feel insignificant. Overheard conversations will sound mundane and ridiculous. Life will seem mundane and ridiculous. You don’t have your mom anymore, what could be worse? How dare people have the audacity to be upset about something less bad than losing a parent, than losing a mother?

At Val, in between classes, and on your way to your dorm, your friends and acquaintances will ask you how you’re doing. Struggle to answer them. Know that if you say you’re doing okay, they’ll take that as permission to talk about their problems. Don’t be surprised that when they do bring you their problems, you’ll graciously give them advice. The anger that replaces the air when they leave will surprise you though. Wonder at how they’re able to be so thick and selfish. Remember that it wasn’t their mom who died. Know also that if you tell them your entire life aches, they’ll struggle to respond. They’ll panic at their inability to offer you solace because losing a parent in college is rare. Remember that. Reassure them that they’re doing just fine even if it annoys you.

Stage Three — Bargaining

Take some time for yourself. Quit your jobs and your activities. It’s getting harder and harder to focus anyway. Hike the Notch. As you’re hiking, you’ll be stirred by the motion that at the top, you’ll have to deal with it. You won’t be able to escape it. You can’t figure out exactly why though.

Take some time to enjoy the view once you get to the top. The trees have changed a lot in the two weeks since your last visit. Smile at the beauty. Read a book you brought to read for class.

Take in the material as best you can but the silence at the top will soon prove deafening. Figure out that this stillness is the reason why you’re forced to deal with it.

Take what resides at the bottom of your heart and let it out. Questions will surface that you had no idea you were curious about. “Why did you leave me?”, you’ll ask. “What am I supposed to do now?”

Take some comfort by lying back and taking deep breaths. Wait naively for her responses.

Stage Four — Depression

You’ll be told by a professor that “grief will grab you when you least expect it”. You won’t understand the meaning until you are at a tennis tournament, but even then not completely.

You’ll be waiting in line to use the bathroom. There will be a woman standing in front of you. After a minute or so, a second woman and a young boy will approach the woman standing in front of you. You’ll recognize from eavesdropping that the second woman is the babysitter and the boy is the son of the woman who is in front of you.

You’ll soon realize that the babysitter is taking the son away to babysit him for a couple of hours. She has brought the son over to say goodbye. In your line of vision, you will see the mother and son hug. He will say “I love you. I’m going to miss you”, she will echo him, and you will be rocked by grief.

You’ll look away to shake off this image. Even though you’ll have looked away, you’ll come face to face with some other thoughts. You’ll think about how you’ve still got to go through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, her birthday, Mother’s day, your birthday, again and again, all without her.

You’ll think about the quote that says unrequited love is somewhat like trying to show the painting you are most proud of to someone who is blind. You’ll equate the paintings to your future accomplishments. You’ll imagine yourself raising painting after painting over your head in euphoria. You’ll imagine yourself running to find her, to celebrate with her. But it will soon dawn on you that she’s not there to see. Sigh and lower the painting but don’t destroy it.

You’ll remember how when you were younger, you had nightmares of your mom dying. Recall how when you woke up from these nightmares, crying, you’d run to your mom and she’d solace you until the pain went away and until you were reassured that she was still there.

You’ll compare those nightmares to how you feel and you’ll think about how vivid and accurate those nightmares were, the only thing is, this time around, she is not there to comfort you after this nightmare.

You’ll learn about yourself that you’re more of a child than you’ve ever wanted to admit by how much you just want your mom’s presence. Her love. Above everything, it’ll feel that you’ve lost a wealth of irreplaceable love.

Stage Five — Acceptance

Ask yourself what it means to accept the fact that your mother has died. Ask yourself if that means you’ll forget all of the memories, if it means that you’ve moved on.

Ask yourself, specifically, what your family means when they say that you’re all they have left of your mother. Ask yourself if you’re merely a continuation of her. Ask yourself if it’s possible for your mother to be truly gone when so much of you is her.

Ask yourself what she has taught you. Ask yourself what you’ve learned about love, compassion, forgiveness, resilience, humor, self-care, everything. Ask yourself what the concept of family means to you now.

Ask yourself if you can accept the fact that all you have left of your mother is what she has taught you. Ask yourself if that is enough to sustain you.

Ask yourself if you’re content not knowing all of the answers. Ask yourself if you can not fret over not having all of the answers.

I don’t have the answers and I won’t for a while. It’s only been a little over a month and I still miss her more and more each day.