Loss due to death is inevitable to the human experience. With the eschatological view of 1 Corinthians 15:51 aside, we will all experience death. Death of a loved one, death of a friend, death of a spouse, death of pet; death is an unavoidable part of life. When death happens, it can leave those connected to the deceased in an emotional and psychological whirlwind. Everyone deals with death differently but one thing is certain; grief is a process.
As a former aspiring political science major and former aspiring lawyer and politician, election season always gets my attention. Many of us have been watching and even speculating over the past couple of months as we have awaited a final confirmation on whether or not Vice President Joe Biden would run for president in 2016. As one who did not complete that political science degree or any law degrees [yet], but did complete a couple of psychology and counseling degrees, my focus has been on what we all know would be a determining factor in Mr. Biden’s decision; grief. Earlier this year, Mr. Biden lost his son, Beau Biden to brain cancer.
Late last week, he announced that he would not run for president in 2016. Tonight on #60Minutes, he further elaborated on his reasoning behind the decision. He simply stated, “Everybody grieves at a different pace.” He also stated that he struggled with thoughts on whether or not he could emotionally handle running for president after just losing his son. As a man of great character, discipline and principles, he understands that in order to run for president of the United States, you have to give the people, the donors and the campaign everything you’ve got. He simply stated that he was not prepared to do that this late in the game because he had been grieving.
We could learn a lot from the Vice President. In my line of work, I have seen it all too often. How many times have you heard people say to the grieving, “Dust yourself off and get over it!” Or maybe you’ve heard this one, “Put yourself back to work. Get your mind off of it.” These clichés and sayings sound good, but they are not in the best interest of emotional and mental health. These types of statements make people think that they can just “get over” grief. It doesn’t work like that. You must go through the process and everyone’s process looks different.
In my lifetime, I’ve been to my share of funerals. Nothing disturbs me more than hearing anyone, whether it’s a preacher or someone who has been given 5 minutes to speak (and takes 15 minutes) discourage people from crying and showing emotion. Ecclesiastes 3 says there’s a time to weep and mourn. Even Jesus wept! Weeping and crying is part of the grief process. Sharing memories of the deceased is part of the process. Talking about how the person’s death affected you, whether it is in a positive way or a negative way is part of the process.
Even though everyone experiences and expresses grief differently (whether internal or external), we understand that grief has five (5) basic stages [these can apply to death or loss of a relationship/friendship, the loss of a limb/body part, etc.]. Just like the grief process, these stages have no certain time limit:
- Denial and isolation. This is a defense mechanism that helps ease the initial shock and/or pain felt when one hears about death.
- Anger. When the defense mechanism of denial no longer works, anger is the next best thing. Anger is sure sign that you don’t want to feel vulnerable. Anger can be expressed at anyone from friends, relatives (fights planning services, will/estate fights, etc.); one could even be angry at the person who died or left (loss). People even find themselves angry at the doctor or health professional who may have treated their loved one if they were sick; angry at the hospice workers or nursing home staff. Anger is a deflecting emotion and lets you know there’s something deeper going on that you’re trying to mask. Anger is a symptom, not the problem. (read that again; slower this time).
- Bargaining. Deal making. This rationale behind this is to regain control if the person is dying. This includes trying to “make deals” with God. After a person has died or a relationship has been lost, bargaining turns into “if” and “what if” statements: “What if we had got them to the doctor sooner” and so on. This can also be a form of blaming.
- Depression. Depression is marked by sadness, withdrawal, displeasure in usually pleasurable activities and even suicidal thoughts. Some people experience this longer than others. If you experience this longer than two weeks, you need to seek professional help because you are probably “stuck” in a grief phase. There are exercises a professional counselor can take you through and coping skills they can teach you to help you overcome depression. I’ve seen people go into caves of depression because of grief and not come out for a very long time. It’s not healthy. Depression doesn’t have to last forever. On the other hand, you may have a mental illness which was triggered by the death or loss. Being assessed by a professional is the best option.
- Acceptance. This stage involves learning to live with the new reality that your loved one is no longer in your life. In this phase, you have moved past anger, blaming, denial, bargaining and depression and you have accepted that even though you miss the person, they are no longer physically with you and they are not returning. In acceptance, you begin to enjoy activities again and create new memories, all while still cherishing your deceased loved one’s memory. Acceptance is the healthy way to “move on”.
These stages are not always fluid or consecutive for everyone. Everyone doesn’t automatically go from denial, to anger to bargaining. Some go from denial to bargaining, to anger. Some cycle through the first four stages for months and then finally get to a place of acceptance. Some people never make it to acceptance. Everyone’s grief looks different, however the goal is always acceptance.
I applaud Vice President Joe Biden. He had sense enough to not let people–insensitive people as well as people who meant well–rush him into something he was not emotionally ready for. People who are grieving need time. They need support. They don’t need to wallow, but they do need to be comforted. People who are grieving often need short-term counseling. I have worked with several individuals throughout the years in 3 to 4 sessions to help them get on the right track. It has kept them from spending years in a cycle of grief when they should’ve been at a place of acceptance years ago. It has helped them from using drugs, alcohol, sex and the like to cope with being grief-stricken.
So what’s the takeaway? Deal with your grief! Don’t sweep it under a rug. Don’t suppress your feelings and emotions. Don’t be so strong for everyone else and forget about your own soul. I’ve seen unprocessed grief break up marriages, destroy homes, destroy churches, destroy families and leave children in the crossfire. It must be dealt with. Don’t avoid your problems, face your problems!
Grief is a hard thing to deal with. In my professional and personal opinion, it took great strength for Mr. Biden to not “throw himself” into “work” but to basically say, “I can’t do this right now.” He’s dealing with his emotions, and that take time. It took so much time that he feels like he can’t jump in the race right now and make up for lost time. And that’s okay. I would rather for him to deal with his grief now than to suppress it, become the president of the United States and crack under pressure.
Let’s all deal with our emotions the healthy way! If you need professional help, don’t be afraid to seek help. It could save your life.
Joshua Peters Smith is an author, speaker dream coach and a certified mental health therapist with seven years of experience in the mental health field. Joshua has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in professional counseling and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling. Joshua is the founder of the Soul Healing Initiative, a forum focused on emotional healing, health and stability, education and mental health awareness. Booking: firstname.lastname@example.org
Grief stage names taken from:
Axelrod, J. (2014). The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/.