Back in the mid-twentieth century, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and they stuck. Heck, I just wrote about them last month. According to Susan Berger, researcher and practitioner in the health and mental health fields for over twenty-five years, those five stages may work well for the dying individuals. But for the folks who are left behind to grieve the loss? Not as successful. In her groundbreaking book, “The Five Ways We Grieve: Finding Your Personal Path to Healing after the Loss of a Loved One,” Berger offers five identity types that represent different ways of creating meaning from the loss of a loved one in an effort to redefine a life purpose, a reason to continue growing spiritually and emotionally, and to find meaning in this life.
- Nomads are characterized by a range of emotions, including denial, anger, and confusion about what to do with their lives. Nomads have not yet resolved their grief. They don’t often understand how their loss has affected their lives.
- Memorialists are committed to preserving the memory of their loved ones by creating concrete memorials and rituals to honor them. These range from buildings, art, gardens, poems, and songs to foundations in their loved one’s name.
- Normalizers place primary emphasis on their family, friends, and community. They are committed to creating or re-creating them because of their sense of having lost family, friends, and community, as well as the lifestyle that accompanies them, when their loved one died.
- Activists create meaning from their loss by contributing to the quality of life of others through activities or careers that give them a purpose in life. Their main focus is on education and on helping other people who are dealing with the issues that caused their loved one’s death, such as violence, a terminal or sudden illness, or social problems.
- Seekers look outward to the universe and ask existential questions about their relationship to others and the world. They tend to adopt religious, philosophical, or spiritual beliefs to create meaning in their lives and provide a sense of belonging that they either never h ad or lost when their loved one died.
Unlike many authors of grief books, Berger has grappled with grief her entire life. She lost her father when she was just eleven years old. Her mother died nine days short of her (mother’s) fiftieth birthday. She has also interviewed hundreds of people on how they have been able to move on after the death of a loved one.
Throughout her book is the overriding theme that grief can be a doorway to hope. Toward the end of her first chapter, Berger shares a poignant quote found in bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Prodigal Summer,” by a young scientist, Luca, who was able to manage the family farm and perform her other responsibilities after being suddenly widowed. It’s lovely, I think, this quote, and speaks to how all survivors can be transformed in their grief:
I was mad at him for dying and leaving me here, at first. Pissed off like you wouldn’t believe. But now I’m starting to think he wasn’t supposed to be my whole life, he was just this DOORWAY to me. I am so grateful to him for that.
Berger’s description of her own healing journey is touching as well:
My journey of understanding, like that of the Jews in the desert, has taken forty years. I now understand what a far-ranging impact the deaths of my father and, seventeen years later, my mother have had on me ad my family. I have spent much of my life asking questions about why this happened, what effect their deaths had on me and my family, and what contributions I could make to those who have had similar experiences. I have learned lessons about life and death, and these lessons have guided me—for better and worse—throughout my life. They have changed the way I see myself, the world, and my place in it. I am certain that the deaths of my father and mother served as catalysts that guided me toward a particular path in my life, influenced who I have become, the choices I have made, and the ways I have lived my life. As a result, I believe I am wiser, more life-affirming, and more courageous human being than I might otherwise have been.
Her book is an invaluable resource for those struggling with grief or for anyone who just wants to better understand the process of grieving. And I think her writing and insights can be translated to living with chronic illness, as well, because, in some ways, that is also grief: learning to live within the limitations of our health situations.