We Rarely Thought About Death When We Were Young
When we were young, most of us felt invincible. We may have taken risks, ridden motorcycles, taken up hobbies like sky diving, gone snow skiing in avalanche zones, and engaged in other dangerous behaviors. Somehow, most of us managed to survive. Even when we were faced with the death of a peer when we were young, we dismissed it with platitudes in order to convince ourselves that our friend was not as careful, capable, athletic or talented as we were. In the face of extreme danger and death, we often believed that nothing bad would ever happen to us.
As we age, however, something begins to change in our attitude towards death. By the time we reach our 50’s and 60’s, most of us have seen at least a few of our peers die, not because of dangerous sports, but because of illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, or kidney failure. We have watched our friends suffer slowly, and sometimes painfully.
For many aging Baby Boomers, watching our friends die has become the next frontier. As the Baby Boomer generation moved through society for the past 50 to 60 years, we sparked a huge expansion in school construction, new home building, and the travel industry. Now as the Baby Boomer generation prepares to retire, we have seen substantial increases in the number of retirement communities designed with them in mind. Many Boomers look forward to their Golden Years. However, there is another part of the aging process that many Baby Boomers try to ignore. Our final frontier will be the way we handle our own looming deaths, as well as the deaths of those we love.
One model for dealing with death is for each of us to become familiar with the five stages of grief. These were first proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in a book she wrote in 1969 entitled “On Death and Dying.” In researching her book, she interviewed 500 dying patients. In doing so, she learned that there are five reactions that many people experience, although not everyone experiences all of them, and not always in the same order. However, if we become familiar with these stages as we age, we will have a better understanding of what to expect when we lose someone close to us or face our own imminent death. What are the five stages of grief?
The denial stage is the one in which we simply refuse to believe that there is anything wrong. We may insist that we feel fine, or that someone we love could not possibly be dying because they look so healthy. Denial is a defense mechanism, and some people cling to it more eagerly than others. In fact, it occasionally happens that people will remain in the denial stage right up until the end.
When one friend of mine was in the final stages of cancer, a close friend of hers visited every day, intent on forcing the ill woman to eat, even though she had no appetite and was often nauseous. The friend was so adamant that the patient eat, that she finally had to be asked not to visit for a while. This woman was in so much denial, she really believed that if the patient ate more, she would get better. Sadly, this happens in one way or another more often than we like to admit.
Another response to death is often anger. When the person who is dying turns to anger as a response, they can be very difficult to live with. They may want to blame others for their illness. They may rage against God, their doctors or the hospital. They may rant about how unfair it is that this is happening to them. Sometimes it is not the patient who feels the anger, but the people who love them. In either case, this is a normal stage that many people experience.
Bargaining is the stage where a person insists that they will try anything, if they can just hang on a little longer. They may spend their life savings on questionable cures. They may spend long hours praying that they be cured. They may seem desperate and, in some cases, irrational. Eventually, however, nearly everyone realizes that no amount of bargaining will change the course of their disease.
In many cases, the ill person may lapse into depression. They may not want to do anything at all anymore. They may not want to go outside, or even get out of bed in the morning. They may feel that there is no point to anything. In her book, Ms. Kubler-Ross expressed her belief that others should not try to cheer up the person who is dying. Instead, we need to allow them time to process what is happening to them.
If you are not the person who is dying, but instead you are losing someone you love, it is quite likely that you will also experience overwhelming depression at times. If you know that there is no longer any hope that your loved one will recover, you may become despondent and remain that way for a period of time before the actual death, as well as afterwards. This may also be a necessary stage that you must go though in order to process everything that has happened.
Acceptance is considered the final state of grief. In this stage, the person who is dying decides to stop fighting the inevitable and prepare for it, instead. The same is true for their loved ones. Often this is a time during which people can chat about memories, write letters to those who are being left behind, and plan their legacy. Having time to go through this stage can be helpful to both the person who is dying as well as their loved ones. Some people are able to reach this stage more easily than others. When they do, it seems to make the death easier on everyone.
Other Facts about Coping with Loss
Remember, not everyone will experience all of these stages of grief. Even if they do, they might experience them in a different order. Some people only experience one or two of the stages, and may even go back and forth between two stages such as denial and anger, or anger and depression. Some people struggle so hard with the idea that they are dying, that they never move out of the denial stage.
In addition, death is not the only situation in which we might experience some or all of these stages of grief. We might also go through similar emotions when we suffer other types of losses. For example, many Baby Boomers have been laid off in recent years and found it extremely difficult to find another job when they are in their late 50’s or early 60’s. Others have experienced forced retirement. Some Boomers voluntarily retired, but didn’t realize how much of a change in lifestyle they would experience. Now they feel lonely and depressed. People may also go through the five stages of grief after a divorce or even the loss of a beloved pet.
Finally, it is important to know that not everyone will experience grief in the same way. Some people are more resilient than others, and will overcome death more quickly. However, sometimes grief can surprise us. It is better to be prepared than to assume that death will have no affect on us, whether it is our own death or the loss of someone we love. If you are experiencing a loss in your life, take time to reflect on the stages of grief. Let yourself experience your emotions and, when you are ready, try to move towards acceptance of the situation … for your own sake as well as for the people who care about you.
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