I'm Grieving Over the Loss of a Friend, or Am I?

Was Kübler-Ross right when she gave us the five stages of grief? Not exactly.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

I’m Grieving, or am I?

On New Year’s Eve, just one week ago as I write this post, I lost a very dear friend, author Jim Misko, to cancer. Jim was more than a friend; he was a confidant, a fellow writer, a tough critic, and as close to me as any brother could ever be. Had Jim remained healthy and active as always, right now he would be sitting at his computer, working on his latest novel, ready to receive my file of this very post, anxious to run it through his sieve to be certain it was as perfect as possible before posting to the world. That was the type of guy Jim Misko was.

When Jim was dying a week ago, I was thrown into a roller coast of emotions. I cried, I had trouble sleeping, I had a headache that just wouldn’t quit. I wanted to spend every moment with him and his wife, desperate to do anything I could to make them comfortable. Yet try as hard as I could, nothing I could do really seemed to help.  

A day or two after Jim’s passing, I found myself thinking of Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her work on grief as published in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. I wondered if her thesis applied to me and how I was reacting to the loss of a loved one.

And probably as a defense mechanism that would keep me from thinking of Jim and his last few days in ICU, I found myself analyzing my reaction to his death in terms of Kübler-Ross’s thesis on what stages people go through when dealing with grief. I was curious about her ideas. Did they actually bare any relevance to the way I was feeling? Here’s what I discovered.

Her five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—not particularly in that order although that’s the way most people interpreted her thesis. Kübler-Ross never really stated the stages of her thesis were linear in nature or that everyone went through every stage, yet that is what most people thought she meant. She believed, when suffering grief, first a person would deny what happened. Then they would be angered. Next, people would bargain with God, the universe, or some other higher power—cutting a deal with their deity that, death could be avoided if intervention happened. Following the process of bargaining that really never accomplished a thing, depression would set in and ultimately acceptance would be achieved.

But my reaction to Jim's death was nothing like the stages of grief Kübler-Ross hypothesized. When Jim passed, and even now a full week later, all I’m feeling is one stage—anger.

In my opinion, as both a friend and a physician, Jim did not need to die from his cancer. It could have been diagnosed and treated much sooner than it was. I was angry at his doctor, angry at the system that delayed adequate follow-up on a condition that was noted years before, and I was angry at myself for not being more proactive in Jim’s medical needs. But I was Jim’s friend, not his physician, and I was never privy to the details of his medical history or lab work. It was only at the very end when I became aware of his diagnosis and the tragedy that lay ahead of him, that I asked how the problem came about.  

One week out, I am experiencing one of Kübler-Ross’s stages, anger. But it is the second response in her thesis, not the first.

Will I ever be in denial that Jim has died. No. It’s clear to me he is gone from my life forever. And will I bargain with God or the universe over him? No. What’s done is done. Will I get depressed? No. I will be sad, but even that emotion is already waning as I find myself reliving great thoughts and memories of Jim and how he influenced my life and my own work as a writer. I won’t feel sad. Rather, those memories will bring me great joy rather than becoming a conduit into depression. And will I accept his death? Yes, I already have.

Grief is real but clearly everyone deals with it in their own particular way. Are the stages of grief so eloquently described by Kübler-Ross actual? I would answer yes. But are they linear? No. Do they occur in some specific order or pattern as determined by our human DNA? No. And does every person experience all the stages, or do they occur randomly, dependent more upon our nurture than our nature, more in line with the way our own overall mental health enables us to deal with life’s extreme circumstances? My answer to the last question is a definite yes.