What inspired this article was leafing through a magazine devoted to examining painful events that our country has recently weathered. The theme of the issue was to view these events through the lens of the stages of grief and adjustment that Elisabeth Kubler Ross identified decades ago. Although I doubt that the writers and editors who put the magazine together intended for it to have a comforting effect, I found the idea oddly encouraging.
For me, tying the difficulties of the past several years to a cycle that begins with loss and ultimately resolves itself through acceptance of disappointments — and finding a way forward — seems preferable to some commentators’ interpretation of the same set of circumstances as part of a downward spiral from which we may never recover.
Grief begins with profound loss, and let’s face it, we have been presented with a series of terrible losses over the past several years. Destabilization of the labor, financial, and housing markets have left their marks on many of us, and our problems have not been limited to economic issues, either. Some people have been affected more directly, or more deeply, than others, of course, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone has sailed through, completely unscathed. Loss, disruption and instability are common ground that many people share.
One counter-intuitive premise of Kubler Ross’s model is that accepting dramatic change can be so overwhelming that people may pretend, at first, as though nothing has happened, ignoring evidence to the contrary. They may find comfort in clinging to outmoded beliefs or continuing to behave in a way that is actually against their interests, given the new set of circumstances. Shock and disbelief represent Stage 1 of the cycle of grief — denial.
After denial subsides, Stage 2, anger, may follow. We have been exposed to some mortifying displays of anger recently, raising concerns about the coarsening of public life. But if bad behavior is a necessary evil for overcoming our collective losses, then in theory at least, recovery is still within reach, as long as we don’t completely alienate each other before anger and the other stages of mourning run their course.
Stage 3, bargaining, involves promising to reform one thing in exchange for holding onto most things as they are. It looks suspiciously like stalling and trying to buy time, rather than getting serious about picking up the pieces, wherever they lie.
The apathy that accompanies Stage 4, depression, isn’t particularly conducive to civic engagement and problem-solving, either, even if attempting to withdraw from painful associations is understandable. The reward for withstanding the upheaval of the other stages of loss and readjustment is Stage 5, acceptance. Despite disappointments, acceptance is what allows us to keep on.
Even if we’re not there yet, I, for one, am optimistic. If it is possible to work through a process of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression — and come out the other side, through acceptance — that would present a constructive alternative to the characterization of our society, by some people, as broken. Still, surviving devastating loss is more likely to be a tough and grueling slog than a dramatic rise from the ashes. As I’ve been writing this piece, I’ve been thinking about a Latin American colleague who told me, after his infant son had died, “We have an expression: ‘Sometimes you have to dance with the ugly girl at the party.’” Translation: Sometimes we must confront situations that we would rather not face and just muddle through, with as much grace as we can muster.
Politically incorrect, perhaps, but they might be words to live by.
Kiki Keizer is a lawyer and a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.