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Nichols: Understanding the stages of grief

POSTED: March 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and the huge turmoil that has torn that country apart has prompted me to think about the consequences of death and dying on the political process.

Older Americans all remember where we were when we learned of the assassination of President Kennedy. In the turmoil that followed, we slid into the Vietnam war.

Once I went to Youngstown, Ohio, to hear Gen. Colin Powell make a speech about the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. I wondered if he could become a candidate for the presidency of the United States. A friend told me he thought Mrs. Powell was strongly against such a move as it might make her husband, as a black man in the White House, a target for some lunatic racist assassin.

I wonder what the wives or husband of the current presidential candidates think about the danger of an assassination attempt here as well. We all remember that President Reagan was shot getting into his limousine in Washington, D.C., by a crazy man. To protect the president from crazy persons as well as from terrorist attacks must be the major task for our Secret Service.

In the 1970s, I attended a three-day seminar given by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross based on her 1969 book "On Death and Dying."

Her research showed that in general people deal with grief in five or more stages. The first is denial. My reaction to news that my brother had died with a heart attack, and later my sister from breast cancer, was that I cried in disbelief: It had to be a mistake.

Her second stage is anger. That is what we see in Pakistan after the assassination, with the huge riots, buildings set afire, people being shot, the country almost out of control

Anger can be taken out on God: "Why did you let this happen to me?"

Sometimes anger can be directed at the deceased, for leaving me behind to deal with all the complicated legal, financial and family problems that you no longer deal with. I have all these problems while you are worry free with God in heaven. That is not fair to me.

Her third stage of bargaining may not be universal. When a patient is told she or he is terminal, that person may try to bargain with God: "If you give me another year or two to live so I can see my son or daughter graduate, I will see one becomes a priest or nun and my family will go to church each Sunday." I may be wrong, but I suspect God does not like to bargain.

Quite often a fourth stage of grief is depression, which may grow out a feeling of loneliness, or that nobody else understands the turmoil that exists in my soul now that I have to make all decisions for us still alive in the family. I cannot bring my loved one back, so why bother with anything else? Living is not fun any more. Things cannot be controlled as when the family was complete before that tragic death

Many marriages fail after the death of a child. Grieving is very personal. For some it is relatively short. For others it may take months or even years. For parents who have very different times of grief, one may not understand the other who has reached a conclusion to the grief process, because of those differences and not for lack of love for the departed child.

Kubler-Ross states the fifth stage is acceptance. Life must go on. I cherish my loved one, who is departed. I take my time and feel healing has begun. I reach the end of crying and being sad and feeling sorry for myself. I begin to smile again. I go out, join support groups and meet new people. I find I am no longer alone. Many others have suffered like me, and they are setting an example. I can have fun. I must go on with my life, especially if children still have to be cared for.

The five stages described by Kubler-Ross have been part of the scripts for television and movies, as exemplified by programs for "One Tree Hill," "House," "Frasier" and other programs.

We are all mortal, all terminal. Yes, it is sad when death occurs before old age, but as spring comes after winter, life needs to renew itself. Grief is part of the healing process.

We should think about it in quiet times so as not be become uprooted if death comes in chaotic situations.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesville


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