When You Realize You’re a Grieving Cliché

It’s weird when you suddenly notice in your own behaviour something as “cliché” as the famous “Five Stages of Grief”. I say “cliché” because I’ve heard about these so often from popular culture, books, and movies that it seems more like an narrative invention than something that could affect me so deeply.

I honestly didn’t see what was happening until I started to write what was supposed to be a parody “How-to” article on the steps to leaving your job. Only after writing out the steps in the “How-to” did I suddenly realize what I was looking at. (This is why I feel much less crazy when I have the time and energy to write.)

Turns out (surprise!) it’s real. And the steps I went through while leaving my job of twenty years last week reflected it perfectly. That’s psychology, man. As humans we are really not that different from one another.

The five stages of grief are often described as denial, anger, bargaining, sadness (or depression), and acceptance.

It’s worth noting that we can grieve anything, really, any time we’ve lost something that formed a part of our life and our identity. The last year or so have resulted in an avalanche of discussions about this.

The large societal griefs caused by the pandemic and ensuring deaths, shut downs, quarantines and isolations run parallel to the personal ones of “lost routines, jobs, and plans for the future“. Though these losses are very different in size, scope, or severity, they are all important to acknowledge, share, and talk about.

[Y]ou can actually have a grief reaction for anything that’s really a part of your identity. And people are losing their identities right now: Someone opened a bookstore a couple months ago and now the bookstore is going to go under. That was their dream, and it’s gone. All the seniors graduating from college, they’re not going to have a ceremony, and they’re finishing online classes. People can grieve for that. If they feel grief, they should let themselves feel it.

Joe Pinsker. All the Things We Have to Mourn Now, The Atlantic
Denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Created by the author.

Here are what the stages looked like in my particular circumstances, presented in an adapted “How-to” as that was what I had originally set out to do. I hope this provides a concrete example for those who might recognize their own behaviour.

My story actually began years ago, as I’ve always been prone to depresion, but for the purposes of this article, let’s start in fall 2020. And let’s call that step 0.5: Have a breakdown (for more read my post from then, How to Have a Breakdown).

Then proceed thusly:

  1. Denial: Be in denial about what needs to change. For example, assume that enough time away from work (and the world, really) will make you all better, that the problems won’t be there when you emerge, and that a big life change is not necessary.
  2. Anger: Go back to work, and immediately start to get worse again. Blame everything you can think of. Is it burnout? Depression? The pandemic? Interpersonal relationships? Stress? “Skills mismatch”?
  3. Bargaining: Try really hard to make it work. Maybe if I change this work habit, or shift my perspective a little, or exercise more, or double-down on mindfulness?
  4. Sadness: Slowly and painfully realize that it doesn’t matter how long you’re away or what fix you try, you are living the wrong life for you. There’s no changing this. It’s time to stop.
  5. Acceptance: Put in your resignation notice. Start telling people. Think of the good times but also start to feel you’ve made the right call. Plan for your first days after resigning. Include time to go through the five steps again, maybe lingering in sadness for a while. Also prepare to do things you love and lots of them. Family time, favourite foods, shows, hobbies. Maybe writing.

And then, during a Googling spree find out that there has officially been a sixth stage added.

6. Meaning: Look back and see how that phase of your life shaped you and taught you. Start to realize all the skills you’ve gained and how they can be applied to building a life that suits your present needs.

Moving forward, try really hard not to compare your experience with anyone else’s. We are all processing several layers and types of grief right now, including “lost routines, social connections, family structures and our sense of security“.

But there are lots of ways to move forward, and the articles I refer to here offer tips for that as well. First and foremost, though is recognizing grief in yourself, and knowing what to call it:

When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.

David Kessler in Scott Berinato, That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief, Harvard Business Review

Some clichés are around for a reason; because they are pervasive and common and universal. Often we can’t see ourselves clearly, and often not when we are falling into such well-known patterns. It’s important to have someone or something in your life that helps you take a step back from yourself. Maybe therapy, a creative pursuit, or a very wise friend.

Or we’re lucky to find reflections of ourselves through online communities. There are plenty of opportunities for connection. After all, as humans we are really not that different from one another.


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