We attended the recent funeral of the beautiful matriarch of a family that we have known and loved for many years. Our dear friends expressed mixed feelings of loss from the death of their beloved mother and grandmother, and joy because her death released her from a long health decline. Those conversations inspired us reflect on insights from our decades of helping grief-stricken estate, trust, and elder law clients endure painful losses and find healthy normalcy afterward.
King David said in Psalm 139:14 (New International Version, Zondervan 1984), "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made..." Perhaps nowhere is the wonder of God's creation more evident than in the human mind. Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described an amazing grief coping system of the human mind in 1969 as the "five stages of grief." Psychiatric experts continually refine their understanding of our uniquely individual displays of that grieving process as Dr. Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler wrote in their last book collaboration (published after the 2004 death of Dr. Kübler-Ross):
The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
The five stages--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance--are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order. Our hope is that with these stages comes the knowledge of grief's terrain, making us better equipped to cope with life and loss. (Kübler-Ross, E. and Kessler, David (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Simon & Schuster Ltd, ISBN 0-7432-6344-8).
Almost everyone experiences grief in extreme loss. Losses that trigger grief can occur in many parts of life, such as divorce, termination of employment, permanently disabling injury or illness, financial hardship, and death or disability of a beloved person. Long, grueling losses, like the gradual decline of an Alzheimer's patient or cancer patient, beat down even the toughest people. The effect of loss on a person's emotional state grows from the person's realization that the loss has permanently altered the future and that the person's expectations about the future must change.
We have observed the effects of early grief stages in some of our clients. Clients in the denial stage sometimes struggle to understand the reality of a crisis and fail to respond properly to protect their own interests. Clients in the anger stage make personal judgments about people and things that they would never make in normal circumstances. Clients in the bargaining stage sometimes bogged down in in trivial details and struggle to focus on important decisions. Depressed clients often lack motivation to take necessary action.
We pay careful attention to our clients' emotional states so that we can help them help themselves. We advise new clients in stressful situations to make sure that they get plenty of sleep, exercise, healthy food, and hydration because poor physical health often undermines mental health. We discourage clients from making hasty decisions without consulting us and other trusted advisors because intense grief often disrupts a person's ability to make rational decisions. We also encourage clients to seek counseling from spiritual advisers or professional mental health counselors to help the clients develop self-awareness of how the grief process is affecting them because self-awareness allows a grieving person to participate more effectively in the healing process.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a life-changing disappointment or loss, it is important to understand that the grieving process is real and that it affects a person's behavior and thought processes dramatically. No person should face crisis alone. You can help yourself or a grieving loved one endure and recover from loss by recognizing that the loss exists and seeking help to overcome it.
Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and Jeff is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator and was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.
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