When you have a stroke, you change at a deep level. Your identity has been charged. You confront the stages of grief, whether you like them or not.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first identified the stages of dying in her transformative book On Death and Dying. Decades later, she and David Kessler wrote the classic On Grief and Grieving, introducing the five stages of grief with the same transformative pragmatism and compassion.
Subsequently, Kübler-Ross noted that these stages are not linear, that some people may experience only some of them, and still others may not experience any of them at all. That said, these stages of grief are the most commonly observed to be shared by the grieving population.
When you grieve, you symbolize a sense of loss. You do not feel the grief; you are the grief. You embrace all that grief is. Also, there is a physical experience of grief. It is intertwined thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. You want to isolate and draw into yourself. Mentally, there’s also a sense of disorganization and a lack of focus.
Many now realize that anyone who has suffered a stroke has lost much. In a way, you are suffering or have suffered the death of your former self. These stages of grief are very appropriate as you try to come to grips with the fact that you have had a stroke.
The first five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I will address the sixth and final stage after the first five stages.
Stage 1: Denial – this is usually the first stage of grief you experience. Life now seems to make no sense, has no meaning, and is too overwhelming. Denial is the stage that can initially help someone survive the loss. A person denies the terrible news, and, in effect, the person goes numb.
Denial aids in pacing the feelings of grief. Instead of being overwhelmed with grief, the denial staggers and reduces its full and sudden impact. Since grief is an overwhelming and powerful emotion, responding to intense, sudden feelings is normal. You may pretend or have difficulty believing the change or loss occurred. Denial gives you more time to absorb and process the news.
It is common in this stage to wonder how life will go on in this different state. You are in a state of shock because life, as you once knew it, has changed in an instant. In the denial stage, the “actual reality” is exchanged for a “preferable reality.”
Denial is a common defense mechanism as it blunts you from the intensity of the emotion. It is a coping mechanism.
As you shift out of the denial stage, you may feel buried emotions bubble up. You may confront the sorrow you have been denying. This stage can be difficult.
Stage 2: Anger – this is the typical stage you find yourself feeling due to the painful emotions you face.
Re-entering “actual” reality again from “preferable” reality often brings anger. Thoughts such as, “why me?” and “life’s not fair!” surface in this stage. It may seem beyond comprehension how something like this could happen.
Anger is a masking stage of grief. Often, you direct anger or blame at other people such as family and friends, trying to be supportive. They are grieving themselves.
Anger may come out of feelings such as resentment or bitterness. You may even feel anger towards objects or situations as a substitute. While your rational brain knows that the object of anger, your stroke, is not to blame, the emotions that you are feeling may be too intense to realize that.
Anger can also be a pathway to reconnect to the world after isolation during the denial stage. When a person is numb, this results in feeling disconnected from everyone. On the other hand, when one is angry, there is a connection, albeit unhealthy.
It is essential to see that your anger may not always be fury or rage. You may not even come across the anger stage or remain in it. Though, as this feeling starts to decrease, you may be able to form more rational thoughts. Your heart and your gut begin to feel more normal. You are open to facing the emotions that you have hidden from yourself.
Mental health professionals, backed by extensive research, agree that such anger is a crucial and necessary stage of grief and needs to be encouraged.
Professionals emphasize that it is beneficial to feel the anger truly. They think that, even though you may feel you are in an endless cycle of anger, it will dissipate. The more you truly feel the anger, the quicker it dissipates and expedites the healing.