I admit I’m already pretty familiar with the Stages of Grief. I got a healthy taste of its chaotic computations when my father passed away nearly twenty years ago. At the time, it felt kind of like being on a roller coaster with no time to barf.
But glibness aside, if I was to try and encapsulate my own experience with Grief I would describe it as being like the ebb and flow of an ocean. Just as the ocean moves in and out, so too do our emotions, as they ebb and flow, oscillating between resolute calm and SHEAR PANIC.
Yet, at the exact point of the crisis, there is no oscillation. Time stands still, or at least moves in slow motion. Numbness sets in, and thus the first stage – Denial.
When I was told about my health status, I felt the onset of Grief – an old and persistent family friend.
At that moment, I sheepishly acknowledged its arrival.
“So you found my new address,” I mutter. “Will you be staying long?”
It grins, but doesn’t answer – typically vague, I think to myself.
But this time I have the upper hand! I will not give it the satisfaction of prolonged suffering. Intellectually, I know Grief better than our last encounter – so let’s skip through the stages and get to the end-game.
OK…so what is the end-game? Well, for the sake of clarity here are the ten stages of Grief (give or take, depending on what you read):
Stage 1: SHOCK AND DENIAL
Stage 2: EMOTIONS ERUPT
Stage 3: ANGER
Stage 4: SICKNESS
Stage 5: PANIC
Stage 6: GUILT
Stage 7: DEPRESSION AND LONELINESS
Stage 8: RE-ENTRY TROUBLES
Stage 9: HOPE EMERGES
Stage 10: ACCEPTING AND AFFIRMING REALITY
As I say, when my doctor first told me about my medical predicament, my rational side immediately recognized what was kicking in. “Ah, yes.” I said to myself, “Here we go with Stage 1: This can’t be happening to me” (Denial).
Nonetheless, upon recognizing the onset of Stage 1, I made a conscious choice to skip the foreplay and make a bee-line for Stage 10: “Acceptance”. At least then I could just get on with my life.
Of course, the incessant voice of doubt whispered faintly in my ear, “It ain’t that simple”.
Remember that ebb and flow analogy? Well, within the first hour of finding out my diagnosis, I was flipping from one extreme to the other within minutes. Then as the week progressed, it became hours; then a few weeks in, I might only have panic attacks in the middle of the night, and so on.
My point is, on reflection I can see these stages as they happen. My hope is that this self awareness could help me in my journey.
But this journey would be different. Dealing with the death of a loved one (in my case, my father) is extremely difficult, but when faced by your own mortality, other dynamics come into play.
As I thought some more, I discarded my previous ocean analogy (though poetic) and decided on a more practical approach. (If I could just pin-point how to process these jumbled thoughts, I might be better off.)
Here it goes…
The mind is like a filing cabinet. When it experiences extreme trauma, the drawers are opened and emptied in an explosion of papers and paperclips. File folders go flying everywhere. The folder marked, “My first Date” mixes in with another entitled, “How to make good Caesar salad”.
The grieving process is one whereby the mind has to clean up the mess and re-file everything. But it’s got some new big-ass folders to figure out where to place. For instance, “Finding the funds to get drug coverage.” Or “Who do I tell and not tell about my condition.”
But slowly, over time, the folders find their way into the cabinet, along with the new ones it wedges in.
When all is said and done, there exists a harmonious state of order, or (Stage 10) Acceptance.
On which Stage am I now, I ponder? Where are all my file folders?
I hazard a guess somewhere between Stages Seven and Eight (Depression & Loneliness / Re-entry Troubles).
I am in that place where my mind is telling me that no-one really understands. I did this to myself, and I have only myself to blame. That’s what people will think of me.
I am now labelled: HIV +. It’s stamped on my forehead, and no matter how hard I scrub, it’s not coming off.