7 Stages and 12 Steps

I have spent more than 20 years struggling to understand forgiveness and reconciliation. Along the way, I have learned some very important concepts and truth that I don’t think are understood by very many people. I’d like to share what I’ve learned in a series of posts. This is the first.

Psychologists say that there are seven stages of grief that a person goes through when they suffer a loss. According to a grief recovery website these stages are as follows:

1. SHOCK & DENIAL – You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.
2. PAIN & GUILT- As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs. You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn’t do with your loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.
3. ANGER & BARGAINING – Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion. You may rail against fate, questioning “Why me?” You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair (“I will never drink again if you just bring him back”)
4. “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS – Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving. During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you did with your lost one, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.
5. THE UPWARD TURN – As you start to adjust to life without your dear one, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your “depression” begins to lift slightly.
6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH – As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.
7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE – During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward. You will start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, you will be able to think about your lost loved one without pain; sadness, yes, but the wrenching pain will be gone. You will once again anticipate some good times to come, and yes, even find joy again in the experience of living.
People usually think that the seven stages of grief applies only to the death of a loved one, but I believe, in varying degrees, that they apply to ANY loss–whether the death of a loved one, a divorce, a broken relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of health…In many senses, a loss is a loss…and a loss hurts. I also don’t think that the stages are necessarily one after another. I think a person can cycle  and recycle through them when memories or additional losses occur, and sometimes in a mixed up order.
I believe that I went through these stages of grief with my family when they rejected me. At first, I was shocked, not understanding what was happening. I kept trying to fix our relationship, thinking it was just a temporary misunderstanding. I felt very, very hurt because I really loved my family and didn’t want a broken relationship with them. I cried a lot. Then I moved into frustration and anger for awhile. I wanted my Mom to ADMIT what she had done and was doing. I wanted the lies to stop, and the TRUTH to be told. I felt angry that she wasn’t telling the TRUTH. I was angry that I couldn’t fix things. I moved into deep discouragement, wondering what I could have done differently. I loved my family, but couldn’t get through to them. Nothing I tried worked.
I asked God, from the very beginning of the problems, to keep me from anger and bitterness, to keep my heart open to reconciliation, to work in MY heart and teach me truth, to correct ME if I was doing something wrong. I have prayed this prayer for years.
As I experienced and discovered more and more of my family’s dysfunction, I began to understand my family’s wounds and why they acted the way they did. I had always thought my family was a loving, wonderful family. On some levels as I child I had seen that all was not well, but on other levels I didn’t really understand. To a child, the family they grow up in is “normal.” How are they to know differently? I’ve read that abused children sometimes take the blame for the abuse, thinking that their parents had only been trying to do what is best, and that they had deserved the punishment. I’ve read that an important step of healing is for a person to admit that not everything was good, and that they didn’t always “deserve” the abuse. Abuse–whether physical or emotional–is WRONG. I reached that place where I could recognize this.
Another important step in healing is for a person to recognize the ways in which they participated in the abuse/dysfunction and hurt others. I learned later this is all part of the Twelve Step Programs. Many alcoholics finally get to the place where they can admit to having a problem and to the dysfunction that led them to depend on the alcohol (or drugs, or dysfunctional behaviors), but they also need to admit and repent of how their addiction has hurt others. Many cannot reach this point. It’s very horrifying to recognize and admit that you have passed on the hurt and abuse that was done to you, and some just cannot take that step.
I had recognized that my family had hurt me, but it was horrifying for me to recognize that I had participated in the dysfunction. I can trace how my Mom’s mother was dysfunctional, manipulative, and controlling with her kids, and I could see how this affected my Mom. I could see how my Mom had become very much (and maybe worse) than her mother. I could even recognize that my Mom might not recognize that she had passed on the dysfunction. But I excused myself by saying that had I understood what was happening in my family, I would never had participated in the dysfunction. And it may be that this was true. The Truth that began to force itself forward, however, was that if I excused myself for not understanding the dysfunction, I had to also excuse my Mom for not understanding. My Mom had told me that she never wanted to be like her mother, and had tried to raise us differently. I think that the way she assessed “good parenting” was how WE kids turned out. She had to make us behave well. If we didn’t, she had failed. So she tried to manipulate, control, deceive…and ended up rejecting those children who did not do as they were told.
I believe that if I continued to condemn my Mom for the way she had passed on dysfunction and hurt me, for not being able to pass on to us what she didn’t have to give, then I had to condemn myself for the ways in which I passed on the dysfunction and hurt others. It can’t go both ways. I can’t condemn my Mom and then excuse myself.
I reached a point at which I felt God leading me to go to each of my estranged family members, and asking them to forgive me for ways that I had hurt them. This was extremely pride crushing. Before, I wanted to ask forgiveness for my failures, but I also wanted THEM to confess to their wrong doings. I wanted them to admit their lies, admit their rejection of me, admit their accusations. But now…I was going to them humbly, with no expectations of reciprocation, and allowing THEM to define how I had hurt them. I simply said, “I’m sorry if I have hurt you in any way. Please forgive me.”
My relationship with one sister was healed. She said she was sorry as well, we hugged, and became friends. My Mom never admitted to any wrong, never asked me for forgiveness. Our relationship thawed for a bit and became less cold. However, it never really healed. There was a lot of things that just weren’t talked about, and our “relationship” (if it can be called that)  always eventually fell apart again.
Eventually, my relationship with my Mom stalled again and then deteriorated. I think that relationship cannot grow without honesty, vulnerability, repentance, and forgiveness. Eventually the problems will become so great that it cannot be maintained…
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