Dr. Judy Stevens-Long brings a lifetime of teaching and research on adult development to bear on the challenges and possibilities inherent in the last stages of life. Her mission is to help dying people and those who care for them create a life that is as satisfying, comfortable and even productive until the last possible moment.
Four Styles of Dying and Bereavement
The idea that there are stages of dying and bereavement has become a kind of folk wisdom since Elizabeth Kübler-Ross first outlined them in 1965. Recent research, and Kübler-Ross herself, have suggested that stages do not describe the emotional journey of loss well. A better approach might be to think of styles or patterns of emotional life. I believe, as did Carl Jung, that some of these patterns are universal. Patterns that occur in many societies are called archetypes, and you are probably familiar with some of them: They are all over the place—you see them in the Tarot cards and fairy tales, icons like The Witch, The Beast, The Wise Man. They are featured in the Enneagram, for example. The Enneagram is a personality instrument that matches you with some of the archetypes that Jung outlined. There you can find detailed accounts of some of these patterns.
The experience of dying and bereavement seems more fragmented than the notion of stages suggests, shifting from one moment to the next with changes in what appears to you through your senses—things you see, touch, hear, etc. You can often feel confused and overwhelmed by the emotional roller coaster. This likely means that your sense of yourself is highly threatened. This is someone that you knew and loved, or hated and loved, or feared, or whatever, and this person is never going to brighten or darken your door again. The pet that dies is not going to be there ever again when you come home.
What does this mean for you as a person? You will definitely lose a part of yourself, and you will feel that loss. Suddenly, you grasp the magnitude of it, and your sadness seems endless, and scary. Your fear snaps you out of the sadness, and you become angry. How could this person leave me without saying good-bye (me getting revenge, my saying “I love you.”) Okay. Now, I could strangle someone, but maybe I’ll just sue the doctor and the hospital and everyone one that even touched this person in the last 24 hours. This may go on for a while…
Then, you think to yourself, “get a grip. You have to go to the hospital”, and you do. The smell of flowers as you walk past the flower shop reminds you of a funeral. You start over again. Sadness, fear, anger. It’s much more chaotic than stages. Even Elizabeth Kübler-Ross admitted the truth of this as she was dying. Certainly, there are strong emotions that most people experience when they encounter either their own dying or the death of a loved one. Aside from shock, there is anger, sadness, fear, even peacefulness, and what I call “getting it doneness.” These reactions are normal. They come and go in no particular order, but one of them may dominate the pattern of a particular person’s reactions to death and dying. There are probably many ways to look at these patterns, but, after all my reading and research, I’ve concluded there are four major emotional experiences people have in response to death and dying: Sadness, anger, reflection, and getting it doneness.
All four of these patterns are part of the tangled experience of dying and bereavement. We can jump from one to another at any time. There is no apparent order, but each seems to be triggered by what happens in the moment. Most of us experience all four patterns, but one tends to dominate our journey. This is not just true of dying and bereavement, of course, but also of life. The phrase, “she died as she lived,” has more to it than meets the eye. There are styles of personal reactions that tend to characterize our lives, and may very well shape our experience with death. Some of us are calm and rational; some are rash and driven by gut feelings; some are pessimistic and closed down. Some people just seem unruffled. There are many ways to think about personal style. Here are the four that seem to be common in our encounters with death.
Getting it doneness is something like the archetype of the Hero, but it can pop up in women as a more collaborative style than for the hero. I call this pattern “The Doer.” For the Doer, life poses a series of problems to be solved. Death is one of them. The Doer is determined to do the best job of dealing with it. A person dominated by this reaction puts one foot in front of the other, making lists and calls, coordinating services, carrying on. This pattern in captured in Kübler-Ross’s stages by the term “bargaining.” “If I just do these things, finish this list, take these actions, we’ll be okay.”
The Warrior is passionate, often angry. Men display this style more often than women. Anger can be destructive, causing conflict and hurt feelings, but it can motivate big changes. Organizations like MADD (anger even in the name), and Amber Alert were driven by parents who reacted with rage to the loss of a child. Outrage can spark a fire in the belly.
The Fallen represents the deep experience of sadness, sorrow, and fear. The central experience of the Fallen is pain, but this experience can be very creative. Many great artists and writers were crazy sad. Personal sorrow can immobilize, and even bring us near death (some people do die of a broken heart), but it can also provoke emotional expressions that speak to the sorrows and fears of everyone. Sadness brings tears, and tears can wash our pain into the great river of human suffering.
The Wise One
Finally, there are moments when most people experience acceptance and a kind of peace, when they can let go of life. Many religious people find peace in belief in a loving God, or reincarnation. I call this version of the journey “The Wise One.” Acceptance and peace are often the products of reflection and meditation or prayer, but nobody is like this all the time. Even Jesus got angry, being human as well as devine. It’s good, however, to develop an ability to step away from the fray as a witness, watching emotions come and go, and knowing that all things pass away.
Each of these patterns can be creative and positive. Each of them has a shadow. You’ll see more about these four patterns as you click on each the four hearts above. Start by clicking on the pattern that interests you most. Is someone close to you angry all the time because of a loss (this loss could be of a marriage, or of a career, or even of a car or a pet)? If you click on the heart that says “anger,” you will find out more about the positive and negative aspects of this style: The Warrior.
If someone you know (or yourself of course) is able to drink tea and carry on (the Doer), and you’d like to see more about it, click on the button that says “determination.” Are you surprised at your own ability to stay present and philosophical? Click on the Wise One. If you cannot move out of the pain, look at some of the suggestions for the Fallen.