Dealing with the Five Stages of Grief (Plus One You Might Not Expect)
We sixty somethings are at a time in our lives when we experience loss and grief. Many of us have lost our parents, but I just experienced a loss that I’ve never experienced before – the loss of a sibling.
Last month was my sister Pam’s birthday, and she would have been 60 years old. I’ve missed her a lot lately because it’s hard to move on as if nothing has changed. In fact, it seems disrespectful.
Our Best-Laid Plans
Our parents are deceased, so she and I owned the two old family homes where we grew up. She owned our grandparent’s home, where our Dad was born. I owned our childhood home, which he built next door. Since we had both married and moved away years ago, we rented out the houses.
Every once in a while, though, we talked about getting old and moving back there beside each other. The possibility of two old widows growing older together. We laughed at the thought. We fought as kids, so we expected nothing less later in life.
This past weekend, though, I visited our Grandmother Hamrick’s two surviving sisters. They were the babies in their family of ten children. Today, they are two widows, 90 and 88, living across the street from each other. They fight like no get out.
Pam and I would have been just like them, but now it will never happen. We will never grow old together. We will never move back to the old homes, either.
Pam died last spring. She was 59 years young. She became very sick almost overnight, and she didn’t make it. You can read about what happened here. Since then, it has been a slow seven months; and looking back I realize I’m a classic example of the five stages of grief that people go through in such circumstances.
Denial, Numbness and Shock
I think I went through some of this first stage while Pam was still sick. Her sickness was so sudden and so devastating that her life was in great danger, but I just didn’t accept it. Never for a minute did I think that she might not make it. She was so strong and healthy before, and I just knew she would beat the illness. I was shocked and numb when she didn’t.
All of us coasted through those days immediately afterward. It was easier when there were people to receive, a funeral to attend, and goodbyes to be said. They say that the numbness is there to help you cope. All I know is I began to wonder what was wrong with me. I wondered why I didn’t cry more.
Chuck and I took a quick trip into the North Carolina mountains for a day between her death and the funeral. I just needed to grieve by myself. I think I was just too numb to be there to help plan her funeral. We drove to Chimney Rock, spent the night, and returned the next day. Then there have been other emotions.
Since she died last spring, I find myself waking up in the middle of the night playing out different scenarios. I know now that I’ve been bargaining with myself. The scenarios center around Pam’s problems with delirium while she was in the hospital.
Pam was unconscious almost the entire three weeks. Early on they had her in a drug-induced coma, but later they kept trying to wake her and that was a problem in and of itself. She fought the tubes down her throat, and her oxygen levels plummeted every time.
Since then, I read up on delirium and now I wake up playing tapes in my head. I think maybe If I kept her hospital room brightly lit during each and every day or if I kept talking to her non-stop while I was there it would have helped.
What if, what if? I can’t get those tapes out of my head now. Thankfully, it isn’t every night, so I keep taking it one day, or in this case, one night at a time.
This stage for me came really early. I’m afraid I lashed out in anger at Pam’s ex-husband. They divorced over a decade ago, and Pam had finally moved on and recently married. She was so happy. I was mad that they had been married only less than a year – that she didn’t have this new wonderful life very long. All those years I just wanted her to be happy, but now it was cut short.
Of course, what I was angry at was losing Pam. And losing her to a hideous myth about taking flu shots. Within a week or two after her death I wrote a blog post taking out all my anger on her ex and How A Myth Can Cost A Life. I guess I got it off my chest really quickly, because the anger is gone now.
Depression and Acceptance
There are two more steps in the grieving process – depression and acceptance. I haven’t experienced the former, and I believe I’m getting closer to the latter. There is still a general numbness from time to time, but I’m no longer angry.
I’m obviously still subconsciously bargaining, or I wouldn’t be waking up at night playing the “what if” scenarios. Thank goodness, I haven’t been depressed. But there may be another step.
I had two episodes that don’t seem to fit any of the five steps. The night Pam died, I stepped out into the hallway because I just couldn’t stand to see Pam’s pregnant daughter crying or Pam’s husband of less than a year weeping.
I stepped around the corner when a totally unexpected feeling swept over me. It felt like I let my parents down. I was the older one and they always taught me to look after my little sister Pam.
She and I were two and a half years apart, so she was my little sister for over twelve years before our littlest sister Linda was born. I had this immense feeling that I didn’t do enough to protect Pam – that I somehow failed her. I felt responsible. For a brief moment that night I felt I was to blame.
As I stepped into the hallway, I swooned. Thank goodness, I was alone. The wall held me up and I composed myself before Pam’s kids saw it. They needed strength to lean on, not someone who was collapsing herself. I think I swept the guilt aside, worrying more about Pam’s kids than what I was feeling.
I haven’t felt this again since that night. Thankfully, my mind quickly let it go, but I feel now this was simply guilt.
A week after Pam died, her little granddaughter was born. Our other sister Linda was there to take Pam’s place. She spent a week with Pam’s daughter, son-in-law, and new grandbaby doing what Pam had planned to do.
Several weeks after that, I finally held little Courtney in my arms for the first time, And I felt that it was all wrong. I felt guilty that I got the pleasure of touching that precious little child when Pam could not. It just wasn’t fair, and I was totally unprepared for how I felt.
I can’t seem to place these two emotions in any of the five steps of grieving, so I believe another step may be guilt.
A Plan for Overcoming Loss and Grief
While I researched the different steps of grief, I found a Nine Step Action Plan for Overcoming Grief and Loss” by Dr. Phil. I found it helpful, and I found where I unknowingly used several of these steps to help me deal with my loss.
Daytime is Easier Because I Keep Busy
I try to take one day at a time. I try to stay out of my head. I know that I just need more time, and I try to stay busy.
Still, though, it bothers me that she’s gone and I’m still here. You see? Pam passed out of turn. I’m the older one, and I should have been next.
And there’s that guilt thing again.
Have you lost a sibling? How did you get through the stages of grieving? What advice do you have for other women who may be going through this experience? Please share with the Sixty and Me community.
Native Floridian Cindy Roe Littlejohn blogs at the Old Age Is Not For Sissies, where life is good and every day is an adventure. At 62 she is healthy, married, a mother to three, and grandmother of six. She is an author and writer, a tree farmer, and a retired lobbyist. She loves to travel on old trails, garden, do genealogy, spend time in the outdoors, and spend time with her family. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org