Saturday, November 12, 2016
The Five Stages of Grief
Many years ago, when I was a social worker back in Indiana, I attended a seminar on death and dying conducted by a student of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the world-renowned psychiatrist who introduced the concept of five stages of grief.
According to Dr. Kübler-Ross, when you are facing either your own death or the death of a loved one, you commonly go through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A wonderful example of this is the scene near the end of Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film, All That Jazz, where director Joe Gideon, played brilliantly by Roy Scheider, acts out each of the five stages prior to accepting his own death.
Not everyone goes through all of the stages, and not everyone experiences them in the same order. Also, the five stages do not apply only to death. They can be applied to any traumatic loss: divorce, the loss of a job—even a Super Bowl loss, as anyone from Buffalo can tell you.
I think you see where I'm going with this.
This week, Loretta and I have been struggling to come to grips with the fact that the next President of the United States will be Donald J. Trump. For two life-long Democrats, this has been terribly difficult. (Let’s face it; it’s been difficult for many Republicans.) Since the election, we have both been working through Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. It’s been a rough week, and neither of us is anywhere near the fifth stage yet.
Stage 1: Denial
We did not watch the election unfold on any of the major networks or cable news channels. Instead we watched Stephen Colbert’s coverage on Showtime—because, you know, we thought if anyone could make election night fun, it would be Stephen Colbert.
Boy, were we wrong.
As the results came in, the look of horrified disbelief on Colbert’s face mirrored our own. Like us, he was in denial. The frivolity began to seem forced. The jokes began to fall flat. By the end of the show, Colbert, his guests, and his audience were close to tears, but we had not quite reached that stage yet. We were at…
Stage 2: Anger
We turned off the TV and tried to go to sleep, but sleep would not come. My mind kept going back to something I had seen on the Internet earlier that day: a picture of Donald Trump with that smug smirk on his face—you know the one I’m talking about—and the caption, “Trump reminds me of my dad! He tells it like it is, and that’s what my dad always did.”
How dare they compare Donald Trump to my father!
My father was a kind, wise, honorable man, a man who always tried to see the best in people, a gentleman in every sense of the word. He would have been appalled at our new president-elect: a narcissistic, unprincipled demagogue who ran his campaign based on a toxic mixture of fear, anger, and hatred. A man endorsed by the KKK and the American Nazi Party, for God’s sake! If Trump's supporters really did have fathers like that—well, I felt sorry for them. They must have had truly horrible childhoods. But that did not entitle them to force such a father on the rest of us.
How dare they!
I got out of bed, went to the computer, found the picture, and posted it on Facebook, accompanied by a somewhat incoherent rant. I later regretted this a little, but not much. It was nothing compared to what some people were posting.
Stage 4: Depression
(Yes, I realize I skipped stage 3. We’ll get to it later. Remember how I said they could be experienced in any order?)
I spent the day after the election in a stupor of exhaustion and depression, occasionally interrupted by flashes of anger. It helped that friends, relatives, and a couple of coworkers were experiencing the same feelings. It did not help that others were positively gleeful.
I don’t recall rubbing any noses in it when Obama was elected.
Stage 3: Bargaining
On Thursday, I started seeing the Facebook posts: “Already Enough Evidence to Impeach Trump” (surely a record, considering he’s not even actually president yet), “Sign Petition to Force Electoral College to Vote for Clinton,” “Sign Petition to Abolish Electoral College,” “Sign Petition to Demand California’s Secession.” (Dear God, please do not let California be that state—the spoiled, whiny brat that has a tantrum when it doesn’t get its way, the Texas of this election.)
Personally, I skipped the bargaining stage. What good does it do? If we could somehow wave a magic wand and take the presidency away from Trump, it would only add more fuel to the fear, anger, and hatred of his followers. We might even end up in another civil war.
No, best to keep working toward…
Stage 5: Acceptance
As I said, Loretta and I haven’t made it there yet. I dare say neither have any of the other millions of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton—hundreds of thousands more Americans than voted for Trump.* But that’s okay. We have a right to take as much time as we need with the five stages. We even have a right to go back to a stage we thought we were done with. (Personally, I keep returning to stage two.) We don’t have to listen to anyone tell us to “get over it” or “suck it up.” Hell, most Republicans steadfastly refused to “suck it up” through all eight years of Obama’s presidency.
We must allow ourselves to grieve, but we must not allow ourselves to be afraid, because as a much wiser person than I once said: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (Yes, it was Yoda, and yes, I'm a huge nerd.)
I know what you’re thinking: "Easy for you to say. As a heterosexual white male, you've got nothing to worry about. In Trump's America, you're gold." Well, I do worry. I worry about my non-heterosexual, non-white, non-male friends. I know that many of them are feeling terribly uneasy in the wake of an election that seemingly validated a segment of the population that hates them solely based on their gender, sexual identity, or color of their skin.
But please know that the vast majority of Americans are not like that. Please know that the vast majority of Americans have got your back. (And yes, that even includes many Americans who voted for Trump.)
Take heart, and always remember those immortal words inscribed in large friendly letters on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
* If you're not an American, this probably makes no sense to you, but we don't elect our president directly. Instead we use a convoluted system called an Electoral College. (I know. It doesn't make sense to a lot of us, either.)