The 5 Stages of Grief – None of Them Chocolate!

stages of griefI learned a valuable happiness lesson thanks to a near-death experience on a moped in Mykonos.  This collision of inspiration happened about 20 years ago, on vacation with my two good friends, Robyn and Art. We’d each rented mopeds to travel to a distant beach.  Robyn and Art were nervous about their moped skills. I was not.

Back in New York, where I lived (and happily still do live – thanks to a miracle of sorts!) I was an avid cyclist. As soon as I slipped my toosh onto that moped seat, I felt just as home traveling the winding hills of Greece, as I did on my Trek bike in Central Park.

Robyn and Art however were more trepid riders. They preferred to go snail-pace slowly. The path we were on was highly winding –  like the top of a soft serve ice cream cone – swirling round and round. The beach where we wanted to go was located where the bottom of the cone would be.

For a while I moved at the same slow and steady pace as my friends.  Eventually I decided to speed ahead  – just for a few minutes – to feel the wind muss up my hair. I was in the midst of my speed-ahead-jaunt, when suddenly the wind morphed from friendly and breezy into mean and mischievous. It brutally swept in – and began thrusting me to my right  – where an incredibly steep cliff awaited.

I needed to make a split second decision:

(a) continue to head right – and off that steep cliff

(b) try to turn the moped left – and smoosh into a mountain side

I chose mountain side.

I tapped into all my upper arm strength and swerved the moped towards the mountain wall. Just as I was about to hit smack into the wall, I put all my might into swerving the moped again – this time, as far away from the mountain wall  as I could muscle going.stages of grief

It worked.

Sort of.

I didn’t hit the mountain wall; however, I did find my various arms and legs trapped beneath and within the moped.

My first immediate emotion was not pain. It was fear of embarrassment. I didn’t want my friends to see me entangled and disgraced.

I quickly stood up and began wiping off evidence of the loose gravel now clinging to my arms and legs. I breathed in deeply  – breathed out even more deeply. I was hoping to calm myself – fast. I wanted to appear cool and collected by the time my friends arrived.

It didn’t work.

Not even sort of.

“Karen, what happened to you?” my friend Art asked the moment he saw me.

“You’re gushing blood,” my friend Robyn added. “Look at your arms! Look at your knees! There’s blood everywhere.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked in disbelief. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

“You’re not okay,” insisted Art.

But I truly did not see or feel my injuries.

“Yes I am okay,” I insisted. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

Robyn came over – held up my right arm for me to examine more carefully. “Karen, this elbow in particular is bleeding a lot. See?”

It took a while, but eventually I could clearly see my bloody injuries. As soon as I did,  I began feeling them too. Incredible pain. I became dizzy. I could barely talk. stages of grief

Admittedly, I preferred to have never seen or felt the truth of my wounds. So much so, I still kept insisting to my friends I was okay – although I was now throbbing all over with pain.   I refused to see a doctor, and stoically got back on that cursed moped (yikes!) and continued to the beach -where I proceded to drink lots of Ouzo! At the time, I was highly proud of my inner strength.

Thankfully since this Mykonos Episode, I haven’t experienced other near death experiences  – at least in the physical sense.

However, I have had a few “emotional-near-death-experiences”  – where I felt like my life had come to an end.

During these tough times, I wanted to be strong  – which is good.

However I wanted to feel strong immediately – which is problematic.

“How are you doing?” friends would ask during bigtime break ups, post-sexual-assault, the death of my father, the shock of business betrayals  – and other challenging events.

“I’m okay!” I’d answer.  “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.”

Just like on that mountain in Mykonos, I’d plead okay-ness.

For some reason, I felt that it was not okay shutterstock_175187597to be not okay.

I didn’t want my friends to see my spirit entangled within the wheels of life’s challenges.  I didn’t want my friends to potentially judge my foolishness in having crashed my heart into that giant wall of shame called “What Were You Thinking?”

Some of this was due to the belief that as a self help author I should be held to a higher standard of pain avoidance and pain threshold. Although truth be told, I’ve always felt more comfy as helper than helpee. All my life my immediate response to emotional pain has been to make jokes. Lots of jokes. Plus I’d eat chocolate. Far too much chocolate. One of my go-to jokes was saying how I believed “chocolate” was one of the 5 stages of grief.

I’d joke so much about my gut-wrenching pain that I came up with a word for this: “enterpaining.” Ohhhh how I loved to “enterpain” people!

I even made dark-humored jokes after my sexual assault – quipping how I was extra surprised by the event – because didn’t think I was wearing such an attractive outfit that day! Plus, my bellows humor came into bigtime play after a devastating break up. “It seems my ex went from jackpot to jack*ss!” was a favorite joke at the time.

I’d do whatever I could to put my tragedy into a quick spin-cycle of humor and try to re-tell it all as a comedic story –  laughing my canned, highly hollow laugh-track of one.

I thought I was covering up my pain in a nice pretty party-friendly dress of “enterpainment” – but alas, this cover-up seemed to be slightly see-through.

“Are you okay?” friends would continue to ask –  holding my gaze  – searching for tear precipitation ahead.

“I’m okay,” I’d insist. “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay – OKAY?!”

But I was far from okay.

Sometimes when I was alone I could feel a surge of uncontrollable tears about to surface. I’d run to the kitchen – gobble down some chocolate – then set my oven alarm to go off in five minutes. I’d return to the living room, throw myself onto my sofa –  and cry, cry, cry, cry, cry – until that oven alarm went off five minutes later. I’d then command my tears to stop. True story! I was even afraid to reveal my vulnerability alone to myself!

I was anorexic in my approach to indulging in tears, miserly in my vulnerability allowance. I thought I was healing faster, smarter, better.

Unfortunately my personally plotted pain avoidance tools of humor, chocolate and oven timers were notstages of griefmuch faster, smarter or better than those more famous strategies of alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex, gambling, sleeping pills, overly-busying yourself with work, etc.

All of these techniques share in common the same mission: A hope that denial will remove our pain – but meanwhile it simply delays our healing process – because we’re not tending to our emotional wounds with the appropriate salves of awareness, compassion and honest connections with others.

Share honest connection with others? That last one was a real doozy to do.

I feared vulnerability more than my actual emotional pain itself!

I worried if I showed people this slightly-damaged Karen they’d demand an immediate exchange – request to swap this Imperfect  Me in for The Original-Flavored Karen they’d ordered – the strong, “enterpaining,” light and bouncy Karen.

But then one day I was working out at the gym – and I was unable to do a variety of free weight maneuvers – due to old injuries to my elbow from my Mykonos moped collision. I could feel – and even hear – an uncomfortable clicking sound. Soon after my elbow began to bug me regularly – getting dressed, doing yoga, carrying anything heavy.

I thought back to the accident – how I’d stoically refused to confess my pain and see a doctor.  It was now obvious. Because I never faced the truth of my wounds – I didn’t wisely take the time to re-set what was apparently a fractured elbow – thereby some bones had permanently settled into misalignment.

In that moment I experienced a Large Aha!  I realized how pleading “okayness” was not only detrimental to my physical healing, but my emotional healing!

By insisting “okayness” during personal challenges (break ups, my sexual assault, my father’s passing, that shocking business betrayal etc…) I was not tending properly to the healing of my inner self.

I started to do some research on resiliency psychology. The info I discovered not only personally helped me, the tools inspired both the Bounce Back Book and Prince Harming Syndrome. One consistentstages of grieffinding: There’s a kind of magic which happens when you speak your truth about pain. A science-based magic, actually!

Recent research by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA shows that simply being able to name a distressing emotion out loud halves your “amygdala activation”—otherwise known as your “emotionality.” So, by simply sharing how you feel you can calm yourself by 50%.

Plus,  many research studies support how when you begin talking about your emotions, you leave the “fight and flight” animal instinct part of your brain – and begin to tap into your neocortex  – where rational thinking and helpful insights can be found. I call this “adding insight to injury” – and it’s a powerful healing agent.

Insight enables you make sure you don’t allow negative beliefs to get permanently set in your thinking – just the same way you wouldn’t want fractured bones to be permanently set into place.

It’s so essential to happiness to speak your truth out loud – because this sharing of your core pain is what creates a necessary healing shift – from negative beliefs about the world – to positive beliefs – and frees you up to be able to fully view life with meaning, purpose and connection with others. Emile Zola said it well when he said: “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud.”

When my son was younger, he’d sometime kicks and punch when he was upset. I’d tell him: “Don’t kick  – say how you feel! Use your words! Use your words!”

As soon my son began to express how he feels, the kicks and punches would stop. His body would become less tense, his breathing less rapid. I suppose brain scientists would say it’s because my son was leaving his “fight or flight” brain zone (which is what inspired those kicks and punches in the first place) and tapping into his neocortex – allowing him to formulate his mayhem thoughts into relatable feelings and sentences.

Whatever the scientific reason for my son’s shift from chaotic to calm, I’ve witnessed the magic which happens when my my son takes the time to share his truth out loud.

stages of griefHere’s another interesting research study on the power of speaking your truth  – from Dr. Dina Carbonell of Simmons College.  Dr. Carbonell tracked 400 people – from ages 5 to 30 for 25 years – seeking the main characteristics of those who did best in difficult circumstances.

Her most important finding?

“Resilient people identify those who are available, trustworthy and helpful. Then they go toward this light.”

I know for many years I didn’t feel safe going towards this light – fearing it would burn me. I hid behind the mask of “okay-ness” –  blocking this nourishing light from coming in.

Truth be told – I wasn’t sure who to trust with knowing my big secret: I am not perfect!

Yes, for many years I felt I needed to hide my flaws and vulnerabilities – fearful people would like me less if I didn’t keep presenting myself as more!

One day I made a list of my friends – then got quiet. I asked myself: Who is 100% rooting for me to live my happiest life — not competing or jealous? Who do I always feel happier after visiting – not more stressed or depressed? I recognized these were my “Safe People.” I began revealing the truth of my pain – slowly at first – with those on the “The Safe List.”

Some people I soon discovered weren’t as safe as I thought. I could feel their discomfort around my imperfect self. However, with other friends I wound up developing far stronger relationships!  Indeed, one of the indirectly good things about bad times: It can bring you closer to people, because sharing intimate conversation bonds you in a far deeper, more meaningful way than mere shoe shopping will ever do.

The people to truly treasure in life are those who have seen you at your worst – and still think you are the best. The folks who are happy for your happiness – and sad for your sadness – and make it crystal clear they are there for you – no matter what.

I’ve also happily discovered that when your friendship circle decreases in number it’s actually increasing in value!

In my research for Bounce Back Book, I wrote about the 5 real stages of grief – which Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously outlined. Although Elizabeth does not include chocolate, she does call the first stage “Denial and Isolation” -which indirectly refers to pigging out!

Here’s the full 5 Stages Of Grief:

STAGE #1: DENIAL AND ISOLATION: “This is not happening to me.”

STAGE #2: ANGER: “How dare this happen to me.”

STAGE #3: BARGAINING: “Just let me get X and I won’t care about Y,” or “If this doesn’t happen, I promise to . . .”

STAGE #4: DEPRESSION: “I can’t bear to face going through this.”

STAGE #5: ACCEPTANCE: “I’m ready; I don’t want to struggle anymore.”

When I look with new eyes at these 5 stages I can clearly see how pleading okay-ness showed a complete disregard for accepting the full 5 stages of the healing process. I wanted to zoom from stage 1 to stage 5 in an instant.  However just as pregnancy is a process which cannot be rushed, the same goes for the process of recovery from pain – both the physical and emotional kinds. You must fearlessly face up to the truth of your wounds to heal fully. You must give time time – and be patient and gentle with yourself.

stages of griefIt’s interesting this word “fearless.” It’s composed of “fear” and “less. But when you are “fearless” it doesn’t mean you experience less fear. Indeed courageous people feel just as much fear. It’s just that they choose to keep moving through their fear.  In a way this word “fearless” should be renamed “fearthrough.”

If you’re dealing with a personal challenge right now – and tempted to stay in denial and isolation – my hope for you is that you move through your pain! Please allow yourself to be “fearthrough” – and face up to the truth of your core pain – not only while alone with yourself – but in the company of Safe Friends.

As I repeatedly remind my son – and now myself: “Say how you feel! Use your words! Use your words!”

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Written by Karen Salmansohn (Founder)

Hi I’m Karen Salmansohn, founder of NotSalmon. My mission is to offer you easy-to-understand insights and tools to empower you to bloom into your happiest, highest potential self. I use playful analogies, feisty humor, and stylish graphics to distill big ideas – going as far back as ancient wisdom from Aristotle, Buddhism and Darwin to the latest research studies from Cognitive Therapy, Neuro Linquistic Programming, Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, Quantum Physics, Nutritional Studies – and then some.
  • Sharon

    Karen, Thank You! for sharing your awesome insight, words, postings, and your heart! Did you know you are a secret Super Hero for so many of us!? 😉

    • notsalmon

      Thanks so much Sharon! I sooo appreciate your kind words here. It’s very liberating to share my truth here with you all – and Im so happy this story resonates for you!! Big hug!

      • Ebs

        Thank you for being really honest about your story. I can relate to a lot of it 🙂

  • Cheryl

    Karen, I could not believe my eyes when I saw your e-mail about grieving. I needed this so much right now – we made a very difficult decision for our elderly dog and said goodbye just two weeks ago today. I see myself going back and forth through the stages and am often caught unawares by overwhelming sadness and tears, or my mind gets into a loop with “if-only….”. Talking does help, writing this helps, knowing someone understands helps. I also realized that a dear friend with whom I share so much simply doesn’t want to hear about this. I think there are times when one friend understands more than another depending on the circumstances and their own life experiences. Thank you for your insights and sharing your own vulnerability.

    • notsalmon

      I’m happy this article arrived in a timely way!! And….I agree with you about how some people understand some circumstances better than others. Actually, personally I totally understand how tough it is to goodbye to a longterm pet. My dog Maxine passed away one evening out of nowhere – when she was about 15 years old- and it was very hard to say goodbye. I think about your situation… to be in the situation to have to make the difficult decision yourself – well… I empathize! Cry your tears! Share happy memories! Write it out! Honor her in some way with a donation or beautifully framed photo in your home! Sending you lots of love! xo

    • Angela

      Hi Cheryl, really sorry to read of the loss of your dog 🙁 I have been there many times over the years with my beloved dogs and it does leave you feeling so raw. I hope you have many treasured memories to bring you comfort.

  • Susan

    Karen, you are such a Godsend!!! THANK YOU for this very timely and touching article. I was just discussing the stages of grief with my counselor today. Being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I discovered something huuuuuge today…I am stuck between Denial and Acceptance. And I’m having an inner battle-tug-o-war with myself. No wonder I’m so exhausted sometimes! This article is just so wonderfully and soul-fully written. Your beautiful honesty and vulnerability are such a GIFT to women everywhere. BLESS YOU, I could just reach across the internet and HUG you right now 🙂
    -Susan from Calif

  • Sha P.

    This article was so on time & I was thinking about it initial lab for my sister. But as I began to read it I realized just how much some issues I thought were resolved & I had healed from were actually still emotionally on the forefront of my emotions. Thank you so much!

  • Sally

    This is a brilliant article thank you. It resonates again and again. Only last night I told a good friend I’m ok when actually I’m not but I have that rubbish need to appear to be ok. And she’s a safe friend too. She was out on a date and I didn’t want to intrude on her evening with my rubbish. I totally relate to the ‘big secret about not being perfect’ that made me smile. And the meanness with my own vulnerability. It’s all brilliant. Now just gotta act on it!

  • Laurie

    Thank you for helping me through a breakup with my ex fiancé and some other challenges that I’m dealing with. It’s conjured up a lot of pain stemming from very difficult personal and professional situations. I know that with challenge comes opportunity. Therapy has helped somewhat and your daily inspiration is a blessing for me through this journey. Thanks again!

  • Thanks for sharing your deepest heart, Karen. Beautiful post <3

  • Nicki Walker

    This is beautiful, and so, so true. I learnt many years ago that hiding my pain did not make me ‘strong’ – it made me have a breakdown. Talking is my salvation, and I have trained as a counsellor to help other people talk and show their vulnerabilities. I am struggling a little right now as I lost my darling husband seven months ago, but I am showing my feelings and talking to just about anyone who will listen! I will share this article in the hope that it will give someone else the permission they need to be vulnerable, and grow. Thank you xxx

  • Angela

    Thanks for this article, Karen. My life as I knew it was turned upside down about 18 months ago. I think I am mostly at stage 5, acceptance, now.

    I have said ‘I’m okay’ so many times when asked. I have ‘poured out my heart’ to a few people, who I will be eternally grateful to. I tend to say I’m okay when I’m not when I don’t want to bring others down, when I don’t feel people really want to hear how I am actually feeling, or when I’m trying to focus on the positive.

    I have found out people I thought were friends, weren’t – not because of their discomfort around my imperfectness, we didn’t even get that far! I’ve shared really important stuff with a few others though and grown closer to them. It is interesting who turn out to be the ones you feel you can trust with some of the most personal stuff, who you feel genuinely cares. Really only a handful of people, if that, know of my most painful experiences and worries. More than anyone, my dogs have kept me going.

  • Susan

    Thankyou for sharing….I believe secrets keep us prisoners….you are free….

  • nine

    In the stages of grief, you missed “Fear”. At about five months after my husband’s death, I went into several months of panic, fear, paranoia and other permutations thereof.

  • Marilyn

    Wow, Karen, thank you so much for this article. It is deeply meaningful and transformative for me. I especially love your line, “The people to truly treasure in life are those who have seen you at your worst – and still think you are the best.” Any chance you’ll make a poster of this one? Much love to you!

  • tam

    Thanks so much! 🙂 I needed to read this.

  • mike

    Fabulous !

  • I keep fluctuating between 3 and 4 of the grief stages, I hope I reach 5 soon. I need a rest 😀 Thank you for sharing !

  • MamaJones

    Thank you Karen for putting into words what I have been unable to do. I lost my hhusband to cancer last March (he had just turned 40, I am 35) and through all the Dr appointments, surgeries, his funeral service and everyday since I keep telling everyone, including myself, I’m OK, its all OK, he’s not in pain, but damned if I’m not. I’m petrified to pull the “bandaid off the bullet wound” which is the inky way I can describe the pain I feel everyday. I have past traumas as well, and this is about to break me. I’m so glad I came across your article. Again, thank you…

  • Geoff Armstrong

    Hi Karen, thankyou for your story from grief to wellness, you have helped me a lot. My father passed over in March of last year and I had an issue with my neighbour as well. I have a friend that I told about how I felt but really I just skimmed over the deeper feelings. My usual way to deal with hurt is to isolate and stuff it down. Consequently after 8 years of sobriety I used a substance. I have been blessed to recently meet a young person who put out their hand in friendship and trust for me to tell of my grief and hurt. This person saved me from a premature death by listening via email

  • Jamie Frankovich Roberts

    Hi Karen. I love this article! As a Grief Recovery Specialist, I learned that Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief were ever intended for ppl who have experienced trauma but rather for those who have been diagnosed w a terminal illness. But you are so very, very right about the need to speak your pain. Please keep getting the word out there. That is the basis of the Grief Recovery method. Thank you for your honesty! About Us › …