This past summer, grief seemed to swallow me up whole. Between the stress of planning for a new year at school and trying to figure out my future plans, the unspeakable happened: my uncle David passed away after a six-month battle with brain cancer.
I was reminded of something any psychology student is familiar with, Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These emotional phases seem to ring true for all of us by touching on the raw and vulnerable state of our emotions.
Stage One: Denial. As soon as I saw my mother’s expression once she picked up the phone, I knew what was coming.
“David passed away earlier today. He experienced organ failure.”
We had all been walking on egg shells for the past week or so, waiting for news. We knew he had been in and out of a coma and would never leave the hospice. The ending, though, still struck hard. I couldn’t believe that the uncle who once laughed about having “fuzzies” on his bald head after receiving hormone injections of estrogen (to help shrink a previous case of prostate cancer) was gone. It seemed unreal, as if I were in the middle of a nightmare.
Stage Two: Anger. All I could think about was how unfair it was. As a member on boards for various hospitals, a loving father, a devoted husband and a perpetually smiling uncle, I couldn’t find any logic whatsoever for why he fell victim to this insidious disease. With an already unsure stance on religion, this only caused me to question it further. If there is a God watching over all of us, how could this happen to an innocent man, someone who showed nothing but kindness throughout his life? Why him? Why couldn’t he be saved?
Stage Three: Bargaining. I tried to bargain with myself in my attempt to reach some level of acceptance. I endeavored to open my eyes to different viewpoints. Maybe I wasn’t in the position to know why David had to surrender his life to cancer. Perhaps I just wasn’t supposed to know.
Step Four: Depression. The truth was, though, that my heart felt as if it had been ripped apart. I couldn’t even imagine how my aunt felt. There were days I would just sit down and cry, letting myself get so worked up about it that my hands were shaking. My doctor, surprisingly, became my shoulder to cry on one day.
After some routine questions, she asked, “How have you been feeling lately?” I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Through my tear-drenched sobs, she endeavored to comfort me. There were several weeks like this: stress-induced headaches, loss of appetite, the works. Still, all I could think about was what my aunt was going through and how helpless I felt to alleviate her pain.
Stage Five: Acceptance. I have finally gotten to a point where, for the majority of the time, I’m okay. It makes me sad to think about my uncle and what happened to him, but I know that I still have fond memories of the times I spent with him: swimming and joking around in the pool; visiting vintage car shows; laughing as he realized that he accidently put my bathing suit in the dryer instead of laying it out to dry. There are still times when I remember something out of the blue or read something that upsets me, and I do start crying when I realize how much I have lost and how much he meant to me. My friends’ supportive hugs have helped a lot. It makes it seem okay again; at least I know he’s no longer suffering.
After having time to grieve, as cliché as it sounds, I have seen the “light at the end of the tunnel.” What gets me through is remembering what a great man he was, and how much he did for everyone else in his life, like how happy he made my aunt for the 30 years they were married. His doctors even said that he was a fighter and that he “was rewriting the medical books as [they] knew it.” Who wouldn’t be proud of an uncle like that? We’re all familiar with the saying, “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.” Maybe he is hobnobbing with the angels now; maybe he has gotten his own wings.