The Rollercoaster Ride: Courtesy of the Stages of Grief

When I was younger, I loved riding all of the thrill rides, and at the top of my list was the rollercoaster. It didn’t matter if the coaster was a small kiddie ride at a carnival, a floorless one, a twisting and turning looped coaster, or one that gave the most beautiful and endless scenic views for miles when at the tiptop of the peak.

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Upon quick inspection of the rollercoaster, you, as the rider, know that you are in for an exhilarating thrill ride that will keep the adrenaline pumping long after it stops. Once you decide to ride, you may have a long line to wait for your turn or arrive at the front of the line in an instant. Generally, you can choose which car to take you on the tracks, so you sit down, strap yourself safely inside, and prepare to take off. Even though you checked out the ride before you got onto it, during the intensity of the moment, you may not know what to expect or when it will happen. Sometimes you hang on for dear life, and other times you are thankful for a break in the speed. Within no time at all, the ride is over, you are rolling back into the house, and you can leave, unscathed.

There are experiences of riding a rollercoaster that are certain and expected.

  • You choose if and when you want to ride.
  • You have a pretty good idea what to expect from the ride when surveying it from a distance and then again up close.
  • Your body will feel a multitude of sensations, from the pushing or pulling from your body’s inertia to weightlessness.
  • You know that you will be riding in a machine that is inspected and kept in safe working order, and that you will leave the coaster just as you entered.
  • You know that the coaster can be rather intense, making you feel all sorts of emotions. You can feel like you are on top of the world, exhilaration, and joy, but also experience fear and danger – all within minutes.
  • You can choose to travel alone or with someone who will experience the ride with you.

I have often heard the experience of feeling emotions can be like riding a rollercoaster, specifically if one is going through stressful circumstances. When you step onto the rollercoaster ride of grief, you can also expect a response to the experience that can impact your mind, body, and soul. Grief happens as a response to change; it helps you process and protect yourself as you enter a new chapter of your life.

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My Rollercoaster Ride Through the Stages of Grief

When I spoke with my therapist for the first time after my mother’s passing, I think I sobbed the entire time. Thankfully, she is an expert in deciphering incoherent broken cries of the English language into understandable messages. We discussed the stages of grief, how cyclical they can be, and that they are very personalized for each person who processes grief. I came across a website that breaks down each stage as well as what they actually look like and feel like as I navigate this difficult time.

Acceptance – Accepting the reality that now is mine.

Acceptance arrived early on in my grieving, left abruptly, and then came for another visit after Thanksgiving. In the days immediately after my mom passed and leading up to the funeral, my emotions came in waves, whenever they felt like coming and going. At times I waled and cried like I had never cried before, and other times just gave me watery eyes. I believed that I would be a total mess at the funeral.

Instead of carrying around a dwindling box of tissues, the opposite happened. A sense of peace comforted me as I viewed my mother’s former body, I held her hand and prepared to welcome visitors. Familiar faces entered the funeral home, and with each one I knew, I felt an unexplainable joy. I greeted childhood and current teachers, a parent of my elementary best friend, church members I had known at a young age, colleagues my family shared, family and friends who had driven just minutes or hours to offer support, family members of those my mom cared for at the end of life, friends of my mom’s from her youth, and others whose hearts were broken over the sudden loss of loved one. For those who couldn’t attend, beautiful flower arrangements were delivered and on display, while others planted a tree in her honor, or sent lovely messages digitally or by handwritten card.

The peace and comfort I felt like my siblings and close family embraced and exchanged sentiments in the hour leading up to the funeral service continued as the pastor honored my mother’s life as a servant to others when he took his place at the podium. By the grace of God, I made it through the two hymns we chose, only pausing from singing once. For the first time in life with my mom, I felt that indeed, all was and is well with her soul. She is no longer burdened with declining health, barely making ends meet, or dreading daily life because of the stress that plagued her, even if she didn’t share all of that with others.

I lived on that high of feeling at peace for several days, but when I returned to work, planned a gathering for my son’s birthday, and faced the “first” holiday knowing mom’s seat was forever empty, my peaceful acceptance disappeared. Its vacancy left room for other stages of grief to flood my life. Luckily, after surviving Thanksgiving, acceptance returned, assuring that life after loss can be handled with the support of others and I feel more confident now that I can step back into my classroom than I did just one week ago.

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Denial – What the heck am I even doing?

Denial hit me hard the day I returned to work. I felt like a zombie walking about, attempting to focus, trying to hold myself together when the young artists in my classroom asked why I had been absent for such a long time. I chalked it up to one of the reasons – Covid visited my entire family and we had to quarantine. I intentionally left out the passing of my mother knowing it would trigger painful emotions. There were a number of people who welcomed me back and offered more condolences. All of this left me exhausted. The next day I was overcome with emotions and didn’t even make it an hour before I left for home.

As I prepared to return to work after the passing of my mom, I had felt so elated with peacefulness that I was in total denial that I needed support. I even wrote to my therapist, sharing her passing and how well I felt, as if all of the resentment surrounding the mother-daughter relationship I held so close to my heart simply vanished. Well, I was full of boloney and denial, not total peacefulness as I had convinced myself. That day when I left for home from work, I also called my therapist and admitted that I indeed needed her help and requested to meet with her as soon as possible. We scheduled for the following Monday. I am thankful for this.

Bargaining – Oh, how I know this stage so well.

The stage called bargaining has a familiarity to me more than any of the other stages. In my life, I have relived the past in my thoughts and allowed my mind to take control, I have been a perfectionist and people pleaser, an expert at comparing myself to others, going down the rabbit hole of over-thinking everything, playing out every scenario possible in order to prepare for each “what-if” that could be, I’ve mastered self-judgment, and I have played the “I should have” game way too many times. All of these translate into feelings of guilt, embarrassment, shame, anxiety, fear of the unknown, and constantly questioning if I’ve made the right decisions.

I’ve worked very hard to challenge and overcome these thoughts, feelings, and the resulting behaviors through my relationship with my therapist. However, these feelings have ruled my life for a long time, so naturally, when grief came to town, everything in the bargaining stage stood up, cheered loudly, and charged the stage to own the spotlight of my very own mental and emotional show.

Let me give you a glimpse into how bargaining showed up in my thoughts:

  • I didn’t forgive her. I wanted to forgive her. I didn’t get to tell her. I was going to tell her. (This was the only thought loop going on immediately after I received the news and the only thing I said to my gracious colleague who walked me down the hall to my prinicpal’s office and then again when I saw my principal)
  • After my principal drove me to my aunt’s home because I was not in any condition to drive myself: Please tell Miranda I’m sorry that she has to cover my classes. (I had just come back to school that morning after a marathon of family quarantine days, many of which my itinerant partner had to double up on my classes because of the sub shortage)
  • I can’t find a good picture for the obituary. She’s going to hate the ones we have. (My mom hated her picture taken, so picking the “right” picture placed a lot of pressure on her children, and I definitely felt the pressure. But seriously, would her spiritual self even care?)
  • We have to sell the house. It’s a mess. Does the realtor actually have to go inside? Oh my goodness, there are pictures online of the listing?
  • I can’t go back to work. I can’t be around people. What do I do when people talk to me and I fall apart? How do I teach? How can I be responsible for other people when I can’t show up for myself?
  • I’m looking into FMLA. I can’t tell my husband that I’m seriously thinking about this. I’ve already blown through my sick days because of Covid. But I really need time off. If I can only make it through the holidays, I can return in better spirits in the new year. I just emailed the benefits office and shared that I think I’ll be okay. I was okay when I sent the message. Now that I’ve made it through the day, exhausted and emotional, did I make a mistake?
  • Watching Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas, the episode of Goofy and his son Max got me. Oh my goodness, that’s exactly how I felt. I’m such a bad daughter. Why did I act this way? Why couldn’t I get over my feelings and just love her without carrying all of the childhood stuff with me? If only I would have healed myself, we could have repaired our relationship.
  • I can’t fall asleep. What if the house doesn’t sell? How we will all afford the upkeep through the winter? Why can’t I fall asleep?
  • I’m so sorry for crying at work. I thought I was ready to come back, but I’m not. I’m sorry that coverage has to be found for me again.

That list is only a little peek into the real workings of my mind at this moment.

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Depression – I want nothing to do with anything right now.

Depression waited about two weeks, and then crippled me with sadness and overwhelm. I was and continue to be drained of my energy, mentally and emotionally exhausted from life. At first, I wanted nothing to do with being around others, except my family. I was even overwhelmed at the thought of seeing my husband’s family at Thanksgiving. For days, I envisioned the same daydream over and over in my mind of arriving at my father-in-law’s home for the holiday. He was waiting in the driveway, and as soon as I got out, he would put his arms around me and try to console me because he knew, all too well, what loss felt like. I would sob uncontrollably. I also imagined stepping into my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home, breaking down crying just at the sight of them. I was so afraid of that happening in real life. What was I afraid of? Of being vulnerable? Of crying more? I don’t know. None of it actually happened in real life anyway, so I had let my mind control my thoughts and drive my emotions for nothing at all.

Anger – Who is this person taking over me?

When I read Stanaway’s article about the stages of grief, I was relieved to see that anger can show up, look like, and feel like more than a shortened temper. Being mad, snapping at others, or even seeing people in a rage was what I’ve associated with anger. Reflecting over what Stanaway described in the breakdown of anger gave me a better understanding of how anger has shown up in my life in the past and present, behaviors I’ve experienced for myself and observed in others. I want to share how anger feels like for me during grieving, using the “feels like” terms Stanaway lists:

  • Frustration: Frustration has appeared when I’m trying to do common tasks that would normally be done with ease. During this season of my life, I simply don’t have the focus and concentration with every task and become easily frustrated. My focus and concentration can decrease when a thought of my childhood passes or going to work on my mother’s birthday. When I’m not on my game, I become frustrated.
  • Impatience: Grieving has drained my energy leaving me more exhausted on a daily basis than I have ever felt. After a day full of activities or work, I am wiped out and ready for a nap, but napping is a dream. When it’s bedtime for my kids, I become incredibly impatient and find myself quick to anger. I absolutely hate feeling and being this way. In speaking with my therapist about how I am angering more quickly, she reminded of the work I’ve done to recognize when I’m beginning to feel impatient and angry, so that I can respond in a calming manner, and that I can revisit rules, boundaries, and consequences with my children at any time.
  • Resentment: Resentment is a big one for me. Not only has it fed into my life for years, driving my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, but it is hitting me in full force right now. I have felt resentment for a broken relationship and everything that went with it between my mother and me for what seems like forever. With her passing, the resentments I had towards her have lifted from my heart; possibly because there’s no working anything out with her in the physical world now. What I have realized in the last month is that I have held many resentments toward myself. This is far worse.
  • Embarassment: I have felt embarrassed for crying in front of others. I have felt embarrassed for calling off of work to grieve. I have felt embarrassed for showing my mom’s house to anyone other than our immediate family and to our immediate family. I have felt embarrassed because I couldn’t help her find healing. I have felt embarrassed for the broken relationship we had. I have felt embarrassed to share details of her death and what led to it. I have felt embarrassed when I couldn’t hold myself together to return to work.
  • Rage: Thank goodness, I have not experienced pure rage.
  • Feeling out of control: Feeling out of control happened when life continued as normal, but I was grasping at straws to simply get through moments of the day. Everything has happened too fast. Within hours of her passing, we had to determine where to send her body, and then I was scheduling a meeting with the funeral home. After the call with the funeral director, my cousin and I walked to my mom’s home to find clothes to dress her body. I had to stand in the very spot where her body was found. Before the workday ended, I had to arrange to put in for a substitute to cover my classes the following week. That evening I wrote her obituary, and then consulted with my sister. The next morning, I scavenged my house trying to find the best picture for the obituary, and burst into tears when I had to leave the house without one. We all met at the funeral home early in the morning to make arrangements for every little detail, and luckily found a picture between the 7 of us for the obituary. After the meeting, my siblings and I again scavenged the house for any sign of legal papers for the house, car, insurance, bills, etc. There’s so much more to these feelings, but you’ve already taken in so much of what’s on my heart, I’ll spare you more details.

As I come to a close for this entry, I want to thank you for allowing me to be vulnerable with you. I had no idea how complex grief actually is, and to experience it firsthand from losing a parent has been a whirlwind of ups and downs, twists and turns, and speeds of all sorts. I’m strapped in, prepared to keep leaning into everything that comes my way.

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