They say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When observing moments of genuine grief, I’ve never once thought, “What this situation really needs is a rubric.” I’m never impelled to place a person coping with tragedy or impending loss somewhere on the Kübler-Ross timeline. Though I enjoy analyzing things, I think I’m put off by the notion that raw emotion can be considered as a part, or as a step, of some ordered progression.
The order does seem to make sense intuitively; denial and acceptance are at least sensible bookends. But that’s why I’m so suspicious of it: How can grieving, of all things, be so neat? Surely the painful reality of loss is such that when it knocks us off our feet, it does to so to rattle us, to rough us up, to throw us around—not to launch us into some preordained trajectory. In one of the Star Wars prequels, Yoda rather daftly says, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Couldn’t those be interchanged at random? That’s the vibe I get from the five stages. Their discreteness makes them, oddly, vague and spectral in a bad way, and worse yet they remind me of Jar Jar Binks and stuff, which is obviously a bummer to begin with.
Of course, I can see why people might prefer to conceive of grief in this way—as involuntary locomotion, like that of a train whose track is laid across terrain that grows more scenic so slowly you don’t notice. Narrative is very comforting, and the idea that the world knows you’re going to be all right, and one day even better off—no matter what—is likewise very comforting. Yet perhaps it’s comforting because such stories are often quite bland, and straightforward. Great stories, after all, are neither formulaic nor clear-completed.
Grief provides us the opportunity to relive and revisit what’s done; we seem to know that solace and cathartic pain await in journeys into the past. But why don’t we expect the same of the strictly emotional aspects of experience? The most powerful anger and sadness and hopelessness are easily understandable, for they crystallize into places and moments just like those we imagine in pictures. They can promise the same sort of cleanse, I think. Why then are we taught that, in grief, we ought to expect to paddle right over the surface of these profound depths, glancing across and glancing askew?
Maybe some people find the notion of grief in stages helpful, but I just find that strange. It seems to me as though it can become a distracting contrivance. I realize, of course, that they constitute an empirical hypothesis, but they’re never really discussed or mentioned as such, and their influence is pervasive and insidious. How many times have you heard the opening sentence of this piece in the context of a TV show, perhaps as a voice-over and as the guiding premise of an episode?
“Stages” is the operative word.
I have grief on my mind after watching my home for the past two years get assailed by a wrecking ball. The crane operator didn’t even hit it that hard. The dude from College Housing that led us in counting down to the ceremonial start of the demolition called it “Pierce Hall”—I’ve never heard anyone call it that.
For all my talk of how unnatural—and how staged—the five stages feel, it’s uncanny how neatly they fit the fallout of the announcement that Pierce Tower was coming down.
Denial. “There’s no way they’re actually tearing it down—they just said they wouldn’t, and they just put so much money into repairs (and iPads).”
Anger. “What the hell, man. The first-years had no idea this was a possibility. This is unfair. This is bullshit.”
Bargaining. “Look, we just need to get them to keep each house together, and keep our houses close to one another, and make sure our sentient driftwood makes it safely to our new lounge. I-House is pretty nice, and so is New Grad…this could be all right.”
Depression. “…OK, New Grad reminds me of American Psycho. This will not be all right. This is the worst.”
Acceptance came when the wrecking ball struck through the window of Room 518. We were, all of us, cheering, for some reason. “Pierce is dead! Long live Pierce!” was the refrain. I suppose it ultimately doesn’t matter if something felt off about it, but I have to say that something did feel off about it—about all of it.
“Stages” is the operative word. We who lived in Pierce in its life of more than 50 years loved the place (most of us did), and we will miss it (most of us will). Yet here we are, grieving in stages, wrapping things up with a shrug and a smile, dusting our hands off so we can eat Aramark hot dogs.
Why is it this way? Considered in the context of this campus over the summer, I suppose it’s not a surprise. The backhoes and bulldozers were straining hard, running constantly, to finish things up before O-Week. The quad was light on people but heavy in equipment, all of which seemed to be reversing, beeping, constantly.
The moment students leave for the summer the set is torn down to be rebuilt with brighter blandishments so that the next production is a spectacle still more spectacular than the last. Orientation is the curtain raiser, the soft opening, the out-of-town preview.
Soon the show begins in earnest. By then we’ll have forgotten how unreal this place is.
Ajay Batra is a third-year in the College majoring in English. Summer Musings is a Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 27.