Is there a “sixth step” to the grieving process? (Photo: Stocksy/Curtis Kim)
Grief is a complicated process, and it differs from person to person. But in general, there are understood to be five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages were developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to help us better understand what our minds and bodies are going through when we feel this immense pain.
But what if there was one more step? Turns out, there may very well be — one that makes “our loss concrete,” says grief expert Cara Barker, PhD.
While this “sixth step” of grief may not often be discussed, many people going through the process unknowingly venture into it — the tackling of a grand challenge. For some, it may take the form of running ultra marathons and Ironman triathlons, as was the case with DuPont, Washington woman Lisa Hallett, whose husband died in Afghanistan while he was serving in the U.S. military. For others, it may involve getting back to an activity that used to bring joy, like for skydiver Alana Fulvio, of Redwood City, California, who stopped jumping for six months after her husband died in a tragic skydiving accident 15 days after their wedding. (She eventually forced herself back into the air six months after his death — and has since broken numerous skydiving records.)
“Unless we take what we’re feeling and make it concrete, we really have nothing to reflect back on us about the importance of what we suffered in the loss,” Barker explains to Yahoo Health.
Related: 7 Ways To Help A Loved One Grieve
"If you swallow the grief it takes you down in an undertow,” she adds. “Fundamentally, we have to come to a decision: Am I going to climb into that grave or urn with that person or am I going to become a testimonial to the gift of life?”
Take Alison Miller, 57, for instance. Miller lost her husband Chuck to cancer in 2013, leaving her absolutely devastated. “It felt like there was a meat slicer in my chest,” she tells Yahoo Health. During Chuck’s last four years of life, the two traveled across the country together — with Chuck surviving one bout of cancer in their third year on the road. When it became clear that the end of Chuck’s life was drawing near, he asked his wife to hit the road and scatter his ashes in all the places they traveled. He died three weeks later.
Allison Miller with her husband, Chuck. (Photo courtesy of Alison Miller)
Despite how much it hurt, Alison honored her husband’s wishes and set off in her pink trailer on a two-year road trip. “I painted it pink so people would come up and talk to me and it wouldn’t be so lonely,” she says, “but also so Chuck could find me wherever he was.“ Alison says the trip pushed her out of comfort zone and she began to learn how live life on her own.
Allison and her pink trailer during her cross-country journey. (Photo courtesy of Alison Miller)
Alison also turned to exercise as a way to cope with her grief, and to get her body in shape for her next road trip. "I want to continue to be on the road and to do that I have to physically be strong. And it felt like my body was going to explode if I didn’t find some physical outlet for it,” she says. “It would be so easy to turn on the TV, sit and watch it and have as little of a life as possible. But, going back to a normal life would be near to impossible for me.” Alison, who writes about her pain and travels on her website www.loveismycolor.com, plans to hit the road again speaking about her experience and the grief process.
But there doesn’t have to be a death to experience loss. Maura Manzo, founder of Yoga Home just outside of Philadelphia, lost her whole life after a fire destroyed her apartment. “I felt like I lost all of my stories,” Maura tells Yahoo Health. “I didn’t know how to define myself if I didn’t have my stuff.”
As a person with a history of depression, Maura knew she had to find a healthy way to deal with her pain. “My tendency up until that point was to repress emotions and I knew that’s not where I wanted to go,” she says.
And then she found yoga.
Through yoga, Maura found a way to deal with the pain of losing all of her belongings. (Photo: Joe Longo Photography)
“I went to a yoga class and I had one of those visceral experiences where it was like I was being wrung out from the inside out; tears started coming down my face,” she explains. “I knew I was right where I belonged and put me on the yoga path.” Now, Maura is a full-time yoga teacher — a career path she may never have started on had it not been for her loss.
“People who have suffered a profound loss, if they’re open, then a little tiny light goes on and they begin to cherish life in a way that is profound,” Barker says. “These are the people that go to be guides for other people.”
Read This Next: Yoga: A Treatment For Grief?