The Right To Die And The Process Of Grief – Part 2by Dr Emma Gray - 8th November, 2016
The Right to Die And The Process of Grief – Part 2
When we experience a loss, we go through a particular process designed by nature to help us reconfigure our lives in light of the new reality, one without a person that we loved. As with all products of evolution, grief allows us to survive, in this case, the emotional devastation of losing someone pivotal in our lives. Giving someone the right to decide when they die has a significant impact upon the grieving process, one that it is important to understand if we are to navigate it successfully.
The process of grief as it is currently understood is as follows:
Stage 1 – Denial
Denial is our first response to a loss. It serves a protective function, allowing us to supress the reality of what is happening, until we are ready to deal with it.
Stage 2 – Anger
As denial dissipates we can feel intense anger. It is thought that this serves as a cover for the anxiety we feel faced with our new reality, a life without our loved one. Anger is often a more tolerable emotion because it’s energy can be directed outside of us and onto other people or things.
Stage 3 – Bargaining
Bargaining is a natural response to the hopelessness and fear we feel in the face of a loss. It can create an illusion of control over what has happened, for example “If only I had done such and such, my loved one would still be here”. A variation on this is to make a deal with God or our higher power to delay the inevitable.
Stage 4 – Depression
The depression that we feel when grieving serves an incredibly important function, it slows us down and draws our attention inwards so that we can reconfigure our lives without the person we have lost.
Stage 5 – Acceptance
Acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process and can only be reached by way of the other four phases, there are no short cuts. Acceptance of our loss brings with it a softening of our grief and a way of carrying the memory of our loved one with us through the rest of our lives in a way that brings us comfort and peace.
It is important to note that this process is not a linear one and it is normal to pass through a stage but then need to return to a previous one in order to move forward again.
Not knowing when we will die means that for most, if not all of our lives we reside in the denial phase. Pre-programmed by nature to avoid dangers that we cannot defeat we work hard to avoid the reality of death and this, for the most part, serves us well. It enables us to live our lives relatively free of thoughts of death. However, as soon as we become aware of when we will die, avoidance is no longer an option and we are forced out of denial and into the rest of the grief process.
For all involved, friends and family as well as the person who is considering their right to die, a (subconscious) reluctance to leave the denial stage and embark on the rest of the process can make it difficult to give the issue thoughtful consideration. However, there may be some benefit to embarking on the grief process whilst a person who has decided to die is still alive.
For the person who has chosen to die, they will experience the opportunity to grieve for themselves, something which most of us do not expect to have to do. For friends and family, they will be forced out of denial and into a consideration of life without their loved whilst that person is still with them. Both scenarios present complex emotional challenges but also important opportunities. Knowing when someone will die and having the time to anticipate, understand and prepare for this allows us to gather resources (both psychological and practical), facilitate resolutions and spend time together in way that would never usually be possible. This can bring with it a huge comfort and psychological strength for what is to come. In addition, working through emotional challenges with the support of our friends and family can offer us significant protection against emotional distress and ongoing mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
The process of grief is vital to our mental health and indeed our survival. Although it is tempting to try and avoid or delay it when it is our time to work through it, doing so will be detrimental to our emotional health. It may be that giving those in need the right to decide when they die could facilitate the grief process and enable people to navigate it more successfully.