According to Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ theory, there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s been two months since my father died, one year since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and one and a half years since I said goodbye to my five-year relationship. Each of these things I’ve been grieving have blurred together so much so that the timelines have become warped. I’m sure there’s a grief distinction between all three — but I haven’t felt it. Instead, I’m completely numb. And so I thought about those five stages and I decided to map out each one because the intersectionality of it all deserves my undo attention.
One. Saying goodbye to the man I once thought I’d marry.
For three years of the five I was with my ex, I felt I had lost who I was, yet stayed in the relationship because I was too afraid of being alone. He didn’t share my drive to work hard and do good. He was just good. It stifled me —but it stifled me because I was waiting for him to fill a side of me that I had not yet developed in myself. I just WANTED to do good and I hadn’t done it yet, so being with him made me feel like I was being held back from doing that. In reality, I had to take responsibility for the fact that I had not taken any action to fulfill my own dreams. So when I left, it was time to delve into a lot of resentments and issues I had with myself.
I missed the feeling of deep connection that I had lost — companionship had become reduced to regular brunches, farting in bed, and Netflix. I was in denial that the relationship was ending when I got a studio apartment, leaving my keepsakes with him because this would just be “temporary.” The anger came from knowing he’d be living in a home we created together, with a new girlfriend, at a rent that was beyond unimaginable in Los Angeles and I had to let it go. I tried to bargain the sharing of our three cats and dog—even the plants. I bargained with myself, resorting to intimacy with other men as “deserved time to explore.” When I explored it too deeply, I fell into a deep depression because I was denying what I was truly missing — unconditional kindness that he had so generously given me, but I had yet to give myself. I started accepting that I had a problem: that the undoing of that relationship wasn’t just his fault, but mine as well — and that’s when I lost mobility in my legs.
Two. I got diagnosed with MS within 10 months of being broken up with and the disastrous unraveling of two other flings.
The mind-body connection was undeniable, but the denial of the disease itself had been lingering for two years prior. The body aches, fatigue, the tingling in my legs and arms, the loss of memory, the migraines — it all seemed like aging. And then one day, I woke up with a numb arm, my legs collapsing underneath me. I had vertigo for the next four weeks. All this was triggered not only by the break-up of the five-year relationship but also the unsuccessful attempts to date two people at once. I was angry at myself for letting the desire to be wanted take over my judgment—my ability to listen to my heart. I let these people I was dating get to my mind so much so that it waged mechanical warfare within my synapses.
I was in such denial that I even went into a job interview having to rely on leaning against a wall to hold me up. I bargained with the doctors to find me a nonexistent cure as soon as possible —there was no way I would let my disease progress to a point where I had to live the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I even went through Whole Foods aisles thinking that homeopathic medicine was the answer and I bought all of it – mushrooms, Tumeric, Vitamin D, Ignatia. I pitied myself: “No one is going to ever want to me.” And that led to a deep disassociation from my body.
At this point, I was leaning on the support of so many friends and loved ones that the only option to keep going was to express my needs and connect with others. I called every person with MS who had been sent my way through the referrals of friends and I talked to each and every one of them about their symptoms, life plans, fears, and dreams. It didn’t look so dark ahead for them, so I accepted that that could be my fate too. Then, within seven months of being diagnosed, I found out my father had stage four prostate cancer, on top of his Parkinson’s.
Three. When a parent starts dying, perspective shifts like a Rubik’s cube.
Realities became clearer and more uncomfortable last December, shifting each day as if it was some sort of victory – getting a hospital bed for $150, finding a hospice nurse to visit for free, and each time he picked up the phone or called, knowing he made it one more day. It made me feel like my time was coming. Everything looked like death — even the slow wobble of my dog’s gait— or the dark mole on my leg — or my friend’s cancerous breast once a double D, now removed. I started waking up as if nothing was left for me, like I was falling into a chasm of darkness, with little expectation of anyone lifting me out. That grief was painfully never-ending, synonymous with life itself. There were waves, with some good and bad days. When the pizza flyer guy reminded me of my father, I stood on the sidewalk and cried—realizing the grief from a life lost is similar to the grief of a love lost. It’s confusing; it hits you randomly throughout the day — from the groceries you buy, to the pair of unmatched socks, or the poems you read, the lanes you change on the freeway— these moments all intersect to tell you the love is either gone forever or always with you.
There was an instinct to prolong my dad’s life. What I know now is that that was a selfish act on my part, an act as selfish as me staying in the five-year relationship that wasn’t working. I was holding onto people, thinking that without them I was nothing. And that wasn’t the case.
As I try to rebuild myself after all this, I remind myself to be gentle–to hold my thoughts and body as I would hold a baby. There’s no need for me to rush back to work and do 100%, but there is a need for me to stay in my body and feel my feelings all the way. It takes strength and a level of vulnerability required of being in a relationship. The compassion with which I must learn to treat myself is exactly how I want a future partner to treat me, and that is a gift to see — that for the first time I am available to give myself the kindness that I wasn’t giving myself before, and that eventually, I will be able to pass it onto someone else. For now, I practice it with friends—I recognize where and when love is needed and I deliver, present for them and myself.
No matter what level of grief I’m in, I’m trusting that I’m safe. I don’t necessarily have to follow Kübler-Ross’ timeline to justify how much or how little I’m feeling. This grief can be up and down, and each stage may happen all at once. As long as I’m willing to be taken care of when I need it – as long as I can pause and love myself when in the deepest darkness, I’ll be okay.
Before all this grief, I was hardwired to compare and despair, focusing on my needs only. Many of us do that as if it’s a survival tactic–to know where we are on the food chain of life. As much as I want to compare myself to everyone who is getting married and having kids and building families, this grief is letting me experience the growth I need to be full enough for myself, a companion, and a community. It’s time to strengthen my neural pathways so that they’re rewired to receive nurturing love and care with an open heart. I’m accepting that where I am is where I need to be.