Grief, loss and change.

“To live is to endure loss, repeatedly.  Without the ability to bear this nothing new would exist.  Once something has died, we can mourn it, making space within ourselves for other experiences.  This is what it is to be healthy.” Hanif Kureshi


Middle English: from Old French grief, from grever ‘to burden’ (see grieve).

  1. Intense sorrow.

2. The normal and natural reaction to loss.

3.  The emotional, physiological, cognitive and behaviour reaction to loss.

Last week, I agreed to lead a whole-year group PSHCE session on grief, loss and change. Arguably, I may not always be the best role-model when in comes to coping with change. I often joke that I do not mind change … in other people.  The topic arouses my own anxieties and defence mechanisms.  I can be belligerent, awkward, ostrich-like and generally terrified of change.  I am often unsure of what to do or say about my own or others grief.  I am tongue-tied.  Now, you do not have to be Dr Freud to work out the conscious and unconscious motives to these behaviours.

However, I am also a psychology teacher and I have a Masters degree from the Tavistock, so if anyone can, it should be me, right?  But it terrifies me.  It terrifies me so much that once I have agreed to do it, I ignored it until the last moment.  Typical me.

  • How do I put across something meaningful and helpful in 45 minutes that conveys both my years of study and lived experience?
  • How do you do a session with a whole year group that is both interesting but not too intense that it reawakens or prolongs personal agonies?
  • How do you have a humble heart that speaks helpful words?

In 2010, a student in my sixth form collapsed on a the school basketball court and slipped into a coma.  Two days later on 22nd November, he died a sudden cardiac death of a morphologically normal heart.  He was intelligent, unassuming, kind, sensible, sensitive and with a sense of humour. A tragic loss of life in one so full of promise.   His loss hit me hard and I stumbled to find the words to express my emotions. But as the routines of school life returned, I had to find a language that was helpful to both myself and my students.  The school was excellent and went well above and beyond as schools often do in such tragic circumstances.  We had a range of counselling professionals, assemblies and a memorial service.  It seems such a long time ago now but thinking about him for this assembly brought me right back to the emotions I felt at the time.  I guess time is a healer, of sorts.  Again, I find myself turning to the Kubler-Ross model as a way of thinking about change that I hope would be useful.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D. (July 8, 1926 – August 24, 2004)


Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was a Swiss-born psychiatrist, a pioneer in Thanatology and Near-death studies and the author of the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying (1969).  


The book is based on her observations, and interviews with 500 dying patients.  She identifies a process by which people cope with tragedy, that is now referred to as the famous Five Stages of Grief or Stages of Change Curve.


These stages represent the normal range of feelings people experience when dealing with tragic news or change in their own lives.  In fact, she calls them coping mechanisms that we need to move through in order to manage change.  The process is not necessarily a linear or a step-by-step model.  Moreover, two stages can overlap or we can jump between different stages at different times.  We may move forward or we may move back.  Each stage may take different amounts of time, there is no formula.  In an ideal world, we would all reach acceptance but some people often get stuck and find it difficult to move on.  Many people experience the stages as a roller-coaster as they navigate the highs and lows of coping with change.  We all have our good and bad days, I guess?

While Kübler-Ross focused on death and bereavement, the 5 stages of grief do give us a useful perspective for understanding how people resist or react to all sorts of grief, loss and change.

An understanding of these dynamics has been useful in my own life and an ability to recognise these processes within myself and others.  In a world of psycho-babble,  I think Kubler-Ross gives us a common language to talk about the emotions of change that is both descriptive and recognisable.

I am not advocating that we all become counsellors, merely that we are able to recognise these difficult emotions in ourselves and others.  We can tell ourselves it is okay to not feel okay and that these feelings are normal and that they will and do pass.

Key Points.

  • You move between stages, it is not necessarily linear.
  • These reactions are normal and not signs of weakness.
  • Anger and depression are often the two where people get stuck.
  • People can get help to move on.
  • All change can provide opportunities for self-growth and learning.


We talked about what things help us when we get stuck and where we can signpost people to get help.  One of the most difficult sessions I have ever led, but I hope one of the most meaningful.   An understanding of peoples reactions to change requires an awareness of the emotional processes behind grief and loss as well as the hopefulness that can be offered by acceptance.