EP81: Grief Mythbusters with Michelle Marlahan

We are going to talk about the five stages of grief and myth-busting. Spoiler alert: the five stages don't apply to most of us. Listen in and we'll explain it all!

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Tami: [00:00:00] Welcome back, Michelle. Thanks, Tammy. So glad to be here. I am too. We're going to talk about, this is a number two in our grief series. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, check out last week's episode number 80, where we talk about who we are and why we're talking about grief and today's topic. We are going to talk about the five stages of grief.

Myth-busting cause I'm like, why are we going to talk about this Michelle? Because, 

Michelle: [00:00:32] because it's not true, 

Tami: [00:00:35] it's not true. And actually what I recently found out, cause I thought it was a thing. I thought it was a thing. And it's Elizabeth Kubler, Ross, many people have heard about it's.  What are  the five stages again?

Oh, you're really 

Michelle: [00:00:49] going to quiz me here. Aren't you? I 

Tami: [00:00:51] think they're denial. Yeah. Like denial, anger, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I can't remember. 

Michelle: [00:01:02] Denial, anger, bargaining depression. And acceptance. Okay. And so sounds so 

Tami: [00:01:11] tidy. It does. And I thought for the longest time, like when I had a breakup with a boyfriend, like in the eighties, I thought, cool.

I do want to survive the loss of a love. And I did read a book. I believe it was by Elizabeth Kubler, Ross about the loss of a love, because. I, he wasn't dead, but he was kinda dead to me. Right. And so I was thinking, Oh, this is going to be terrific. And I wanted an answer. I think that's why this thing has caught on because man, when you're in grief, you want some and serves.

Absolutely. But it turns out these aren't for the  these stages, not for the living. Yeah, these are the stages that people who are dying go through. Right? 

Michelle: [00:02:00] Yeah. It's kind of amazing how this book was so misinterpreted. She actually wrote it while I'm working with serving. People who were dying and their kind of emotional journey through that process with people with terminal conditions.

So it wasn't for the people they love to be. 

Tami: [00:02:25] Yeah. And I think she even spent a big chunk of her career trying to be like, yeah, but it's for the dying. And everyone's like, no, thank you. Yeah, this is a tidy, this is a five tips to feel better after somebody dies and we're going to run with it. It's it was the listicle before listicles were a thing.

And so we are here to myth bust some shit about the five stages. So now that we have burst that bubble  what do we want to talk about?    If we don't have the five stages, what do we have? 

Michelle: [00:02:59] Well, we have wife, which is just a lot more messy. I think 

Tami: [00:03:05] we have that messy ambiguous bullshit. 

Michelle: [00:03:08] Oh my God. It's it.

It, yeah. It's not what anybody really wants to hear. As you said, we want this really linear, predictable  let me chart, so I know where I am, again, kind of this kind of control  mechanical, like. Often we treat our bodies mechanically. We just want things to be mechanical and they're not things are, they're not linear like that.

They're cyclical. They think of nature. Nature is our best teachers. So we have seasons. We have cycles, there are waves, there are comings and goings  things. Die off. And then they compost and they resprout and they come up with something different.  It's just not that predictable with, 

Tami: [00:04:01] well, I mean, if you want to be  like a scientist about it  it's not that predictable with nature either.

 There's so many factors that go into, it's like, sure, this is how it's supposed to happen, but you're like, but if you change one factor, things can go awry. Right. But what you do know is that there is a life cycle, right? There's a life cycle of. A tree there in that goes by seasons. And there's also the life cycle of people and death being one of those cycles.

Yes. And, but it's so bonkers to me, how we have really glommed onto this tidy wrapped up listicle and I have to tell you, I was kind of pissed when I found out this was BS. Because I, so I like some certainty. Thank 

Michelle: [00:05:00] you. Great. How did you find out, did you find out because you had an experience outside of the prescribed list or because someone told you, 

Tami: [00:05:09] yeah, I just found out this was not.

For the survivors a few years ago. So I was living with experience be okay because my first friend, my very, I met my very first friend on the first day of kindergarten. We both had older brothers. We both went to kindergarten without our parents. We looked across the room at, through the legs of all the adults that were there.

And  looked at each other with these spaces of this is the best day of my life. Why is everyone crying on the best day of my life? Like I've been waiting my whole life to go to school and she had to, and then, so she held this like really significant part of  my heart. And she was killed by a drunk driver when I was, when we were 19.

And so that was the first loss. Where, like I did ha I didn't have denial because  she was no longer, I had a lot of anger. Right. So  I could sort of  shape shift to make these things work, but it didn't work in order. Right. Didn't work in that. So I was like, well, maybe I just have the order wrong.

By the way that translates to maybe I'm bad at grief, right.  Maybe I'm doing it wrong, maybe I'm doing it wrong. So, but I, but again, when you're  going to the El Sabrine library and looking at books about things, you're like, you get the book about how to survive the loss of a love, and then you've got the prescription and then you're like, Oh, this just feeds the narrative.

Like something's wrong with me? Cause I'm not even doing grief. Right. Yes. And again, I think it was just like a couple of years ago where I found out that it was actually for the dying and I was like, Oh shit, that makes so much sense. Because if you've ever had that experience of witnessing somebody go through, it's like the reverse of birth, right.

There's birth is really messy and so is death. And it takes a lot longer than you think. And all of these things that you're like, Oh, I could see how that framework could work. In that scenario, but it never met how I was experiencing grief as somebody who is in the surviving part. Okay. 

Michelle: [00:07:45] So let's talk more about that.

Let's talk about the reality of how it's been for us. Like, can you give an example that has broken out of the rules of these linear stages that. Was just a really kind of right moment of, Oh right. This isn't, this is not a linear thing. This isn't from here to there in a straight line, like all neat and tidy.

Tami: [00:08:16] Oh. One of my favorite emotions always is anger. I love anger, me and anger hangout. In fact, when my daughter and I saw that movie inside out and the anger. Like, there's a part where it's like, he blows his top. She was like four years old and she turned on, she looks at me and she's like, you're anger, I'm joy.

And I was like, so true. And at the end of the movie, she's like  do I have all of those? I was like, we all have all of those. She's like, is your joy really small? I was like, I think it is you're welcome. So I'm in touch with my anger, but the thing that has surprised me is like, I had things outside of denial, anger, acceptance.

And I like  when acceptance, what, when is that going to show up? Surrender to what, 

Michelle: [00:09:14] what about you? So for you, it was more  more variety in your emotional experience. 

Tami: [00:09:22] Yes. Well, there was, but there was a lot of shades of anger.  There's like the irritation, anger, there's the fuck you what?

There's the rage there's though. Why do you still have a living XYZ? And I don't envy and jealousy. 

Michelle: [00:09:39] There's going to like, there's so much waste in there. 

Tami: [00:09:42] Yeah. And it's  I was like, why is this also unattractive? And like, there's no peace here. Where's my peace that I've been promised with this linear staging thing.


Michelle: [00:09:57] Yeah, and we actually have  an episode coming up on like the timeline. So I don't want to talk too much about that, but it does tie in with the stages as well, because again, we have this expectation for it to be linear and to be over in a certain amount of time.  I'll just share one of my ways of really framing.

My green leaf and the ways that it would show up and still shows up.  So I lost a baby in 2015. So  the same year  what months apart from when your mom died? So, yeah, we were in the, we were in the underworld together there.  And so it's been  years and that does not mean that. My grief is over or that I don't still have moments of grief.

And even after I think it was maybe the third year, so the loss happened at Christmas time and I remembered the Christmas of that time  and had whatever far fond memories and hard memories. And then fast forward a couple of years, I went on a walk around the neighborhood. And I liked to go in the evening when the Christmas lights were on the houses and  I could see the Christmas trees.

If someone had a Christmas tree in their window, I just like, kinda like. Spying on people being a little bit of a warrior. So I take the dog, we're going off on our walk and I'm walking past this house. And I see in the window, a man on the couch reading to what I could assume was his like maybe four year old son.

And I saw it and it was just like instant grief. You might call it a grief burst or a grief moment. I call it the ambush. So it really feels like  do-do just kind of walking down the street and then something jumps out from behind a Bush. It could be a smell. It could be a song. It could be something that you see that takes you right back to a reminds you in some really deep, visceral way.

Your loss or your loved person or thing. And it's like this water fountain of emotions and they just kind of all come back and feel fresh and present. And  maybe even as intense as they did at the beginning. And so these can happen any time because. We are sensory  memory based storytelling people.

We carry all of this in us. And  any of these can be triggered or activated anytime  anywhere. 

Tami: [00:13:04] Oh, I have a good one.  And it has, it doesn't have any  with anybody dying. It's when I moved to Portland from the Bay area, I didn't have any friends yet. And I  Everyone just went, Oh, no friends.

No, seriously. You moved to a new city in the nineties. I was like, not even the internet. So you don't even have like social media friends. I just straight up was like, I live with my boyfriend and I don't. Like, I guess I could call the guys in his band, my friends, but I did not pick them. They were his friends.

Right. And  and I'm somebody that has these really great friendships, these long friendships and all of those fools were living in the Bay area at the time. And I drove to target and I was totally fine. I was excited to be driving somewhere and to be going to.  Go to target member like in the before times when we would just like go to target for stuff.

Yeah, no, totally. Dude, I didn't even make it into target. Because I started walking across the parking lot and I saw like three or four groups of clearer, like best friends running errands together. And I burst into tears in the target parking lot and was like, I don't even have anyone to go shopping with.

And I turned around and got back in the car and drove home. I'm pretty sure I yelled at my. Boyfriends slash now he's my husband. Sorry about that, sweetheart. But I was like, I don't have any friends. I felt so alone, also super angry at those women who got to go to target with their friends. PS, I chose to move to Portland, but I still experienced that deep loss of something.

I had no idea I was missing in that way. Yes, and it is completely bonkers. And that I'm actually scared of those bursts now, because we do have this cocoon of COVID where I'm like never leaving my house. Let me tell you when I can start leaving the house again. And I start seeing people with their friends.

I plan to be angry at everyone that still has a best friend walking around. And every time now I go to text her things. I did something stupid the other day. I can't even remember what it was. And I was about to text her a picture of it. And I was like, I have no one to send this to let me cry while I don't send my best friend a text.

And my daughter was like, why don't you just send it to her number? And I'm like, but what if somebody else has her number now? And that made me cry? What is somebody else has her number? Do you know why I still have a landline? Because my mom has voicemails on there. My mom died six years ago. And I'm like, well, I guess I got to keep a landline for the rest of my life because it's recordings of my mom's voice.

Right? Like I have old gutsy  scorecards with her handwriting. I'm like, well, I guess I have to keep these slips of paper. 

Michelle: [00:16:04] Yeah. I mean, these are beautiful ways of keeping that presence person  close and alive and.  Feeling, feeling like that's still a part of your life where you can access that when you want it.

And  that's completely healthy and normal. I mean   I've just heard so many people talk about things like that. And then again, hearkening back to our first episode where. Someone who has some keepsakes like that or things that they feel like they're holding onto, or maybe they get some kind of outside shaming, like, well  I think it's, I think, I really think you should let that go.

I think it's time to let that go. Or that's a little weird that you're holding onto that. And then we start feeling. Awkward about it. And then we get into this thing of like, Oh, I have to have the big  burning ceremony.  So I'm really glad that you said that because that's, it's such a natural way.

Like whatever we have that symbolizes either  literally someone's voice or if it's symbolic in some other way to represent those are all. They're just really great ways  to keep the relationship going. So in grief world, we like to say the person, if you're talking about a person, the person dies the relationship doesn't.

And so all the ways that we keep those relationships alive and fresh are beautiful. 

 Tami: [00:17:37] I'm sitting over here very quietly, 

Michelle: [00:17:38] cause  I'm like, Oh 

Tami: [00:17:40] man, am I cry?  So. After tests died. I started writing her letters, but not physical letters. I it's on a Google doc because  that's who I am. I keep everything there.

So Google knows every thought I have. And Pinterest too. I don't put it on Pinterest, but I put everything else on Pinterest. Anyway, the point is this.

Yeah, people, part of the reason why I want to have this conversation and tons of conversations about grief is because I want to stop feeling like a fucking weirdo. Because I'm having a human experience as somebody who's not denying the discomfort of law of loss. Like, I don't know. Cause when I said that I was keeping those Yachty thing and I was like, Oh my God, so many people just went in their mind.

God, she's such a weirdo. And this is what I want to say.  I am such a weirdo, but I feel like grief is a really good opportunity for me to practice self acceptance. Like what do I  really need? I really need to have some scraps of paper with my mom's handwriting on it. It's really weirdly special to me.

I am not a sentimental person and tell I am right. And  I've talked to my daughter about these things. Like  I have a few things from my mom that I have kept far away from her that she. Kinda clammers around like, how come I can't touch that? I'm like, well, you can't touch my mom's stuff. It's these really delicate teacups.

And like, you can't touch that because you cannot replace those. Like  those are my mama memories and we just have to leave those though, but I, we talk about it. And then when she saw she's like, wait, is this grandma's. Old Yachty thing. I was like, it is, and she was like, what are we doing with these?

I was like, we're just going to leave them in the box. They're cool. We're just going to leave him right there. And she was like, okay, but it's that thing where like, this is really vulnerable work because not everyone's going to get it. Like a lot of people will be like, that's weird. It's like, okay, well you can have your brand of weird in a different way.

This is my brand of weird, but I'm going to stop feeling bad about it. Yes. Feeling bad about it. Meaning  like I said  really embracing that  the discomfort, cause there's a lot of discomfort and grief and it usually comes from people looking at you, like you're nuts because you still have your spouse's clothes or you haven't taken down some family photos or something.

Yeah. There's just a lot of acceptance work in this. 

Michelle: [00:20:30] Yeah. And not acceptance from the stage, but acceptance of ourselves and yeah. And our needs. I mean  you, we, you  the collective view, we get to decide what works for us. Like  you might have one loss where. I dunno  you just move through it, whatever that means a little more quickly  you kind of feel yourself kind of come back online and the emotions are really fluid and it has moments of intensity, but for the most part  it, it does move through you more easily and  you're able to be with it and with yourself in those feelings and then.

 Another loss, same person. Another loss can be completely different, even if it's a similar type of loss, because it's just so contextual and where we are our stage of life.  The thing that we're losing, so it's not like, Oh no  I've lost a lot of things. I know how to do loss 

Tami: [00:21:36] free time.  Yeah, I.

Michelle: [00:21:39] I am really feeling your story. Thank you for sharing that, because I think that really helps people normalize. Like that's a part of these conversations. Like let's normalize grief. Let's talk about this because if we don't, that's when it goes into the dark corner and    tries to hide and then the shadow seems really big and 

Tami: [00:22:06] scary.

Also then we end up spending a lot of time feeling alone and like, something's wrong with us. And that's not, it's not really fair given that every human is going to feel it. In fact, the other day my daughter asked because Tess has a, she has a dog and test, or my daughter was asking, she said, do you think Ava, that's the dog's name?

Do you think Ava? Now is that test has gone. And I was like, I don't know, but I know that Ava is sad, but she's also probably like, I don't think dogs have like a watch.  She's not like she's been gone for this amount of time because let's be real. Dogs are like, you left the condo for 20 minutes and they're just as happy as when you left for two years.

So it's that thing. But it's like, they have emotions too. So there you go. Okay. So anything else that you want to say about the five stages or any other myths that you want to dispel here about grief? 

Michelle: [00:23:18] Well, I want, I just want to accentuate what you're saying. Like, you've talked about your conversations with Ruby a couple of times, and I just want to really highlight how beautiful that is, because again, The person dies the relationship doesn't.

And so the ways that you are keeping the vibrancy of your mom and the vibrancy of tests and those relationships alive for Ruby  is also really beautiful because  especially kids and she's.  An old soul, but she's still a little th they just can't, they don't process things the same way.

In some ways it's more simple, perhaps in another ways it's more confusing for them.  And it, to, to model for her this way of feeling and expressing emotions   not letting things bottle up. And also it's that having all of the emotions it's like, yes, I can have the anger at that person for having a best friend.

And I can also feel sad for missing my best friend. And I can also feel grateful that I got to have that best friend, just  like modeling for her, the complexity of all of it and keeping the conversations alive, keeping the. Tokens and  symbols and things around just  it's just so gorgeous.

It just love hearing you talk about that. 

Tami: [00:24:55] Thank you. That is actually it's. I feel like it's a gift to be able to do that.  One of the things that I just  asterix on  grieving during COVID, it's really hard not to do like the traditional things, like sit with people in community at a funeral hug, other people who are in pain  bring food gifts.

 I'm really missing hugging people.  But one thing that we did pick up is every night at five 45, since just days after she died. And we're still doing it now and it's February, or excuse me, it's March.  We let a candle every night and I read a passage from Cindy Spiegel's book about  It's like  I can't remember this call now.

It's about positive thinking, but it's like, it's a day. It's a daily book where there's a little passage every day and I read the passage and then I talk about how the passage relates to tests. And then I talk about how the passage relates to life. And then Ruby can ask questions and then. I asked them if they have anything that they want to add them, meaning my husband and my daughter.

And then we have around of gratitude. And then she gets in the bathtub, but every night we do that and sometimes it is really brief. And sometimes I am so irritated because I'm sitting there with my child for the 365th day in a row. And I'm just irritated and I'm tired and it's this. And other times I just cry, but it feels so good to have.

Every single day, I have at least 15 minutes to talk about my best friend and what a generous, wonderful, loving presence she was for me for over 30 years. And I feel like by doing this, I'm not only continuing the relationship with her, but I'm continuing a relationship between her and Ruby. Yes, 

Michelle: [00:27:14] exactly.

 Tami: [00:27:15] And again, just because your people have. I don't know, left this world doesn't mean that your relationship with them stops. Right. And she in test still has so much to teach Ruby. Yes. So, and 

 Michelle: [00:27:32] That's so much part of what you're keeping  alive and present, and it's giving you and Ruby a moment of.

  Really tender connection. 

Tami: [00:27:48] Yeah. Wow. That's beautiful. Yeah. I am going to say this and it's totally off the cuff. I do think I'm turning my kid into a weirdo. Who's like, we should talk about all the emotions. And then on the other hand, I'm reading all these books about  what are the things that kids need to be most successful in life?

And it really is like the number one thing is empathy. So her seeing her most trusted sources being super vulnerable and living in this really tender moment that it's not weakness and that it is, it's like our super power. I feel like it's fast forwarding her emotional growth. I am not doing this for that reason.

I'm doing this because I'm like, I don't have any other way. Like, I feel like I need to process my grief and this is what I'm doing. Right. And she needs to process hers. They were close. Yeah. On that note, if anybody comes at you. So I do, I have another question. So when you hear people in, when we actually interact with other people, when you hear other people talk about the five stages of grief, what do you say to them?

Or what would you say to them now? That you have this information?

 Michelle: [00:29:14] I do tell people, Oh  gosh, that book was actually really misinterpreted and there aren't linear stages.  We pass through so many different places of emotion  and things are really cyclical and grief lasts, however long it lasts and it comes and goes and.  Just be really gracious and patient with yourself and have somebody in your community who can reflect to you.

 What. That just happened. It's been three years. And that just happened because it was one of my favorite weeks, because if we rely on our own internal sense of timing, it's like, why am I not over this? It's been six months. It's like, Oh, okay. Sit down, sister. It, that just happened. So  yeah, I mean,  I'm fully.

Fully willing to tell people that it just, it was just misinterpreted.  It's not like she wrote something that was wrong. And she even, like you said, came back and wrote in a follow-up book. Okay.  Pump the brakes folks that I didn't actually mean it like that.  And as you said  nobody really, we were all pretty latched onto the stages at that point.

So I just gently let people know and people are usually curious like, Oh really? I mean  yeah. The bubble does burst a little bit, but then it can again. Okay. So let's talk about it. Let's normalize it. Let's like. Let me tell you a story. I'm happy to tell you an ambush story or  give an example of how humanizing  and wave like my grief has been.

Tami: [00:31:04] I love the difference between to relate. I love the difference between us, because I was like, Hey, you guys see how kind Michelle is. I'd be like, Oh no, she meant that for dying people. Doesn't it make more sense when you apply it to death, 

Michelle: [00:31:17] which 

Tami: [00:31:18] was like, let me write you a poem about that shit. And I'm like           no.

That's not for you. Not for you. But it does feel better when you're like, Oh God, thank God. Because that is actually not mirroring my experience. Right. Right. Like when you lose your job, this is not the experience. When you lose a child, this is not your experience. When you lose your marriage, this is not your experience.

Apparently it is the experience of when you're actually going through and passing into your next transition of your life at the end of your cycle. Oh my God. That just made me laugh. There's the difference between champion Michelle.

I love you. I love you too. And everyone you're welcome. We will take this show on the road. At some point she'll be like one of them and one of them will make you pee yourself. Laughing. 

Michelle: [00:32:26] It's true. They know that already. 

Tami: [00:32:29] All right. All right. Wait, you going to say one more thing? 

Michelle: [00:32:34] No, I think we're, we've wrapped a bow tie, a bow on it.

Tami: [00:32:38] We're both on it guys. So come back next week where we are going to be talking about the actual symptoms of  grief, not grief. It's not a reef grief and you are going to be so surprised. It does not look like what it looks like in the movies. So, and tell next time, remember that you matter too.



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