Riding the Bereavement Train—Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun.

Did you know the Five Stages of Grief theory is considered outdated? I didn’t. Not until I looked it up, after death once more barged into my life.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the Five Stages of Grief theory—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—when she researched patients with terminal illnesses. Turns out that is a different kind of grief from bereavement after someone dies.

But I’m supposed to be writing about imagination, right? (grief brain fog, I guess.) Bereavement—wow what a solid, strong word. Say it out loud. Do you hear that heavy, lingering stress on the syllable “reave?” But the word is seldom used anymore. Why not? The word is from Middle English bireven, Old English bereafian, "to deprive of, take away by violence, seize, rob, plunder." That is powerful.

I propose to you that this is exactly how we feel like when someone we love dies. It’s that echoing, bottomless howl that they’ve been ripped away from us. I propose to you that the word “grief” is a gentler word. Say it out loud. Hear how fast the “f” consonant terminates? No lingering there. I propose to you that we don’t take grief seriously in our culture because we can’t tolerate the raw force of bereavement.

I had read before that the Five Stages of Grief don’t proceed in order, but are mixed up. However, that idea of stages implies a rational scaffolding to the wilderness of bereavement. I propose to you that we don’t want to imagine bereavement. It’s too strong. Others turn away from our bereavement because they can’t bear its power. Can’t bear that this might also happen to them (again). I know I’ve done this with my own friends and family.

The first week after a death, people call, send flowers, sympathy cards, and texts. One or two friends might visit. A few weeks after that, people make tepid inquiries—how are you doing? All the while they are hoping you have hopped off the Bereavement Train because it is unbearable. And they can’t fix it. They don’t know what to do. Maybe it would help to talk about something else. A month later, if you are still riding the Bereavement Train, they imply: Get over it. You should be moving on with your life.

I have failed to bear witness to the bereavement of others too many times in my life. But in this most recent death, when a beloved died in agony in my arms, all I could do was hold them, whisper loving words, and bear witness to their suffering and pain. I didn’t think I had that in me—the strength to contain my own horror, fear, and grief so I could bear loving witness. There was nothing else I could do. It was all I could do, the only comfort I could give. And it turns out that “all I could do” was exactly what was needed. Simply to bear loving witness. 

Bear it. Stand it. Hold it.

The next time my friends or family have a loved one torn violently away from them, I hope I’ll be strong enough to bear full loving witness. It is enough. It is all. In the end, it is everything.


  1. I'm so sorry, Dia. This is such a powerful account of such an important moment in life. Have you ever heard the Ball & the Box theory of grief? It really spoke to me a while back: https://twitter.com/LaurenHerschel/status/946887540732149760

  2. I'm sorry, Dia. I am sending you a hug. And thank you for sharing your feelings. Thank you Holly for sharing the ball & box link.


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