The shape of grief

the different stages of grief | Kimberly Hetherington | Art Therapy with Kimberly

One day while I was living at home in Ottawa, I watched a Ted Talk by a man who nearly died in a plane crash.

He explained how his near-death experience was a gift. He now spends more time with his kids and wife and enjoys his precious life more than he ever thought possible. He was urging the audience to do the same. By the end of his talk, I felt so grateful to also experience existence. I sat on the thought for a moment before getting up to take a shower and noticed my sister had slipped into the bathroom before me. I stood there banging on the door in a rage of fury, knowing I’d be late for class. Instantly forgetting the whole ‘life is precious and those we love should be cherished’ memo.

Since then, life has flashed before my eyes. Not in the near-death sense but in the loss and bereavement sense. In the ‘someone you love is now permanently in this destination called death’ sense. My sister Elizabeth died. Her loss caused the vague concept of death to drop in my mind from this ~thing~ that happens to old people/unfortunate strangers on the news, and shatter into a something that is most definitely real and happening all over the world, all the time. And wow, let me tell you that felt like an electrocution to my own mortality. I’ve never felt so aware of my ‘aliveness’ and how fragile this whole living thing really is until this happened.

Losing someone you love forever is a life-changing experience. It feels like being crushed into pulp. It shows you how small you really are, and how much in control you really aren’t.

At some stage, after Elizabeth’s death, I was given a three-page pamphlet on ‘How to Cope with the Loss of a Sibling’. I have no memory of who gave it to me or when, but I remember reading it one night when I couldn’t sleep. It explained the Kübler-Ross model on the five stages of grief which I’d learned about in university years before. It was an odd feeling to read about the very same thing I learned in a classroom years before, except now it was being applied to my actual life. Now I was reading it to understand my own grief, rather than pass a question on an exam.

It comforted me that at least the stages of grief happened in a neatly packaged, chronological order. According to this model, I was now in denial, but soon I’d be pushed into anger, then bargaining, then depression and then finally, acceptance. I imagined the final stage of acceptance would be like stepping out of the fog; a sort of congratulatory graduation into a now crystal clear life where the pain of loss was felt only by pins and needles. It would be replaced by a new, cleaner and more robust form of life.

Yet, as the days went on, I couldn’t match the feeling of my own grief with one of the stages. It felt more like I’d entered the stage of being flung off like into space by slingshot; life was blurry and slow and felt as if I was living under water. I could barely think a day ahead without my heart splitting open. Was this… denial? Or maybe depression?

It’s been 5 years now and grief has taken on a new shape. It’s still not in the order I’d hoped and not even in a category I understand. I can’t feel my sister’s presence anymore. I used to, it was this weird feeling where it was like she was up there making sure I was okay like her candle was burning mine too and making me brighter. But I no longer feel that. I no longer see the coincidences that tugged at my heart and made me feel like she never left. I don’t feel her at all. Maybe I’ve graduated onto the next stage. Maybe after the 5-year mark, you’re expected to have healed enough to form a solid scab and no longer need the training wheels. But I wish I was able to keep that feeling of closeness contained and sealed somewhere just so I could feel her presence when I needed it the most. But there’s nowhere to keep it because it probably doesn’t even exist. It’s probably just in my head.

So, instead, I try my best to funnel that deep well of grief into something different. Now it arrives in the shape of a determined and compulsive need to improve the mental health care system. It arrives in a desperate need to honor her life by helping others find their way out of suicide. This shape of grief has resulted in unrelenting impatience.

But at the same time, it feels like I have a million anchors weighing me down, preventing me from getting where I think I need to be. Every day is urgent, I can’t waste time in limbo and I feel like I keep getting in my own damn way.

I just don’t know how to steady my broken heart. To get it to heed, to calm, to breathe. To find patience inside when it feels like it’s all dried up like cracked mud in an arid desert, desperately in need of rain.

I don’t know how to find the balance anymore when I know so well how fragile our one chance at life is. I just can’t find the balance between living like you’ll die tomorrow and living as if you’ll live till I’m 100. Especially now, when I can see that my sister lies just beyond the static edge of where life meets death, just out of reach.

But most of all, I just can’t bear the thought of her life ending, the memory of her fading without anything but a blog.

Featured image Chris & Steve Rocks


  1. Have Elizabeth days. Days when you do at least one thing u know that she or u 2 together enjoyed. Write your memories of experiences WITH her. What did you like most about her? Write it all out. I don’t think these suggestions don’t necessarily help your grief but I do know they have keep “them” near. Big hug! Thanks for your blog and transparency.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s