The Logical Stages of Grief

Decomposing the Six Phases as Identity Adjustment


The six stages of grief are said to be shock, denial, what-if’s or negotiation, anger, sadness, and finally acceptance. I said to Liz, that’s very superficial. Liz said, I can't talk about that right now.

The solution? Write about it! Here we go!

There’s something underlying that list that which has to do with identity: identity maintenance and change. The logically necessary phases of reasoning about a desired existing identity under change-threatening conditions include the following seven:

  • (1) unawareness of any threat (the pre-state).

  • (2) Inchoate awareness of possibly-threatening conditions (a.k.a. Shock).

  • (3) Non-inchoate awareness of the incompatibility of self-concept with conditions, yet the committed presupposition of the identified (bound) person is that self-concept, so this is called denial; it is no longer uncomprehending, the challenge is understood as what it is, but the presuppositional commitment remains, thus w.r.t. the challenge, Denial.

  • (4) Next, attempts at reasoning with self or others about how one can retain the committed self concept. Reasoning with others is called Negotiation; reasoning with self is called (by therapist Liz), the “What-If’s”.

  • (5) Next, continued commitment to the self concept, acting as if, acting so as to retain or retrieve the self concept, this is called Anger. See my theory of anger; following the analysis there, the still-committed target or goal-state for Grief is self concept retention, and all known/available backoff strategies to obtain or retain that goal state are applied in the committed attempt to achieve it up to and including the two year old tantrum strategy (which always was successful), and in which internal renegotiations always retain the option to reevaluate commitment to that goal). After this phase one has actually released one's commitment to retaining the goal state; it is known to be lost.

  • (6) Simultaneously contemplating the attractions or desireability of the identity and its various qualities (which are the basis in reasoning of the commitment to that identity) as well as the loss thereof, is called Sadness.

  • (7) The last stage, Acceptance, comes in two forms, depending on whether the person is in levels 1-2-3 or 4-5 of the 5 levels of happiness (Aphorism #84).
    • (7.A) In levels 1-2-3 the person must have a replacement identity in order to move on; (blissful) nonidentification is not an option and therefore study, evaluation, rejection, and selection of a satisfactory new identity is a central preoccupation before Acceptance can occur. That could mean getting a new job, new relationship partner, etc., though work role as identity and relationship status are only two of the infinite forms of identity commitment. (Note how hungry people can’t afford to spend a lot of time on these phases and have to get to work to feed themselves, so these are diseases of leisure, but everyone will have time later to contemplate, eventually, so they are unavoidable.) Moving on by a replacement identity commitment.

    • (7.B) In levels 4-5 the failure to hold on to some limiting identity is not an emotional impossibility so the search for a new identity is either less urgent (4) or obviated entirely (5). In fact identity loss is an opportunity for spiritual growth. To recognize an identity as releaseable, changeable, is a big step toward releasing all identities, toward being in the ongoing state of NOT saying I am this or that, thus NOT limiting oneself in either concept or consequent emotion, toward flow state, bliss, serenity, unconditioned emotional (divine) flow.

    Thinking about how to best explain this sequence, I had the thought that if we bleach the circumstance of grieving loss to the mere physical dropping of a valueless nothingburger, say, a stick from the hand, we might keep the physical while dropping the emotional and mental aspects of this transition, and understand grief-loss more deeply by comparison with a loss that is insignificant, or, say, merely physical. If the event were merely physical, then there is no threat, for threat perception is a mental category or event; there is no shock since shock depends on the experience of a threat; there is no cause for denial since both the identity-commitment or attachment whose loss might motivate denial and the denial itself are mental/emotional categories and events. If the event is indeed a loss of no value then there appears no motivation for negotiation with self or others; no anger in the response (though playful grabbing-back might come up spontaneously), no backing off to multiple backoff strategies (it's not worth the trouble), no sadness contemplating the attractive ownership lost. There is only the before (1) and the after (7.B). This would seem to characterize the experience of detachment; experience of the world and action within it, possibly playfully interactive, but without emotional reactivity. I think I have also well described the emotional experience of a dog with a stick taken from it: playtime.

    But then I couldn't help myself, thinking oh a stick isn't enough, let's make this slightly more interesting, let's make the lost thing have at least the possibility you might care about it, what if it were, say, a lollipop. And thus wrote this:

    Compare grief versus someone or something taking a stick, or with slightly greater valence, a lollipop, out of your hand. In phase (1) you are unaware of anyone attempting to take it from you. In phase (2), you are aware that something has happened to your stick or lollipop but haven't come to clarity in your mind that it has been taken away yet, even though it may actually be gone forever already, you haven't got even the clear idea of it yet. In phase (3) you have the idea, your lollipop or stick has definitely seemed to have maybe been gone, you have definitely the idea of this, but you may not have come to grips with the reality of it, it's just a conceptual flash, the possibility, without the inner assertion in your mind that this is how it actually is, that it has actually been taken and it's gone now. Until you believe that assertion, you could be well described as in denial, again (3). Next, by way of phase (4), if you cared, you might try (negotiating with others) to negotiate with the taker to get it back, or might imagine (negotiating with self) what would have happened if you had held on more tightly.

    By way of (5), anger: Recall Veatch characterizes Anger as not existing except as a goal-directed action strategy in a hierarchy of backoff strategies by a person committed to that goal. In that context, you might back off from the strategy of mere maintenance (continuing to simply hold the thing as before) to the backoff strategies (perhaps one after the other) of holding it more tightly, or grabbing it, or reaching for it, or chasing it in order to capture it again, or yelling at the thief to return it or to get others to come in and help, or decompensating like a tantruming 2 year old in hopes that your universal backoff strategy to get everything your 2 year old self might want (which is everyone's always-successful strategy at the root of the tree of methods to get what one wants).

    Next, by way of (6), you might contemplate how nice it was to have had it and experience some loss or having+not-having, cognitive dissonance, that it has been taken from you. By way of (7) you might grab a different stick or lollipop because you feel you need to be holding something (7A) or alternatively let it go not just the stick or lollipop but the holding of any stick or lollipop, which you now can be perfectly contented without (7B).

    The same process (1-7), I'm saying, applies to the bereaved as to the victim of the theft of a lollipop, not because the losses are comparable, obviously, but because everything has a before and an after (thus (1) and (7)) and every experienced loss of value goes through a coming-to-awareness (2), an awareness potentially before acceptance (3), comprising squirming under mental reconsideration of what has happened (4) and trying if ineffectually to make it not be or not happen for as long as one is committed to the alternative reality which is painfully not so (5). Every desireable thing lost offers a phase after we stop pretending or trying for it to not be so, a phase phase of appreciation of the lost reality juxtaposed in the mind with the loss of that reality, a phase of sadness (6). And whether we move on to a substitute satisfaction (7A) or stop needing something in that box to have satisfaction (7B), acceptance requires moving on.

    I'm not telling the bereaved not to have their feelings. I'm just a seeker of understanding trying to figure it out; so please forgive me my insensitivity and impertinence. But today is a great day in Science, because Many are here being reduced to Few. Specifically, I describe what the so-called Six Phases of Grief reveal -- without insight -- as a reasonless, apparently random, yet consistently observed, pattern of response to the experience of emotionally significant loss, by using a reasoned and logical breakdown of what must or might occur in the mental/emotional transition from "have" to "had", under minimal assumptions.

    The assumptions are these: We assume organisms don't just undergo changes but also somehow represent changes (early in the tree of life, mere neurons satisfy this). We assume further that they represent counterfactuals like what was but isn't, or what isn't but might be (close to us in the tree of life, this needs a rich cognitive capacity like that required for humor or planning or lying etc., but this is obviously true for humans irrespective of grief). We assume they come into awareness of new circumstances before recognizing all the ramifications (any finite reasoning system has this property). We assume that they have attachment which might or might not be based on Bliss Theory presumptions; that they are importantly social creatures who can get needs met through negotiations with others, that they are thinking creatures who can figure stuff out before their actions might actually carry things out (true of humans certainly, imaginably of dogs). We assume they have anger which might or might not be a thing fully characterized by Veatch's Theory of Anger (you can deny that while accepting this). And we assume that they are capable of substitution and deletion in their desire structure, substituting one desireable for another in some way, or also potentially capable of not having to desire, or not desiring, to necessarily have that kind of a thing at all (also, finally, independently motivated, since humans do change and grow emotionally). So we assume Nothing that we don't have to already recognize as basic to humans, so our theory adds Ockham's list of presumptions, Nothing, yet captures the Six Phases of Grief, you tell me if it doesn't truly capture the essence for each! (Please!)

    This analysis of Grief being generally within my primary project of Bliss Theory, still I consider this could be maintained without Bliss Theory's presuppositions, namely that emotions are mostly about inhibition and identity: emotional regulation is emotional inhibition subject to the inhibiting factor which is identity attribution. You could believe that or not, while accepting this logical decomposition of grief stages.

    Simply, this analysis shows how any thinking/feeling identity-bound organism must naturally go through the experience of the transition from "have" to "had". If identity is implicated (that is, not as a dog losing a stick, but as a person losing what they identify themselves as having and valuing), then:

    • one MUST have a before (1) and an after (7),

    • one MUST begin to detect the loss (2)

    • one MUST recognize or conceptualize the loss (3) and experience it as an identity-challenge (3) under Bliss Theory or anyhow as emotionally challenging,

    • one MIGHT use reasoning with self or others to reverse it (4),

    • one MIGHT attempt a whole hierarchy of backoff action strategies to reverse it (5),
    • one MIGHT sit with the painful contradiction between desired and actual for any amount of time (6), experiencing that contradiction (per Bliss Theory, suffering the emotional inhibition of a phase of sadness will last as long as the identity is held onto, the believed thought that the loss characterizes oneself),

    • and one MIGHT replace the loss with a tolerable or better equivalent (7A), or find happiness without a substitute (7B).
    These are the options; are there any others?

    The Bliss Theory explanation underneath these phases is this. The identity one might attribute to oneself, namely that I am a person who had this valuable thing and now don't, has an associated emotional evaluation of sadness, pain, loss. If one cognitively asserts that identity attribution to oneself, then one's emotional system (evolved to be logically bound to the consequences of one's identity beliefs) downregulates to that very experience. Thus the very thought hurts.

    Skipping ahead, Liz had asked, well what’s your solution then? I answer: acknowledging what you are really going through (loss of self: a conceptual/emotional version of death itself), having the actual reasoning path laid out clearly so one can more easily understand and traverse it, and having a happy ending on offer to draw one forward, the bliss of a free heart, might give confused people some clarity, and hurting people some healing. Good enough?

    I think so.

    But it's new, the product of a single day, so objections counterexamples and reassessments are Most Welcome!

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  • Copyright © 2022 Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
    Created 12/30/2022