Do you remember a move called "All That Jazz"? Roy Scheider plays this chain-smoking, sexually compulsive choreographer? The movie keeps cutting to a stand up comedian doing a routine about the Five Stages of Grief. Then it cuts to Roy Scheider slowly dying of heart disease. Then a dance number. Then more Roy Scheider. Then more Five Stages of Grief comedy routine.
It all seemed very avante garde at the time.
I think that was the first time I ever heard of the Five Stages of Grief. I couldn't figure out if the movie was trying to make the point that the Five Stages of Grief were a complete crock. I know a lot of people think that.
I suppose the Five Stages of Grief are a crock if you think of them as something you experience the way Roy Scheider's character did in the movie, one tidy little stage at a time. Stage 1, dance number, joke. Progress to Stage 2.
In my experience, that's not how grief works. In my experience grief is more like a game of Monopoly. It's like a big game board, and you keep going around and around the board, and each time you pass Go, you never know what part of grief you're going to land on. You might land on Anger. You might land on Denial. You might keep landing on Depression over and over again.
And you never know how long the game is going to last.
Me, I'm a bargainer. I think Bargaining is my Marvin Gardens. (I read in Sidney Harris' column years ago that Marvin Gardens is statistically speaking the likeliest Monopoly square to land on. If you are a statistician, I would ask that you refrain from questioning this pillar of my personal belief system.)
When my cat died last year, I talked to every person I ever knew who ever had a cat who died. I wanted to know all about their dead cats. How old was the cat? How sick was the cat? Was the cat in pain before he died? Did he go peacefully? How peacefully?
I wasn't aware of what I was doing at the time, but, now looking back a year later, I see that I was bargaining. "Let's see, Darlene's cat died at the animal hospital at age 11. My cat died at home at age 16. If I add the extra five years, plus the dying-at-home bonus
Oh yes, that gives me a much clearer idea of how much loss I've experienced. I'm getting a real handle on how bad I should feel."
Now that all sounds really irrational, doesn't it? Of course it does. But that's what grief is. It's irrationality used as a painkiller. Bargaining kills some of your pain by giving you the illusion of control. Maybe the only thing you're in control of is knowing how miserable you should feel, but that feels better than not being in control of anything. That feels better than facing your own powerlessness over death.
Death. That's what my circumcision always felt like to me, a kind of death, especially when I found out that circumcision changed the way I experienced sex. My circumcision was a death of part of my body and a loss of part of my life, a loss that I had no power over because it happened at a time in my life when I had no power over anything. It happened when I was a helpless six-pound person who couldn’t say "Hey, what are you doing with that scalpel? Let's talk this over."
I spent years, decades really, going around the Monopoly board, grieving that loss, landing on Bargaining over and over again. I landed on the other squares too sometimes, Anger, Denial, Depression.
What about Acceptance? Did I ever get to Acceptance? Did the game ever end?
If Acceptance means being at peace with being circumcised, then no, I guess the game never ended. I still look at my body in the mirror every day of my life and feel the loss. I think about the part of me that died.
I don't think that's what Acceptance means, though. I think Acceptance means getting back to the realm of reality and rationality. I think Acceptance means you win or you lose, and then you pick up the pieces and you put the game back in the box.