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The Shock Stage of Grief

My brother died months ago. It was a stunning blow to the way I used to view the world; I used to feel there was some divine order to the universe. Once he died, I was shocked to realize how profound grief can feel. It can swallow you whole, and there are times when you are certain that it will.

Yet my brother’s passing also forced me to reconcile grief and loss. It gave me new understanding of my patients with prostate cancer and how they must feel when they are newly diagnosed. I did some research to discover that there can be up to seven stages of grief, including shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and hope, and processing grief.

How shock can affect us

The stage I found most interesting was the shock stage. Hearing of terrible news of loss forces the mind to do what it must for survival. I wasn’t expecting the shock of the grief process, but now I know why it exists. The shock process allowed me to write a eulogy for my brother, get on a plane to fly to New Jersey for his memorial service, all while working full-time with my patients in Florida.

I don’t remember a lot of what happened during those weeks, but my colleagues and friends later told me that I was “going through the motions of life” without my brain performing intentional activities. This makes me ponder what people feel when they are diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The shock stage of grief likely got you to call a slew of doctors and find the one you trusted the most. Or maybe, the shock stage landed you in one particular urology office, and you didn’t ask yourself if this doctor was the right fit. The shock stage allowed you to show up at work and for your loved ones, to go through the motions of living before your body had a chance to process the news that malignant cells were within your body.

Going into auto pilot mode

While these stages of grief may not be linear, I happen to think that the shock phase is an evolutionary response to fool our brains and put us in “auto pilot mode” so that we can continue to survive, despite a substantial loss that is presented to us. People in shock can appear emotionless, and sometimes catatonic in their behavior. During the shock stage I went through, my husband actually said, “I don’t understand why you are not letting your grief out.”

That was during the shock stage of grief. The sobbing and difficulty waking up to go to work came later. I have treated many men who come to pelvic floor physical therapy for a few sessions before they get treatment for prostate cancer. Some of them are still in shock, and I now comprehend why they behaved as though “nothing was wrong.”

The shock stage of grief is protective. Because our brains cannot always handle the news of a high Gleason Score and the need for surgery or radiation, we operate in such a way to shield the brain until it is ready to comprehend this news. It is kind of freaky to look back and recall this shock phase. What do you remember from yours? What did loved ones see in you when you were in the shock phase after your prostate cancer diagnosis?

Understanding loss and grief more

For me, I finally understand loss and grief in a way I never imagined I could. I try to be kind to myself when I remember the shock stage, and I thank my brain for protecting me for that short amount of time when I needed help the most.

Maybe we can all do that for ourselves. We can honor that amazing structure of our nervous systems to protect us until we are ready to face the loss in front of us.

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