The Seven Stages of NPE Grief
Loss and grief is a universal experience. The topic of grief has been written about extensively, most notably by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who outlined the five stages of grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. To more fully encompass the experience of grief, two additional stages have been added in recent years. Medical and mental health professionals have used these stages to help explain the process of loss and grief. Because grief and loss experiences are common and, at times, emotionally brutal, grief counseling has evolved into a profession; universities offer courses and certificates on grief and loss and where I live in Pennsylvania, we have the Highmark Caring Place, a grief and loss center that holds 8-week cohort group counseling specifically for children, adolescents, and their caregivers.
Individuals who experience a non-paternal event (NPE), have shared their own versions of the grief and loss experience as they work through their NPE process. I specifically use the word process to emphasize the many phases and stages an individual works through repeatedly in order to make sense of, and often grieve, their new life narrative, relationships, and identity. Not everyone goes through all the stages; some people get stuck in one stage for a long time. Grief and loss is a very personal experience. In this post, I outline the seven stages and added some descriptive information specific to NPEs. You may recognize things that relate to your experience or the experience of a loved one.
Shock or Disbelief
Initially paternity information may be received unexpectedly through an ancestry test taken for personal genealogical interest. Perhaps a stranger has reached out indicating a newly discovered biological relationship with them. This shock of information can have a profound impact on an NPEs emotional and physical self. When we receive such unexpected and life altering information, the mind and body may react with intense emotions or, in contrast, through a numbness. People often describe losing sleep, feeling physically ill, and/or developing feelings of intense anxiety or panic that can go on for any length of time. The brain is overwhelmed with the enormity of everything changing so suddenly and unexpectedly and needs time to process. The entire situation may feel unreal or like you’re watching a movie due to the surprise or shocking nature of the information.
Denial may arrive in several forms but the most common for an NPE is that somehow the test is wrong or defective. When seeing names of people related to us that we have never heard of, our brains naturally want to make sense of this and so, the test HAS to be wrong, right? Denial may also reveal itself in relationships when discussing the new information. Many parents (mothers in particular) deny the test’s accuracy or claim there is no way the information could be true. For the NPE themselves, the initial shock and denial can be emotionally jarring, preventing action (to remain in a denial state in order to cope with the new information), detaching from the information, or by prematurely encouraging contact with others before considerations of other factors.
The term bargaining is used in grief and loss to describe how people try to feel in control despite a very out-of-control experience. It is common to feel helpless and vulnerable during this phase. Many times there are thoughts of “if only… (insert any variety of statements here) then… (indicating how the information could have been known or managed).” This is the mind’s way of trying to find blame and/or understanding to help it cope with the loss, shift, change, grief. In the NPE experience, bargaining may arise from moments of wishing the test was never taken so that the outcome would not be known.
As shock, denial, and bargaining are overcome, many people struggle with feeling emotional and/or physical pain from the reality of the information (loss, death). Emotional pain and guilt for an NPE can feel very overwhelming when considering all the factors that may be related (e.g. feelings toward mother, birth certificate father, biological family, siblings, self, reflection of life experiences). Guilt can also arise due to feeling like there is something an NPE could have done that may have resulted in better relationships or perhaps not following a hunch from the past. Sometimes the guilt is misplaced for an NPE (e.g. NPE feels guilt for birth certificate father who doesn’t know the truth and the mother isn’t alive to explain what happened). It’s important to know that these feelings, while difficult, are normal and can pass in time.
Anger, in particular, is a very common emotion once an NPE learns the truth. Very often there is so much to be angry about! In my own situation, I was very angry with a long-deceased mother. This made these feelings more difficult to resolve because I couldn’t ask questions or yell at her to understand what happened. Anger may spill out toward others who may have known the information and never shared it with the NPE. Considering the importance of understanding heritage identity and health information, it logically seems like it is our right to know our biological roots. Anger also arises when considering the loss of time stolen from potentially good, new relationships, from learning the information through a recreational test rather than from parents, and/or from the secrets intentionally kept. Sometimes anger arises from us as we reflect on our past familial rejections or experience new rejection.
Depression is a feeling of profound sadness that can develop into hopeless feelings for the future. Oftentimes, people lack motivation to care for themselves as well as they previously did. Individuals with depression can barely function within the outside world without exhausting themselves from the effort. For NPEs this is no different. They may feel alone or ashamed about this information and begin to isolate or withdraw from others. While it may be very difficult to reach out, this is a great time to seek support through friends, trusted family, or a mental health professional in order to work through these feelings. For NPEs, depressive feelings can become more complicated by negative interactions with family of origin or new biological family. It is very important to monitor depressive symptoms for the best care and safety of an NPE.
This is the final, and sometimes most difficult, stage of grief. When a person begins to gain feelings of hope and re-engages in life despite the loss(es), they begin to enter into acceptance. There are days that are good, then bad, then good again. Accepting the loss(es) does not mean the other feelings above will not continue to occur from time to time or that grieving is over. There can be a sense of “it is not ok that this happened but I am going to be ok.” For the NPE, during the acceptance stage we may be able to see the positives in knowing the truth.
The treatment of grief, most often, involves time. However, if you or someone you know is struggling to cope, is engaging in risky behaviors to cope, or has thoughts of suicide, it is very important to seek out professional help through a medical doctor or mental health professional immediately.