1 step forward, 3 steps back

Students, teacher reflect on complexity of non-linear grief patterns

Actress and singer Olivia Rodrigo skyrocketed to fame after releasing her debut album and two lead singles, “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U,” respectively. The fourth track, “1 step forward, 3 steps back” depicts a toxic and manipulative relationship. In the song, whenever Rodrigo feels the relationship takes a step forward, sudden anger from her partner sends it three steps back. Freshman Allison Shen said she related to this song as she felt her relationship with her boyfriend at the time was not progressing.

Shen said, “I feel like the relationship was not really going anywhere as it gradually just became really awkward, and made me and my partner realize it was so much better when we were friends. The conversations were awkward ‘hellos’ and the texts were just endless chains of messages sent so many times (that) they had become meaningless.”

Even though she knew it was the right thing to do, Shen said, after her breakup, she still felt she had made the wrong decision.

“After our breakup, we still stayed friends, and once, I remember we were talking over messages late at night. I knew it was so much better than what we were like during our relationship, but I still felt like there were some sparks there. And that seemed to make me regret my decision to cut ties with each other as more than friends,” she said.

Shen is not alone. Just like with death, experts say emotions after a breakup can cause people to cycle through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying outlined these five stages. Kübler-Ross said these emotions are often seen as a sequential process, however, it is a non-linear path.

According to psychology teacher Michael O’Toole, the linear stages of grief seen in modern-day media are not representative of how grieving really works.

“Stages (in media) are like, you hit one, you experience this and then you progress to the next stage. That’s not really how grief works,” he said. “Grief can be a set of emotions and they are similar to those stages, but you can always backslide or you can skip a whole stage…There are too many factors to keep a complete, rigid scale.”

Graphic | Jillian Moore

Additionally, O’Toole said everyone’s pattern and duration of grief are different. For her part, senior Keira Poynter said acceptance was the emotion that was the most difficult for her to process.

Poynter said, “There’s a relationship that I’m still not fully accepted on because of the way it ended and the way we’ve acted toward each other since. Most of (the relationships I’ve been in that have ended), I’m very in the acceptance stage of because I know that it’s what was best and we were better off as friends or as people who didn’t talk to each other.”

In her case, Shen said she felt like acceptance was a natural stage to progress into.

“I feel like it took a lot of coming to terms with myself and my partner because I feel like it’s just something that happens,” Shen said. “You can’t really stop it because it’s going to happen eventually. You just come to accept it.”

But, grief can develop from more than just romantic heartbreak. The loss of a loved one can also cause people to experience non-linear grief. Freshman Riley Alderman, for example, said she is still trying to accept the grief over the loss of her mother in 2021.

“When you lose a loved one, it’s just a really rough time. It comes in waves, you know? One day you’re crying, one day you’re fine, one day it just really hits you hard,” Alderman said. “I don’t think anyone who loses a loved one will ever be able to fully accept it because even if it’s been years, it’s always going to be there. It may not always be the first thing you think of every morning when you wake up, but it’ll always be there. It’s like stitches; you’ll always have a scar.”

Even after the loss of her mother, Alderman said she cycles back into certain emotions of grief. “When people hear that someone else has lost someone, they instantly go to pity and they feel bad and they make it known and it’s a lot of that,” Alderman said. “It makes it hard when you’re reminded of something every day by other people even when they don’t mean it in a bad way.”

O’Toole said over the years, the grief a person experiences may subside, but it is normal to fall back into any of the stages of the grief cycle.

He said, “It might have been a few years and you’re still grieving whether you know it or not, but maybe not as intensely. But maybe a dream happens, and it can start that whole process again. Maybe there’s a big family event and one of the relatives isn’t there anymore and that might start the whole process over again.”

Shen said, “I feel like any long conversation or interaction with them would ignite (the process of grief again), but I feel like as I’m moving on, it’s harder to have those memories come back to the surface again. I feel like even now I will go back to those stages of grief, especially denial and depression. I think that there are still times I will grieve due to some lingering memories and there are always times when I feel like my decision wasn’t right. But, overall, I believe I made the right decision and there is nothing I would change about what happened and the great memories we had.”