The drive to power through loss comes from mindfulness of grief and acceptance

Grief is an overwhelming emotion. At some point, we all will lose a loved one, lose a job, see the end of a relationship, or some other change that alters the very fabric of our lives. With grief, you feel a mix of emotions, numbness and confusion.

It feels it is impossible to get on with life — you break down repeatedly, become angry, withdrawn, and feel empty. It feels it is pointless to go on. We also feel our grief is very personal, our experience very unique and nobody else understands it. It is strictly not true.

I have dealt with overwhelming grief. The first time was when as a successful entrepreneur, I was framed and dragged like a common criminal through the police and judicial system for years. My personal and professional life was left in tatters. Messy and long drawn as it was when I started healing it happened again — this time at a deeply personal level.

But as the second wave of grief hit, I started seeing the pattern — I had recently felt the same things! I read about what grief is. I found grief has a simple structure. More importantly, since I knew what it was I could be mindful of grief and where I was in it and accelerate the process so that it lasted for weeks instead of years.

The Anatomy of Grief

In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published a book that mapped her observations from years of working with terminally ill individuals. This book called On Death and Dying put grief into five stages. Other researchers have since described it in seven stages, some in two. But no matter which you choose, it is a process and if you understand it you can power your way through it.

The five-stage theory became known as the Kübler-Ross model. While it was originally devised for people who were ill, other research shows — and indeed my personal experience is — that all grief falls into the same patterns, though not everyone will experience each in full. They are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Stage 1: Denial

Denial is our defense mechanism. It numbs you to the intensity of the severity of the situation so that you have time to gradually absorb and process it. Chances are when you first learnt of a loved one’s death or lost your job or a relationship you went numb.

At the beginning of 2014 when the first set of police cases were registered against me, till December 2014 when eventually I had to close the company I built from scratch — I was just numb. I remember telling myself that I must take each day as it comes. I would sit for hours looking at a wall and try to make sense but my thoughts were very few, my emotions even fewer. I was hurt badly but I was not grieving yet.

At this stage most of my conversation with myself focused on:

  • “This is just a dream, I will get up and it will be over”
  • “The police have made a mistake — they’ll find out the truth and it will go away”
  • “My employees have made a mistake, they will stick with me”
  • “My customers have made a mistake, they will stick with me”

Other examples could be:

  • Loss of love: “They’re just upset, it will be OK tomorrow” or “(S)he’s not gone and will be at home/ work/ a cafe when I reach there”
  • Loss of employment: “They’re mistaken. HR will call tomorrow to say I should be back.”

Unfortunately for me, that feeling was so strong that I refused to see reality when it was stark and naked. By the beginning of 2014, my customers had started leaving. But I chose to think that it was all just a mistake and started funding TWB for the first time with debt instead of internal accruals! We had been cashflow positive from the first month and for 10 years, we grew with our own money. But the worst was yet to come.

By October 2014 I was the only person left in the building (and two other offices) where 300 people had worked. But my denial of the situation caused me to think that it will turn back to normal soon. I kept the building leases and everything in the building — more debt to fund it!

If I knew where I was, I would do it differently and let go of the situation at the beginning itself (this is a much later stage in this model called acceptance). When grief came again — personal and equally devastating — I knew I would be in denial. So instead of staying there, I gathered all the information I could to make a realistic assessment and once I had it, I decided to push through denial to the next stage. What had taken me more than a year the first time took me a few weeks the next time around.

I did not realise it then but the denial was my mind’s way of letting in only as much as I could handle. As I started to accept the reality of the loss all the feelings that were buried started surfacing.

Stage 2: Anger

Anger is a masking emotion because it hides many other feelings and pain that you carry, including bitterness and resentment. It’s an outward expression of your pain. For everyone, it may not be clear-cut fury or rage but for me it was and I was in that state of rage for years. My anger was directed at the people who had precipitated this situation:

  • At the dog NGOs and animal welfare activists in Bangalore; the coterie of people who had a public stance that my trust VOSD must close and the company that funded it — TWB — must also close
  • At my employees, many of whom had been with me from the start of TWB, many of whom I thought as personal friends and many who could do without a couple of months of salary and help me
  • At my ‘friends’ who I had grown up with, most of whom were conspicuous by their absence in case I asked for a favour
  • At God — how could he do this to me? I turned to Shiva who I have spoken to in first person  for decades and said I will never again look at you with love (and for two years I didn’t)

You might have expressed this anger in many ways including:

  • “I hate him/her! They will never get anything better than me!” 
  • “(S)he’s a stupid boss, what a loser. (S)he will fail too!”

By being angry I found two important differences from the mainstream narrative of anger:

  1. Grief is like swimming in a bottomless, shoreless sea. Anger gave me a structure to the nothingness of my loss. The anger became the connection from me to the people, the world, the reality that I was earlier too numb to feel. It may not be the best connect but I began reconnecting with the world around me after a few months through my anger.
  2. All popular literature tells you anger is a negative emotion and you should not feel it. Religious sermons are given on avoiding it. But I found that by truly feeling angry eventually it dissipated and I healed. 

When grief came again I knew I would feel anger, resentment, betrayal and all the emotions that anger masks. But I consciously decided it is not worth it though it was the single most important situation in my life at the time. With awareness, I had become ‘mindful’ of grief and that helped — I was focusing on reaching the exit of the grief cycle as quickly as I could. 

Stage 3: Bargaining

Once the anger subsides you are consumed by some way to salvage the situation — and how you can salvage is to bargain with those who can influence it. You will find a lot of use of bargain statements such as:

  • “Please God, if you let my child live I will visit you at this temple/church/mosque…”
  • “If you let this illness go I will devote the rest of my life to helping others.”

In my case, there were few people to bargain with. So instead of bargaining, I was consumed by, “If only…” or “What if…” statements:

  • “If only I had met that customer earlier I could have had the cashflow”
  • “If only I had been smart enough to see the trap I could have avoided it”
  • “If only I had built a cash balance instead of spending on the dogs I could have avoided this.”

But I found all that the bargaining was doing was making me clutch at straws. It gave me hope where none existed. Grief had made me helpless and I was looking for ways to regain control. I also found that the more “what ifs” and “if onlys” I asked the more guilty I felt. While I wanted to influence the situation all I was doing was piling the guilt on myself — that the outcome could have been different and I was responsible for it not being different.

The second time I had to confront grief I did try to bargain initially — to find out what I could different, to make it better, the same as it was before. But once I caught myself asking the same question in four different ways and getting the same non-committal responses, I knew I had to stop bargaining and move on.

Stage 4: Depression

When bargaining fails, you are confronted with reality which is stark and empty. Grief becomes deeper than you ever imagined. You withdraw from life and wonder if there is any point in going on alone. You feel overwhelmed, foggy, heavy, confused and alone. Unfortunately, the few people around you — friends, family and well-wishers at this stage tell you that depression after a loss is something to snap out of. It is almost as if they wish you to not be there — because they think it is an illness.

It is not. It is important to understand that depression is an appropriate response to a great loss. To not experience depression after a loved one dies, the love of your life leaves you, or your professional life has ended, would be unusual — experiencing it is not.

By mid-2016 and more than two years into a never-ending fight, I was in a full-blown depression. In my earlier writing of fighting depression, I have shared that the breakthrough moments were (1) When I wanted to end my life and decided against it (2) When I realised after many months with a counsellor that I was not guilty. On the contrary, I was a fighter and someone to be proud of. It set me free.

Depression may feel like the inevitable landing point of any loss. But it is only a stage and it must be crossed. If you feel stuck at this stage talk with a mental health expert as I did. You must understand that grief is a process of healing, and depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. 

During the second wave of grief, I was better prepared. I tried to look for the reasons that I could address, but not finding any I forced myself to accept that reality had changed. 

Stage 5: Acceptance

Accepting a situation is not the same as agreeing with it. The difference is stark and one that keeps most of us from accepting. You feel your acceptance will mean giving up when the opposite is true! If grief is the cycle, acceptance is the exit on the road — the one you need to take to move on and do something with the rest of your life. 

I had to recognize that this new reality of not having the company, the offices, the employee, the prestige, of taking public transport, wearing mended shoes and eating one poor meal a day was a new reality. It did not mean I was OK with it. It meant that I accepted it and could find the time and the energy that I had earlier spent grieving to change this reality. 

Acceptance means not wanting to maintain the past. It means to reorganize roles, re-assign them and take on new ones. I had made the mistake of denying the new reality and had paid a heavy price — running into $4-5 million in debt.

Now I embraced it. I started living in a world where I had very limited means but I had the smartness, drive and the belief that I would forge a new world around it. I stopped trying to replace what had been lost but started making a new future. A new future comes with new connections, relationships, and inter-dependencies (you can read more about what I learnt from my cataclysmic failure here).

The second time grief came I was ready to accept it. It did not make the loss any less painful or the grieving any more severe but I was driven by the thought that reality has changed and I must accept it. 

Exiting the Grief Cycle

Instead of being resentful about the people and situations, I became involved in my life. Strangely I did the one thing I could never imagine myself doing — forgiving of people who hurt me. I discovered that their lives don’t matter to me either way — my life and the lives of those who depend on me does. I have to be busy in moving forward than looking back.

This drive to power through stages of loss came from mindfulness of grief. While I was grieving again I was watching myself do it and forcing myself to get to the exit. That exit has a big bright sign called ‘acceptance.’ If you take it you can get over grief in a few months instead of the years it took me to. I know the second time around I did.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.