The Stage of Grief You’ve Never Heard of But May Be Stuck In


“Life is a process of becoming. A combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” ~Anais Nin

Since I was a little girl I have believed in the power of wishes. I’ve never missed a first star, a dandelion plume, or load of hay (load of hay, load of hay, make a wish and turn away) to express to the universe my deepest desires.

When I was fifteen and my dad was at the end stages of cancer, I would wish on the first star, not to save him, but to plead a peaceful end. Since my oldest son passed away very unexpectedly in October of 2010, I have made hundreds of wishes to remember every detail I can about the boy who was the other half of my heart.

In the three years since Brandon’s death, I believe my wish to keep his memory alive have been answered by learning to turn my “whys” into “hows.”

Asking “why” isn’t one of the official stages of grief, but maybe it should be. Anger and denial get all the attention, while getting stuck in the “why” freezes you in your tracks and prevents any opportunity for growth or movement toward healing.

Not being able to let go of needing to know “why” forces you to focus on the rear view mirror. It keeps you in the past and prevents you from living in a way that honors the person or thing you have lost.

It’s in my nature to ask why. “Why” can be a powerful question that leads to clarity and progress. It can also be a roadblock in the one-way traffic of life.

Life doesn’t come with reverse, only neutral and various speeds of forward progress. “Why” firmly plants us in neutral, and that’s where I was in the months after Brandon’s death.

I obsessed over the “why.” My brain whirled at sonic speed looking for it. I assumed if I found the “why,” I would find comfort and would be able to pick up the pieces and move on. I came up with elaborate theories of why Brandon died.

Brandon was home on leave from the Army when he passed away, but was scheduled to be deployed within the next few months. I spun that into my favorite “why theory,” that dying at home saved him some horrible combat death in Afghanistan.

It made me feel better, briefly, but I was still left with the bigger question that would never be answered—why did it have to happen at all?

“What’s Your Why” has become a motivational catch phrase. I remember seeing an inspirational quote on Pinterest after Brandon died, with a picture of a scantily clad, fit chick with “What’s Your Why” typed beneath her sculpted abs. I shouted at her in the quiet of my room to eff-off—my “why” died!

“What’s Your Why” sounds absurd to the grieving person, and it’s not comforting!

Not only had my “why” died, I also found myself pleading with the universe for the explanation to “why this happened. “Why” is a question with no answer when it comes to loss. “Why” offers more questions than comfort.

Another word that isn’t included in the official grief process, but again, I think it should be, is “how.” “How” explores possibilities. “How” shines a light into the future. Exploring “how” to live a life that honors the memory of my son made my wishes come true.

After realizing being stuck in “why” would never ease the pain of losing him, I began to realize that how I live the rest of my life is the outward manifestation of my son’s spirit.

It is the only way anyone will ever get to know my son, and the only way I can keep his memory alive. If I continued to live in the “why,” I would diminish his memory, but by living in the “how” I magnify his memory by my actions.

It doesn’t make the grief go away; rather, it ignites my grief as a powerful vessel for change.

My “how” is manifested in cultivating a life of adventure and using radical self-care to ensure that I have the energy to embrace a life that reflects Brandon’s best qualities.

It is a labor of love for my son that I embrace life, take risks, be courageous, pay it forward, and act in a way that makes people ask what I’ve been smoking. My actions are how I keep the memory of my son alive; it is how my wish has been granted.

If you or a loved one is stuck in the “why,” let it go—it simply doesn’t exist. It’s time to live in the “how.”

Photo by Hartwig HKD

About Paula Stephens

As a yogi, speaker and life coach Paula Stephens, M.A, is passionate about supporting others create what she calls 'the PS'. It's what comes next in our lives when we're ready to follow our own path and live this one wild life we've been given. You can find out more at

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  • DK

    Thanks for the post! You helped articulate a lot of my thoughts and feelings, which has helped me realize what has lingered in my subconscious. For a long time I’ve asked myself why certain things happened in my life. One specific thing for me was a relationship that ended awhile ago and no matter how much I tried to get over it I would always ask “why did things have to happen the way they did”? You’re right that ‘why’ keeps us in that neutral state of life. I don’t know if I can ever be able completely stop asking why, but I think that recognizing and accepting that there isn’t always an answer is a huge step in moving forward. Btw, I totally identified with with what you said about “start with why” and how it can be tough for someone grieving.

  • Pia

    Thank you for This post. Touched my heart

  • lv2terp

    This is beautiful!!! Thank you for sharing this post, your experience, your wonderful perspective! I love when you said “After realizing being stuck in “why” would never ease the pain of losing him, I began to realize that how I live the rest of my life is the outward manifestation of my son’s spirit” AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! 🙂 HUGS TO YOU!

  • lyn

    Thank you for these thoughts. I have been stuck in the “why” stage over my brother’s suicide for two years. I feel some sense of peace now, knowing that I must move on in learning how to honor him with my life. It gives me a jouney of hope rather than a stalemate of pain.

  • Thank you so much! 🙂

  • DK – You are very welcome! I think ‘why’ can often be very healing, but when we are asking why to questions that have no answer or the answer won’t benefit us, it’s best to move on to ‘How”. Keep rockin your amazing life! <3

  • lyn – yes, yes, yes! I am so sorry for your loss, suicide is a unique journey for those who go through it. I’m sure your brother was/is a beautiful soul, and what an honor that you get to be part of honoring his memory. *hugs* to you my friend!

  • max_just_nobody

    Thank you…..we should appreciate what we have and be grateful

  • Crystal

    This was a great post, it really opened my eyes and gave me a new way to look at loss. I lost my mother to cancer three years ago and then my son ten days later, my life has been a whirlwind of “why” I’m slowly starting to live “how” and honor derek(my son) and am realizing how good that feels.

  • MLΔX

    I really like this post. The way humorous hope was embedded in a message of grief speaks in itself. Sending positive vibes your way.

  • Crystal – I can feel your son doing the happy dance for you! I am so glad you enjoyed my post. *hugs* to you my friend

  • I will take all the positive vibes I can handle. I have found that humor has been one of the best healers. Vibes back at ‘Cha! 🙂

  • You are such a brave, amazing woman.

  • Dee Wise

    Thank you for this post. It came to me at a perfect time of reflection.

  • Andrea

    Thank you so much Paula for your article. It is so true! My relationship ended 15 months ago and it has been a long difficult struggle to get through it. My heart was broken into a thousand pieces.
    I loved this man so much and constantly asked myself why this happened to me. I was always looking for answers. Anything to stop the pain.
    I now do feel healed and do realize that sometimes there just isn’t any answers. For me it was just time, love from family and friends and a will to get through it. I still have love for the world, just a lot more empathy for others and the tough road we all travel at some stage of our lives.
    Life truly is for living and how we can still love and be there for others.
    Thank you again, xx

  • Hookchick

    Two years ago my spouse of 18 years suddenly announced the marriage was over. I know I’ll never get a satisfactory answer to “why did he do this?”, “why did this happen to us?”. But it’s hard to stop wondering. I feel like trying to redirect my thoughts is a constant effort!

  • Darylsmeadnotebook

    This is a beautiful gift!

  • Beautiful post. <3

  • onwards to the dawn

    My wife 16 years did the same – hang in there – you’re not alone – there will be a bright new dawn –

  • sjg

    What the author is describing are parts of the stages of grief. Asking “why?” is denial and asking “how?” is a part of acceptance.

  • Johnny Witter

    I remember being stuck in the “why” phase after my 24 year old son died from brain cancer. It was a long list. Sometimes it ran like a tape loop in my head. Sometimes reasons moved up or down the list in higher or lower priority. It consumed me. Finally, I sat at my computer and typed the list. Every reason why my son might have gotten brain cancer. I printed it out and put it away. I didn’t have to think about them anymore, because they were on that printed out list, and I could look at it whenever I wanted. But, I never did. I had freed myself from the “whys.” I never thought of it that way, but from that point on, I was able to focus on the “how.”
    As to the “radical self-care,” that was something I realized too, that I, more than anyone else, knew what I needed to do for myself on a daily basis to heal. I told many parents in our TCF group that by being “selfish” or “self-centered,” something that was antithetical to my upbringing as an Irish Catholic, I was able to discover what I needed to do to heal, and the more I healed, the more I was able to help the rest of my family heal, and help other bereaved parents heal. Being kind to myself, also taught me to be kind to others.

  • I am sorry to hear about your loss. I hope my article brought you some peace and insight. The constant effort is worth it – eventually you will begin to shift. *hugs*

  • Auburn

    I’ve been in “why” for over 20 years now. I lost myself and in some profoundly degrading and traumatic ways, seemingly by my own choices, and I lost the belief that I could live out my life in a way that reflected my commitments to racial, social and global justice. I’ve found healing and some answers, but never enough to really liberate myself into “how.” I’ve spent too many years examining my upbringing, my mother and my family of origin I think. Devoted myself to too many people who could never have supported who I really needed to be. I’m becoming ready now for “how.” Thank you.

  • That is a brilliant idea! I love it! You are an amazing mother, it warms my heart to have connected here with you.

  • Lucy – Yes it does and you are welcome. I don’t want my son to be forgotten and this is my way to shine light on his memory. I appreciate your comment, thank you!

  • Andrea – You are so very welcome! Isn’t developing empathy a wonderful thing. We all have struggles and standing in a place of compassion makes it better for everyone. Thank you for taking the time to share your voice – I appreciate it!

  • Yeah!!!! <3

  • Sheena – I so appreciate you for saying that! There are many days I don’t feel brave or amazing…. like right now – I haven’t showered yet today! Amazing – No, Stinky – Yes! Seriously though, I will come back to your comment on my not so brave days! Thank you!

  • Blessings to you my friend! And grateful you took the time to comment! 🙂

  • That is so beautiful to read! It sounds like you have done some good work and are ready to step into the future with some sassy pants and a happy smile! 🙂

  • Joelene Mitchell

    Thank you for this beautiful post. After 10 years of debilitating pain & a build up of side effects from long term medication, my younger sister (and only sibling) took her own life just 3 weeks ago. Finally she is pain free and in peace.
    The “whys” are a tormenting pain. Crazily I know the answers to the “whys” but they keep coming at me, knocking me for a six every single time and the logical answers somehow do not quench them.

  • Abby Howard

    Thank you for this post. I love the idea of shifting why to how.

  • Olivia

    Awesome! Great post, I haven’t lost anyone through death but I am about to get divorced after 5 years of marriage. Thank you for this 🙂

  • Olivia – Thank you for your comments. When it comes to loss whether death, marriage, job or other relationship there are many similarities. Best wishes as you move into another period in your life!

  • Joelene – I am sorry to hear about your sister. Don’t be hard on yourself, 3 weeks is a very short period of time and there is a lot of work to do when someone dies. It is perfectly normal and healthy to ask ‘why’, the problem comes when you can’t move past it and it consumes any other healing that needs to happen. Be patient with yourself, and let your self feel all of it…. because it all changes! *hugs* to you my friend

  • Johnny – would you mind contacting me via email. I am collecting healthy self-care tips for parents who have lost a child. I would love to use some of what you said.

  • Dani

    Dear Paula, I cannot thank you enough for this beautifully written, powerful piece. As someone who gets stuck in “why,” and who recently lost a loved one to cancer, I really needed to read this. If this is how you honor your son’s memory and heal your grief, please know that your effort has helped at least one person today. My deepest condolences on your loss. Thank you, Danielle

  • Susan Suehr


    Thanks for this insightful post. A year ago, my 27 year old nephew died of cancer. I have spent the whole year asking “why”. And we will never know why. I love your how. How is the family now going to live the memory of him? How do we let the world know he was here? How can we include him in our family gatherings after he passed the physical?

    It feels better healing using the how!

  • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with the Why? – and for pointing the way towards the How! – and for doing it in such personal way…

    It’s beautiful and strange to see how we (humans) create in parallels – never alone!… Just recently and totally out of the blue I felt inspired to write a piece on the exact same topic for Peter Sinclair at the Motivational Memo ( I wish I could link to your article there! unfortunately his blog is not open for comments (I’m not sure why :-))

    Paula, I look forward to reading more articles and learning more about you on your stunningly beautiful blog!

    Many warm greetings,

  • Danielle – You are very welcome and I am humbled that you took the time to share with me. There is a place for why, it does help us, but we also need to be willing to let go when the time comes. I am sorry for your loss. Cancer is such a tough disease (I lost my father to cancer when I was 16).
    *hugs* my friend, Paula

  • Susan – LOVE LOVE LOVE

  • Halina – Wonderful! Thank you for sharing the link I will jump over there and read your insight. 🙂

  • derickmarian

    Nice Peace of statement to overcome from “Y”

  • Patsie Smith

    Dear Paula, big hugs to you. Such a beautiful article, thank you. I’m so sorry for your loss. As a mother myself I know I would much rather be the one to go in place of my ‘child’. You’ve been so amazing to transmute and channel the energies into helping others. I’ve seen your little Ted talk and enjoyed it 🙂 So true, the”why” can be such a block, and many times there’s no “why” and if the answer is at all satisfactory enough, it’s simply for our own soul evolution. So great that you’ve become a beacon of light, with the spirit of your son. Just want to also say, if I may, your son lives forever, as you probably already know, for its only the physical vessel that dies. The real never does, as is evident and alive all around you and through you. Love to you xo

  • Mazie Miles

    I too lost a son. Christopher’s memory and the love he gave to everyone will never be forgotten and quite often shared in memory. However, as Chris was handicapped and was painfully going through surgery after surgery to stay alive and well. I did everything in my power to keep him safe and healthy and happy. It was at the bitter end when I finally said okay Universe please do not let him suffer any longer did he leave. After all Chris upon being told he was going to meet up with Jesus (someone he was familiar with) told me he could not leave me so could I please go with him just plain did not wish to go anywhere with out me. I have to tell you since I am bearing all, that the pain was intense to watch him leave yet at the moment it was the greatest blessing of all. Now here is the why or how we all feel I bet. It is what is going to happen next. My life for 33 years is gone and what is next. I felt absolutely empty. Then somehow I recognized that within the past two years before Chris everyone I cared for literally left this earth. Now What? Now was the time for me to find out who I AM and what my next adventure on earth was all about. It did take a few years but it is wonderful when you know in your heart that no one dies really….. We are not alone. I loved this story and all that shared with us about their loved ones. We are divine beings. Isn’t it grand that we can share and help others and in doing so help ourselves.. Blessings

  • Lilie

    As a psychologist, i can assure you that we are well aware of those “”stages””. You are absolutely right, questions are a big part of the process and they actually lead to more angriness because after all… “i don’t understand”. Lots of courage. It’s never easy.

  • gypsy

    These words were helpful but I can’t seem to let go of the why. Today I must attend the funeral of my little sister who took her own life and left behind 3 little boys and so many people who loved her. And I keep swinging from anger to why? Maybe after time I will be able to release myself from the painful WHY but today that is all my heart feels.

  • Valentina Linndeman

    I guess I’m still stuck. It’s been three years since the unexpected death that I witnessed of a friend. I believe I have not lived since then. I can read as many “dealing with grief” books and posts. I currently seek counselling and I must say I’m not letting any of it help. I wish I could learn to live my life adjusted without my friend instead of focusing on how his death left me living a “living death” I think if I wouldn’t have been present the grief process would have been sooner, and I could have been resilient. I do have a lot of “why’s…why did I survive and he didn’t? Why didn’t I wake up in time when he was next to me?” Why didn’t I prevent his death?” It’s something I’d like to deal with I don’t think I allow it.

  • Savanna Garza

    I understand what you are sayin and I feel like I have tried to move on to the why but its overwhelming and for me so very hard I lost my son 8 months ago and I think about it every second of everyday of how I wld have spent the days with him and his sisters (who never got to meet him)of all the cuddles and kisses I’ll never get of the “I love you mommy” I’ll never get to hear I feel so lost sometimes and I jus try and take it day by day my girls help a lot but I have my days that aren’t the greatest but I live every sec with him in my heart and my mind

  • Marsha

    Thank you so much Miss Paula for sharing this article !! Now the thing is…. I know I’m thing in the “Why”….. sure would love to be able to get into the “How” life !! My Precious Son Brandon *Forever 26* passed away on 12/4/12 :'( and his passing has changed me beyond repair !!
    I truly feel as though I will “Never” be the same “Me” ever again !! Most days it’s a very hard struggle to just try and live !! This Grieving Mama journey is the Most Horribly Sad & The Most Extreme Lonliest that I have ever felt in my whole 49 years of life !!
    I sure Hope & Pray that one of these days before I leave this ol’ world that I can be in the “How” ! I’m sure I’d be better off …. and mostly Peaceful” !!
    Thanx again Paula !!
    So very sorry for your loss ! :'(
    Hugs ♡ Prayers.

  • Debra Ciorciari

    Coming into this world is part of life and leaving this world is part of life. We can’t deny this. Dying is part of life. We ALL must leave sometime in our life. Some of us much sooner than we anticipated. And how we leave this life will happen in many different ways. Wish we can all die in our sleeps,, but that’ s not part of life. My son past away in 2010 from Leukemia. But the odd part of his life is when he was in middle school. He was in his room listening to some music. He came over to me and said , ” Mom , I’m depressed”. Him and I had a great communication together. I said, ” You need to change the music that You are listening to,, sometimes the words makes us depressed.” And he said ” No mom, it’s not that. It’s that I am going to die when I’m 21.” I’m not going to live long,, was his reply. I didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t say it was not true, because I do I know ? Well he made it a few years past 21, but his words came back to me when he past away. And now that I am in a Grieving Mothers group, I have heard quite a few mothers say the same thing, that their child said they were not going to live past such and such age. They knew they were going to die young , but didn’t know how. How ironic is that? They knew their destiny.

  • Stacy Davis-Ruff

    I am just at a year in my journey of grief over losing our oldest son. I do get stuck in why and even more destructive to me, if only. If only I had done something different he would still be here. It also is looking back in the futile, impossible hope of changing the outcome. That I think is always our greatest wish, that it never happened and our child was still with us physically. But moving forward in our grief and lives means getting to know a life without them. Thank you for your article and story

  • Laura DeLashmutt

    I enjoyed reading your post. It has been 6 1/2 years since I watched my son die from leukemia. He was in Iraq when he got sick. I know I am stuck in my grief. Why did he have to die, why couldn’t I make him better. I watched him suffer for 3 1/2 years before he died. I am trying to keep his memory alive. I need to figure out HOW. Thank you for your inspiring post. Laura

  • Dru

    This is an issue that I am dealing with every day. My wonderful 29 year-old-daughter died almost four years ago. I learned early on why my daughter died (blood clots caused by her birth control), I have had to come up against so many people who insist that there is a reason beyond the blood clots that killed her. With such asinine things like “God Chose her,” There is the How do we live now question but it has two parts, I think. How do we carry on our child’s life and zest for life (his or her memory) and how do you help others, so what happened to our child doesn’t happen to them or how to comfort the survivors in their grief. Thank you for writing this post.

  • Danke Duderoff

    Losing someone that doesn’t want to be with you can be the greatest gift you receive in your life. You’re free. You won’t die thirty years from now having realized you spent your life with someone that did not love you.

  • Dana Leigh

    sometimes beneath the whys and hows, is the empathy from others. I believe that empathy comes in many forms such as saying sorry, listening while not recommending to change, and validating those feelings and that experience. I believe that after the whys and hows, if one doesn’t get the empathy from people, that person will be definitely stuck in the grief stage, maybe in the anger.