Bad News – Five Stages

So here’s my take on how the five stages of grief apply to bad news, crisis, and violent confrontations. It seems our country (and the world) has been getting a lot of bad news lately. I look around my Church, and I look around my country, and I grieve, over what’s been going on low these last many years, months, and days. In this post I’ll do my best to unpack these five stages. I’ll strive to tie it all back to leadership and legitimate firearms defense. This isn’t really my lane, but sometimes you just have to turn the 4X4 knob, and get some mud on the tires.

What are the five stages of grief?

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

At the end of my law enforcement career I had the privilege of co-leading the Professional Standards Division – Internal Affairs. Along with another Lieutenant, and a good friend, probably the biggest issue we strove to consistently deal with were peoples perceptions. There is reality, and there is often a gap between that objective reality and a man or a woman’s perceptions. When I think of perceptions I can’t help but think about how people have kind of a filter. The late Col John Boyd addressed this idea in his orientation stage of the OODA loop. Boyd’s orientation stage was said to include things like genetic heritage, cultural tradition, previous experience and purportedly Boyd believed the orientation stage was the most important part of the OODA loop since it shapes the way we observe, decide, and act.

So how do I see a persons filter? It is the result of a persons upbringing, the sum total of things like their religious beliefs, education, training, experiences, and their world view. What have they come to believe? What have they come to be convinced about, or not convinced about? These influences help to form how they perceive objective reality. Our challenge in Internal Affairs was to patiently, kindly, yet without watering down the truth one iota – strive to help folks understand why police officers did the things that they had to do. When body camera videos came onto the scene the footage helped with many, if not most, of the people we spoke with. Some small number of the people we spoke with, would simply reject the body camera footage. They had very strong filters, that seemingly allowed them to just bracket out reality. Perception or a mans filter, is going to have a powerful effect on a man’s decision making process.

Anytime the threats of bad news begin to loom large, fear begins to hold sway. Fear can dominate and keep us away from the stage we need to quickly arrive at – acceptance. The emotions vie for dominance of the will (challenging the intellect). The will is the decision making faculty of our soul. We decide within our will. Emotions can be good, or bad. Emotions need to be cross checked with our intellects. To build emotional strength we have ample opportunities every day to exercise and impose a kind of discipline regarding emotions like fear and anger. We have opportunities to begin training our wills to be subjective to our intellects.

Denial – at it’s essence is too much hope. It is an inability or an unwillingness to accept the realities that are holding sway. We see it with statements or thoughts like: How can this be? This cannot be happening! This is not happening! In Law Enforcement we understood there were three basic responses to high stress events fight, flight, or freezing. Denial would include freezing. If ‘all is well’ then there is no reason to fight or flee.

In the world of self-defense denial can be a killer. If we hesitate in a deadly force confrontation when a window of opportunity or a combat sweet spot presents itself, that is where we will die. Far worse than our own death, our hesitation, may get those depending upon our protection killed. With the exception of prayer, the four stages preceding acceptance are a waste of precious time. With prayer I’d choose to do that ahead of time, and afterwards. In an emergency often what happens is a man falls back to his trained responses. We hear folks being interviewed who acted heroically, say things like: I just did what I was trained to do. I think we kind of write it off as modesty. Weird how consistently we hear that, right? It is far better to build in a trained response which helps by-pass these other four stages of too much hope, anger, negotiating with an unjust aggressor, or too little hope. Do the work ahead of time through seeking out professional training (scenario based training or force on force), and pay attention to your surroundings. When the bad news comes make sure you’re already hanging out in the winningest of the five stages – acceptance.

Time is a precious commodity in any kind of a violent confrontation. How much the more precious is time in a deadly confrontation? All the more. Time is all the more precious in a deadly force confrontation. Long time trainers have a rule that applies to many if not most armed conflicts. The Rule of Three1. Three seconds, three rounds sent, and three yards or closer. Watch any number of shootings on your favorite internet platform and when the firearms begin to come out how long until the whole thing is done and we have a winner, and we have a loser? The rule of three is a good guide.

Anger – Fear begins to hold sway and we get all spun up. We often lose our peace. Anger often moves a man to begin developing a plan. Having a strong desire to shore up hope, men scramble to figure out how to set things in right order. As long as a man is rightly perceiving that which is just and good, then good on ’em.

Generally, this is the stage where discouragement (an attack on hope), may segue into the restoration of order out of chaos. A good thing. This attack on hope also tempts a man towards the negotiating or depression stages. Men are tempted to lose hope, and it rightly makes them angry. Detachment is the winning mindset. Does the man have the emotional strength to detach, calmly wait for the window of opportunity, to open up? Sometimes you have to wait for a combat sweet spot.

Saint Thomas Aquinas gave us four things we tend to make into false idols, or puny little fake gods. Wealth, power, pleasure, & honors. These things can be good if used properly. It’s not wrong to have some share in these things. These four things become major moral problems (sin), when we become so attached that we’re spending all of our time thinking about them. So attached that we’re spending all of our time trying to acquire more and more of these. These things can be good, or they can be evil. How are we using them? How attached are we to them?

When you get angry does your ability to think improve or suffer? My ability to think – decreases when I get angry. An instructor at my old police academy sometimes would bring up the ‘puppy brain,’ both strong, and dumb. The dumb part is not conducive to winning across all five of the battlefields. If we get dumb in a life or death physical battle and we have not conditioned ourselves to control our own anger then we may die, or get our people killed. Because of our anger and ego, we may go too far, into revenge or vengeance, and rightly end up in prison. For the same reasons we may rightly end up bankrupt. We have to begin now conditioning ourselves towards meekness which throughout all of antiquity meant controlled strength. It did not, and does not mean to be passive, cowardly, or afraid of using force. It means when they surrender, we stop. It means if they don’t surrender when we render them unconscious, we stop. When they’re unconscious, they’ve stopped.

Saint Augustine gives us a proper way of viewing the emotion of anger:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

― Augustine of Hippo

I have a few friends who are pilots. One is a professional pilot instructor for a major airline. They have provided me with an outstanding analogy. Pilots who become instrument certified learn that when they fly through clouds or fog they have to trust their instruments. They learn they cannot trust their feelings. For a pilot may feel as though he’s in a steep dive, though in fact, he’s flying straight and level. He may feel as though he’s flying, straight and level, and be in a steep dive. Pilots who are not instrument certified and find themselves unable to see the horizon, often die. A pilots instruments may be cross checked with other instruments to ensure all instruments are working properly. For a human being our intellect acts like the pilots instruments. Our emotions are like that feeling or sensation the pilot may experience. It is critical that a human being properly inform his intellect. Formation of a mans intellect is fundamental. Humility has been defined by St. Teresa of Avila as the acknowledgment of the truth. Truth is fundamental. You want to get this one right. Our emotions or passions can lead us into a steep dive, as it were. They can be right, or they can be wrong. In the world of legitimate self-defense these things are a matter of life or death, freedom or incarceration, financial stability or potential bankruptcy. And there are no guarantees. Why? Just watch the nightly news and you’ll see folks sitting in high seats having major malfunctions with their emotions juxtaposed to their ill or malformed intellects. So perhaps we win the physical battle and encounter major resistance with the legal, civil, and social battlefields.

With legitimate self-defense or defense of another, are there things worth dying for? Yes. Defending innocents from great bodily harm (Illinois), or death. For love of your people. What about love of my vehicle? No. That’s why I have insurance. Many people think it’s out of hatred of an unjust aggressor. It’s not. For a Catholic I believe we have to love the sinner and hate the sin. So I do hate the unjust aggressors actions. If I have to do some hard and seemingly dirty thing that nobody else wants to do, like shoot him in legitimate defense of others or self, when it’s over – when he’s stopped, I shall pray for him. I shall pray that he 1) live, and 2) repent and be saved. 3) If he should die, I shall pray for his soul to have had the grace to repent and be saved before that last beat of his heart. It is not out of hatred that a man ought to do those hard and seemingly dirty things nobody else wants to do. It is out of authentic love for his people, his brothers and sisters in arms, or respect and love for his own life. Life is a gift. Those who unjustly seek to take that gift, by unjust force must rightly be stopped. Period. We need to understand what the next right thing is morally, physically, legally, civilly, and perhaps even socially. There was a time not long ago in this country when most of the country did not suffer blindness, confusion of mind, and madness as it relates to a false compassion or a false pity for unjust aggressors. Now-a-days we have to evaluate what exchanges we’re personally willing to accept as it pertains to winning on the physical battlefield. That means to win the physical battle, we may have to accept far greater risks on the legal, civil, and social battlefields. Conditions in our legal, civil, and social systems have worsened in some places to the point of avoiding those places. I highly recommend you acknowledge and accept the current conditions on the ground, as it were.

With legitimate self-defense or defense of another, are there things worth going to prison for? Yes. Defending innocents from great bodily harm (Illinois), or death. For love of your people. To fulfill our grave moral duties to protect and defend those folks whom we’re responsible for. It’s a catastrophe, kind of a Greek tragedy, that I have to acknowledge how bad it’s gotten in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Sometimes acceptance sucks. But viewed through the lens of a long game, you’re better off facing things so you can do everything in your power to adopt the winningest logistics, strategies, and tactics. Detach and – do – your – job.

With legitimate self-defense or defense of another, are there things worth going bankrupt for? Yes. Defending innocents from great bodily harm (Illinois), or death. For love of your people. Generally, it always comes back to people. Protecting and defending people.

These are the kinds of exchanges we have to do the thinking and deciding ahead of time. What is it that we are we willing to risk death, prison, and bankruptcy for? Crowds are so fickle we may have to move. That is what it is. Do we have the “will,” to win? Do we have the will to protect those we purport to love? Arguably out of the three socially constructed battlefields (legal, civil, social), I believe we still have the best chances on the legal battlefield. That said, there are a few places I’d boycott visiting. These socially constructed battlefields come down to burdens of proof. The legal (as in criminal courts) burden of proof is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a much higher burden of proof than for a civil trial (civil litigation). A civil burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence. That’s like 51%. The social battlefield is essentially whatever the people think. Public perception. You can be tried, convicted, and sentenced without the least little bit of due process on the social battlefield. People are crazy today. Today people confuse justice with vengeance. These are radically different things. Distinctions must be made. We cannot control the social battlefields. It’s a waste of time to worry about the social battlefield. It’s going to be, what it’s going to be.

Bargaining – the first thing that comes to my mind is prayer. Jesus gave us the example in the Garden of Gethsemane how to pray when facing a Cross. How to pray when facing bad – news:

37 He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, 23 and began to feel sorrow and distress. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. 24 Remain here and keep watch with me.” 39 He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, 25 if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”

Matthew 26

Prayer is essential, I exhort you to prayer daily.

The second thing that comes to mind regarding bargaining is despondency. Despondency is a losing of hope. We find ourselves looking for help. Now I don’t have any problem with legitimate diplomacy or negotiations. Negotiating in good faith, so long as it doesn’t compromise with evil, nor compromise with the common good, then it’s fine. Discussing things with people of good will in an effort to help them better understand something is good, right, and just. What does it mean when I say “people of good will,”? Good will means: they are open to; and seeking truth. One of the biggest problems we have in our crisis of leadership today is political correctness. Without truth there will never be unity. Unity subsists in the truth. Outside of the truth disunity, division, and enmity. In other words – war. Opposing wills.

Another major problem we have has to do with feckless men who sit in leadership seats and throw around buzzwords without ever having the fortitude to define precisely what those words mean. They use words like accountability, transparency, and even community policing as a sort of buzzword. What does that mean to you? Don’t you think you ought to define these words for your people? In our fallen world bargaining often ends up as compromise with evil. The world often seeks to offer a false kind of peace through compromise. Every time we compromise with evil somebody ends up footing the bill. We ought not compromise with evil. We need competent craftsmen who have spent their time well, coming to know their professions. We need integrity which means telling the truth patiently, kindly, and firmly without ever giving in to the temptation to water things down for personal gain. I digress.

Depression – An internet search for the definition of the word depression revealed, in part, a persistent feeling of sadness… How I see it, words like discouragement, despondency (losing hope), and despair (hope lost) provide insight into depression. Depression is too little of a hope. Depression can be very seductive. Why? It is a temptation to acquiesce to sadness and/or hopelessness. It is a temptation to give up and quit and say: There is nothing I can do about this – so why even try? It is a temptation to roll around in despondency and despair seemingly throwing off all responsibility to resist. It is a temptation to just go with the flow. It is a temptation to go quietly into that dark night. It is a temptation to just lay down and die, as it were.

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli wrote a book called The Spiritual Combat. There is an awesome line in the book that says this:

“On awaking in the morning,the first thing to be observed by your inward sight is the listed field in which you are enclosed, the law of the combat being that he who fights not must there lie dead forever.”

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli The Spiritual Combat

That my friends, is a most excellent saying! If you remember nothing else from this post remember that. Get up and fight or lay there dying the death – forever! There’s really only one choice. Now Father Scupoli is talking about the spiritual battlefield. But the principles for winning (and losing) apply across disciplines and areas of endeavor. A distinction has to be made. Men do weep when sadness takes hold of their emotions. There is no dishonor in weeping. A great friend of mine taught me that tears are to emotions / mind what sweat is to the body. If you have children sooner or later you – will – weep for your child. That dark sad day will come visit you if you live long enough. Been there, and done – that.

That is radically different and distinct from the kind of sadness and depression that threatens to take the heart [will] of a man.

Despair is the enemy as it relates to depression. We don’t want to go there. Despair serves to prevent a man from getting back on his feet and resolving to do the good and the next right things. There is no dishonor in being wounded in a battle. The only dishonor comes from desertion. The only dishonor comes from quitting. If you fall down get back up, and go stand guard at your post. If you get shot by an unjust aggressor – and you’re wounded but not yet dead, then put your firearm to work and keep that gun working until the unjust aggressor suffers a psychological stoppage and surrenders. If his ‘will’ won’t relent, then keep the gun working until the unjust aggressor suffers a physiological stoppage and he is rendered unconscious, dying or dead. The dying and dead part are God’s business, not our business. We’re not going to make sure that he is dead, and we are not going to engage in any kind of vengeance, but we absolutely are going to decisively win that fight!

As human beings we tend to have a very hard time with achieving and maintaining balance. We tend to go to extremes. With the grieving process, some folks tend to swing back and forth between too much hope (denial) and too little hope (depression). We may experience anger if we can’t figure out a plan as denial gives way to depression. We may desire to go back to denial. Everyone is different and it’s often by degree. If we get ourselves stuck in sadness (depression), despondency, and despair that is where we may die. That is where we may get others killed as well. Giving up we choose to lay there dying the death forever. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Get back up! Get up my brothers and sisters, and fight! Soon enough time will give way to eternity and providing we went the right way, we can beat our swords into plowshares and cease training for war.

Acceptance – is the winningest – of all five stages. This stage is where you want to hang out, as it were. Why is acceptance so important? Well let me draw it back to leadership and legitimate self-defense. A friend and former academy instructor used to add a silent “a” to the OODA loop. The silent lower case “a” stood for an important principle. Acceptance. If you cannot accept what your observing then you’re not going to move quickly through the other stages of an OODA loop. You’re going to have trouble accurately perceiving or understanding when that combat sweet spot holds sway, that right now is the time you need to decide and act. When a window of opportunity opens up, that is the time to decisively move with surprise, speed, and violence of action through that window. When escape and avoidance are no longer options, and the only action left is to defend (meaning “to strike”), we ought not fight as if shadow boxing. We must commit to achieving and maintaining what’s been called relative superiority.

Acceptance in a deadly force confrontation is a matter of life or death. If you enter into denial thinking: this cannot be happening! How can this be? This isn’t happening! You and your people may die in that stage of grief, unless you’re kept alive by better men than yourself. A hard saying? Yes, it is a hard saying. Denial is like taking a stroll on a battlefield unaware of the combat happening all around you. How long until more bad news will find you, at several hundred feet per second? One definition of denial relates it to shock. Shock often results in panic. Panic kills. So how important is acceptance? Acceptance is a matter of life or death.

Panic can send a man to prison. If the circumstances of your deadly force shooting do not add up to that shooting being found objectively reasonable, then your decision making came down to a matter of freedom or incarceration. If you get angry and because through out your life you failed to exercise and discipline your emotional responses (impulse control problems), you may well end up in prison. Prison are full of men who because of ego, anger, and perhaps undisciplined perceived fears find themselves there. As an aside the meaning of the word Meekness throughout all of antiquity meant; controlled strength. Every day we have numerous opportunities to exercise control over our emotions and grow in virtues like patience. We can grow stronger at controlling our fears, anger, and in the tactical mindset of detachment.

Don’t entertain fantasies and myths that waste time. Don’t waste time swinging back and forth between too much or too little hope. Discipline yourself to accept sufferings, pains, and little humiliations, without complaint because if you someday find yourself in a life or death fight, you’re going to need to be as emotionally and mentally strong as is humanly possible. Discipline and condition your emotions to become subjective to your intellect. That way your will is informed and obedient to your intellect, not your emotions. Love is a decision! Love – is – a – decision. Love those for whom your responsible, to the end. Strive for a controlled strength and a detachment over emotions like fear and anger. May God give us these graces.

1This rule of three may have originated with Lt. Frank McGee former head of NYPD Firearms Training Unit.