At some point in each of our lives, we will experience grief — sometimes, more than once. And, when we do, each grief experience is unique to us, as individuals. We have our own perspective, beliefs, and feelings that impact the length of the grieving process. And, we each have personal triggers that can bring that grief back to the surface.
However, one of the existing theories on grief provides a good framework for understanding the overall grieving process. Developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief model continues to be the go-to framework for understanding how grief moves through stages. This guide explores the stages of grief as well as offers advice on how you might manage that stage of grief.
About Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Before defining each stage of grief, it’s good to know where these ideas about grief originated. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was born July 8, 1926 and died August 24, 2004. Throughout her career as a psychiatrist, she spent considerable time conducting near-death studies and writing about death.
According to the EKR Foundation, she also received 20 honors degrees and taught more than 125,000 students about death and dying across multiple institutions. This instructed included the Ingersoll Lectures on Human Immortality at the University of Harvard, which focused on death and dying.
Her seminal work, On Death and Dying, published in 1969, continues to be widely read and regarded as the guidebook on death and the grieving process. In her book, she outlined the Kübler-Ross model, which is also known as the Five Stages of Grief.
The Stages of Grief
Kubler-Ross describes grief as a pattern of adjustment. Each of the five stages of grief, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, involves a period of time where a person adjusts to the idea of the loss they have experienced.
The grief comes from the reality of their impending death. However, the model has been widely used by those also suffering a sense of loss from the death of a loved one, such as a spouse, sibling, child, or friend.
It is important to note that the five stages of grief do not occur in a specific order. Just because they are numbered below does not mean that’s how a person experiences them during grieving. In fact, the stages can come in any order and even return before one of the other stages even occur.
During the stages of grief, it may manifest itself in different ways. You may cry, experience headaches, and have difficulty sleeping and/or eating. There may be a point where you question your spiritual beliefs or detach yourself from family or friends. It can seem challenging to work or feel productive because you feel fatigued or experience aches and pains. Along with all this, there are feelings of guilt, anger, and stress.
As we go through each of the stages, keep in mind that the grieving process is different for everyone, including what you may feel compared to a friend or sibling who shares that loss with. There is no right way to grieve or standard process or timeframe, either. However, what we can do is learn more about the grieving process so we, and those around us, can get a better understanding of what happens and how we can cope with it.
1. Denial and Isolation
Let’s start with the first stage, which very often comes first but that may also continue throughout the process of grieving. There is shock, fear, and confusion all rolled into one or more reaction to the news of the loss.
First Comes Denial
The first reaction people often have when learning about the death — or impending death — of a loved one is to deny that it has happened. That’s because the reality is that none of us want to accept the fact that a person we love is no longer here and that we can no longer see or talk to them.
Denial is also how we deal with what can be an overwhelming amount of emotion. In this way, denial becomes a defense mechanism to protect us from those overwhelming emotions. We want to bury our heads in the sand rather than address the fact that our loved one has died.
Then Comes Isolation
It’s this denial that can often move us into another common reaction to grief at this stage, which is to isolate ourselves. By doing so, we might be able to avoid reality. However, it’s during this isolation where we might also wonder what the point is to life if we just die and those around us die.
It’s a natural reaction to then not want to connect to other people who also will eventually die and leave us with the same overwhelming emotions. That sense that life is meaningless can paralyze us from moving forward and coming to terms with the reality of death. You may also feel compelled to separate yourself from others so you don’t have to answer their questions about this loss. Therefore, isolating yourself is a way to further deny what happened. After all, if you don’t talk about it, then it didn’t necessarily happen.
Dealing with Denial and Isolation
For most people who experience grief, this stage tends to be a temporary response to the initial physical, mental, and emotional pain that comes with the news of our loved one’s death. However, others may experience a much longer state of denial. Some of those we’ve helped have gone through the funeral, insurance claims, and other paperwork but still experience a sense of doubt about what actually happened. What’s difficult is contending with the enormity of such a loss.
However, there are ways to address denial during the grieving process. First, know that denial is a normal reaction to such a loss. You can consider some distractions that can help cope for a while. At the same time, you need to be honest with yourself, cry and let those emotions rise to the surface. If you cannot move past the denial stage, get professional assistance from a grief counselor or therapist.
It’s also important to actively stop isolation, if at all possible. Even in the direst moments of wanting to be alone, it’s important to reach out to others, especially those that have been through it like you. That means seeking support from grief groups that you can spend time with in-person. Or, if you are not yet comfortable with that, you can consider online support groups many of which are available on social media sites.
Once a person can see that death is a reality, denial disappears. In its place, anger often appears. This intense reaction to the loss comes from our frustration that we cannot control what happens in life. Anger can appear as everything from resentment and bitterness to rage. There is also anxiety that expresses itself as anger.
Anger Hits Others
While many parts of the grieving process are internalized, this grief stage tends to have an external impact. That anger might even be directed at the person we love who is dying or who has died. We might also take that anger out on objects, complete strangers, and others in our social circle.
On a rational level, we know that the person, others around us, strangers, and objects are not to blame for these horrible circumstances. But, our emotions tell us something entirely different. Mixed into this emotional chaos is guilt for getting angry. Often, that just leads to more frustration.
One of the best ways to face your anger during this stage in the grieving process is to get some answers. For example, ask the physician who treated your loved one to provide more information on what happened. Get additional insights into medical diagnosis and treatment.
There are other ways to cope with anger, too. You don’t want to bottle that anger up because it will not just disappear. Instead, it will come out at the worst possible time and potentially damage another relationship in your life. Find places where you can be angry without it impacting others.
For example, go somewhere to scream where no one else will hear it. Sometimes, you can even scream into a pillow. Letting that emotion out in a healthy way can alleviate some of the pressure that was building up. Express why you are angry in a journal, out loud to loved ones, or to a counselor or spiritual advisor. It may also help to vent that anger through physical activity.
In moving through the anger with the intent on still finding a way to get control of this situation and the loss, another stage of grief involves bargaining with ourselves. At this point, you are struggling to find meaning for what happened. It may also involve reaching out to others to tell your story about what happened and how it makes you feel.
This mental negotiation strategy typically involves some types of “if only” statements. For example, “If only we had gone to the doctor sooner” or “if only I had stopped my son from driving that night.” There are so many “if only” statements that depend on your individual loss.
Why Bargaining Doesn’t Work
This bargaining is a way to address or reconcile the pain from the loss. However, this is a double-edged sword because these mental negotiations often end in guilt. Each statement puts the blame on ourselves. If we had done something different, then the person we love would still be here today and we wouldn’t have these emotions.
The reality is that none of these statements or even actions could have made the difference in saving your loved one. However, it’s part of the process we have to go through during the grieving process.
How to Negotiate the Bargaining Stage
There are some things we can do to get through this bargaining stage. First, tell yourself that this negotiation process is a normal way to deal with the trauma of loss. Temporary escapes are positive mechanisms that can stimulate the healing process and move you forward. In fact, doing so may even help us get through some of the most difficult periods after the loss like the holidays. Bargaining is also the first sign that you can be ready to accept and hope.
Sharing this negotiation process out loud also helps. Tell your friends and family that you know can support you. Or, if this doesn’t feel comfortable, support groups or a counselor where there is less familiarity can also be a good outlet for sharing these thoughts.
Across the waves of anger and rationalization comes a deep sadness that is difficult to shake. That long-lasting sadness is known as depression. There are a few types of depression that originate from grief. The first one is a reaction to the loss, which exhibits itself as paralyzing sadness, regret, and worry. The second type of depression is what we go through when dealing with the loss head-on and looking for a way to move forward.
During this stage, you may also want to return to that environment of isolation. You may feel overwhelmed and helpless so you just want to step away from life and reality, hiding under those covers in bed from the world.
Coping with Depression
It’s important for you, as the person suffering from the depression, and for those around you to understand that depression is not a sign of mental illness. Instead, it’s a response to a great loss that’s left you with a void in your life. Therefore, depression is normal and also part of the healing process.
Having said that, there may be others around you who mean well but tell you that “it’s time to move on” or that you should “just get over it already.” Do your best to ignore these recommendations. There is no timeframe for feelings and, therefore, no reason to suppress those emotions.
Although some people may decide to take medication like antidepressants, it’s important for you to seek help from a grief counselor and learn about how the benefits and risks of doing so before making a decision. Consider other activities that may help diminish your depression, such as exercise, creative pastimes like painting or music, or community service.
However, if your depression has impaired you from functioning at all and you cannot carry on with life as you know it, this is the time to get professional help. You don’t want this depression to consume you and then leave those around you with the same grieving process as you are experiencing.
Reaching the acceptance stage of grieving does not happen to everyone who grieves. If the death was sudden and unexpected or the denial and anger never pass, acceptance will not come.
It is important to note, though, that acceptance for those who experience it does not appear as happiness. An individual is also not accepting that the loss is okay.
Instead, they accept the reality of their loss and that they cannot change that reality. Replacing denial, anger, anxiety, and depression, an individual starts to experience a sense of calm that takes over. This new feeling gives them a way to move forward with our lives in a new way without that loved one.
The Process of Acceptance
Reaching acceptance means opening yourself up to hope. It’s the hope that your life can go on and you can find a place for the future despite it missing one or more people you had wanted to be there. At this stage, you are capable of creating a new plan for your life or, at the very least, begin to explore other options. This may even mean new family traditions.
When you can open yourself up to this hope without feeling guilty about going on with your life, you are also able to look back on the memories of that person and think of them in a fond way. You begin to appreciate that you had the honor of knowing them and having those precious moments. Unlike the physical presence of that person, these good memories and times together cannot be taken away.
Be patient with yourself because you have to reach the acceptance stage of grief in your own time. The process of acceptance could require years before you fully attain it. You can work toward acceptance by finding ways to commemorate the life and legacy of the person you’ve lost. Some people start charities in their name while others may create a memorial or share funny stories over the holiday table.
Also, it’s good to keep a gratitude journal because writing down what you appreciate about that person or what you learned from them can also help stimulate the acceptance stage. Be sure to read what you’ve previously written, especially if you feel waves of grief returning. It can help you focus on the good days even when a bad day happens.
Grieving Becomes Part of Your Life
Grieving has stages as we’ve illustrated based on the Kubler-Ross model. However, we look at grief more as a process. That’s because many things can trigger the return of grief even years after the loss. While we may feel like we’ve accepted it and worked through the grief, an event like another death can trigger a flood of emotions. You may even go through many or all of these stages of grieving again.
Coping with such an incredible loss is a deeply personal experience that no one can truly understand except that person. While there are support groups and loving people around you, nobody can help you just get through it. Instead, it’s a process that you will have to navigate with the comfort and support of others that love you.
Allow Yourself the Time to Grieve
The most important thing you can do is allow yourself to feel the grief. Resisting it will just prolong what is a natural healing process. Instead, it’s important that you focus on getting information on the loss, communicating what the loss feels like, reaching out for emotional support, and seeking guidance and direction through professional assistance.
Let grief happen. Then, consider these coping strategies some of which were mentioned already throughout this guide on grieving:
- Don’t compare yourself to others who you know are grieving or have grieved.
- Give yourself all the time you need. There is no timeframe for grieving.
- Know that what you are experiencing is part of life and part of being human.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to multiple sources for help. It might be an online support group on Facebook or it could be a therapist or grief counselor.
- Talk and keep talking. Those around you want to understand what you are going through. Even if they don’t personally understand, they want to listen and be there for you.
- Don’t neglect your physical health. Focus on a diet of healthy foods while also remaining hydrated with plenty of water. Exercising can help balance your emotions while also encourage better sleep.
- Avoid turning to substances or addictive behaviors to deal with your grief. That means avoiding drugs and alcohol as well as other destructive behaviors like shopping and gambling that only create new problems. Also, these substances and behaviors often increase depression.
- Stay active and focus on doing positive things that can help others. Often, grief involves that loss of control and purpose. Therefore, if you proactively do things like volunteer or create a benefit or solution for someone else, it can reignite that sense of purpose to your life.
- When you are ready, honor and share the memory of your loved one. Find ways to incorporate them into your new life or continue doing things you enjoyed with that loved one.
Whether you are newly bereaved or have lost loved ones years ago, your feelings are meaningful and valid. As someone who has grieved the loss of a son, I know the various stages of grief appear in no particular order and can be triggered at any time. What’s important is that you address those grief stages and let yourself be open to support and hope.
Tags: five stages of grief, grief stages, how to cope with each stage of grief