The Five Stages of Grief Explained (With Examples)

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Grieving has five stages known as part of the framework that helps to identify our feelings. The five stages of grief are typically identified as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

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These stages, much like our grief responses, evolve as our pain from loss ebbs and flows. Grief is the human response to loss that's evident in many individuals, but not all. Our grief is as individual as we are unique, and not everyone will experience it the same way. 

Grief is a continuous process in which we learn to endure our suffering. In the end, it teaches us about love and loss and how to move forward from profound heartbreak and sorrow. How we find the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss is an individual path that must be lived through and experienced to find its truths. 

Where Do the Five Stages of Grief Come From?

The five stages of grief stem from recognizing that certain threads link the grieving process in many individuals. The concept of having a defined five stages of grief comes from the noted Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926 – 2004) in her book, On Death and Dying. This is where she first set out her theory of grief, flowing in five stages and applying to individuals who suffer the death of a loved one and other extreme, life-altering experiences and different types of grief

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What Situations Do the Five Stages of Grief Apply To?

The five stages of grief aren’t confined to those who suffer the death of a loved one. Other life-altering traumatic events also cause individuals to grieve and experience some or all of the grieving process stages. Here are a few events in one’s life that may trigger some or all of these grief reactions. 

  • A breakup or divorce
  • Getting fired from a job
  • Losing a home to foreclosure or disaster
  • Moving away from friends and family
  • Incarceration or other isolation

List of the Five Stages of Grief

Although everyone processes grief according to their experiences and relationship to the loss suffered, there are specific characteristics to suffering. These are defined in stages that most people will go through as they process their loss. Mental health professionals identify these stages as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The stages of grief help guide us to understanding grief and its effects. This structure helps us formulate ways in which to cope with grief and loss. Not everyone will go through each stage of the grieving process, and most who do will not do so chronologically. 

Denial

The denial stage of grief may last for weeks, months, or years. It's a gradual process of weaning from the shock of getting the news that your loved one's died. Overcoming the overwhelming disbelief that your loved one's gone may also make you temporarily forget that your loved one's died.

Denial can be an effective shield against the harsh reality and brutal impact of a significant loss. It gives you time to process your feelings and emotions in stages rather than dealing with them all at once. 

Example: A person who denies that their loved one has died may tell the children that their other parent is off at work and won’t be coming home soon. The survivor may start believing this fantasy themselves the more they repeat the fabrication. They may continue to set an extra place at the dinner table, refuse to remove their possessions or expect them to walk through the door at any given moment. 

Anger

The second stage of grief is often described as the anger stage. The shift from grief to anger unfolds differently for every person grieving the loss of a loved one. There are many reasons why you might feel angry after losing someone you hold dear.

Often, people who are suffering express anger at the situation, at the person who died, the person or events causing their loved one's death, and sometimes even their higher power. Anger also tends to surface when a person is reluctant to accept that life must go on without their loved one in it. They may also be angry at themselves for not preventing their loved one's death. 

Example: A person experiencing anger at the death of a loved one may direct that anger toward the hospital staff and administration for not saving their loved one’s life. They may file a complaint with the medical board against the primary doctor responsible for their loved one’s care, write a nasty letter to the hospital administration complaining of the staff and doctors, or may even file a lawsuit claiming negligence and damages. 

Bargaining

The fourth stage of grief is that of desperate bargaining with God or others or seeking ways to change the circumstances of your loved one dying. Bargaining becomes the grieving person's vain expression of hope that they can reverse their loved one's demise. Characteristics of the bargaining stage can include attempting to negotiate with others the reversal of the painful situation or for things to go back to how they were before the loss.

In this stage, a person may have preoccupations with what they could've done differently to prevent their loved one's death or change the outcome.  

Example: A young mother sets out to do her weekly grocery shopping and, in the middle of her hurriedness, forgets her child strapped into the car seat inside her hot car. Her child then suffers from asphyxiation and later dies.

In her guilt and remorse, she apologizes for her mistake and begs God to take her instead. She makes all sorts of promises to her higher power that if only somehow he could reverse the tragedy, she’ll give her life instead, knowing that this isn’t possible.  

Depression

During the depression stage of grief, a bereaved person will realize the certainty of death. They acknowledge that they can do nothing to change the outcome of death. The grieving individual loses all hope that their loved one will return and no longer has the energy to keep fighting for a different result.

A certain emptiness begins to settle in, and more profound grief takes over. While depression is an unnatural state of despair, it's a natural phase that prepares you for the acceptance stage. It's a necessary step to detaching oneself from the emotional aspect of the situation or loss. A key factor of depression is isolation. 

Example: A widower comes to terms with their spouse’s death and withdraws into themselves as a result of their grief and sorrow. They stop socializing with their friends and loved ones, stop responding to invitations, and generally keep to themselves while life passes them by. They’ll typically feel a profound sense of sadness and sorrow that they can’t shake off. 

Acceptance

In the last stages of the grieving process, acceptance starts to settle in. In this final phase,  grieving individuals can start coming to terms with their mortality and that of their loved ones. They may reach a final contemplation and acceptance of the circumstances surrounding their loved one's death and that they can't change their new reality.

The impact that their loss has on their life and relationships also begins to take shape. Acceptance doesn't mean that they're okay with their loss or that they've forgotten what's happened. It's about embracing the present to move into the future under the changed circumstances.  

Example: A grieving father whose child was murdered begins a lifelong mission to avenge their child’s death. They join forces with the police officials to bring the murderer to justice while pursuing every legal avenue to make the perpetrator pay.

In the midst of advocating, their relationships begin to suffer, and they lose sight of who they are. Then before the sentencing phase of the murderer’s trial, the father comes to terms with the circumstances surrounding their child’s death, accepts an apology, and lets the judicial system take over.

What Are the Alternative Models of Grief?

There are four overall grief models, with Dr. Kübler-Ross's theory on death and dying being the early model. It’s based on her observations of grieving individuals through a controlled and conducted study of certain patients under her care. Her model suggests that people suffer in stages depending on their experiences. However, she has also acknowledged that not everyone will experience all of the stages of grief, and not always in a prescribed order.

In more recent times, other clinicians developed competing models of grief that expand on how a person experiences grief and deals with loss. The most popular alternative models of grief to Dr. Kübler-Ross’ model are:

Four Tasks of Mourning

  1. William Worden is another clinical therapist that developed his version of the model of grief that has some similarities to the Kübler-Ross model called the Tasks of Mourning. However, their theories have some significant differences in that the Worden model emphasizes that grief requires work, commitment, and active participation to get through. The tasks assigned to the grieving individual are to:
  2. Accept the reality of the loss
  3. Work through to the pain of grief
  4. Adjust to an environment without the deceased in it
  5. Find a lasting connection with the deceased while starting a new life

Dural Process Model

The Dual Process of Grief model, developed by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Strut, focuses on the person who's died and the suffering individual's emotions around their loss. Survivors can avoid their loss by dealing with other life changes to deflect some of the focus off their loss. 

This alternating of focus between loss and what the bereaved want in their present life after loss helps the grieving individual adjust the amount of grief they can process at any given time. Doing so helps with the overwhelming feelings that often accompany loss by taking in suffering in bits and pieces. 

Frequently Asked Questions: The Stages of Grief

Do people experience all stages of grief?

The five stages of grief are a guideline that's useful in alerting you to specific patterns and behaviors common to the grief process. Not everyone will experience suffering in this tidy linear model, nor will they experience all stages of grief. Some individuals may not grieve at all. 

While not everyone goes through all the five stages, some grief reactions are predictable and familiar to many grieving individuals. Almost everyone who's suffered a significant loss will process their grief-related thoughts and feelings in the weeks and months following a tragic event.  

How long does grief last?

Grief lasts as long as it needs to for an individual who's suffering a significant loss to accept it and move past the ensuing pain and suffering. For some individuals, the grieving process will last anywhere from six to twelve months. In some cases, grief may last a lifetime. Many factors can complicate the way a person reacts to a loss.

Depending on the individual's capacity to withstand tragedy, grief may resolve quicker for some than for others. A person can take steps to heal from loss by asking for help or seeking therapy. 

How can you help a loved one who’s grieving?

Supporting a loved one who's grieving can take on many different shapes. You can expect a grieving individual to need emotional support during the initial stages of grief and then again as their grief ebbs and flows. Other ways to lend support include physical, mental, and financial, among others.

A person dealing with the loss of a loved one may experience secondary losses that might not be evident to others, such as losing emotional and financial support from a spouse. You can start by offering your time to do household chores, baby or pet sitting services, or meal preparation. 

How do people typically treat grief?

Ordinarily, grieving individuals won't seek professional help to combat the signs of grief. They may turn to friends and family for support who may not be able to offer the best care and advice for someone who's suffering through the complications of grief. Those who seek outside help typically turn to their church leaders for guidance, online grief support groups, and professional grief counselors and therapists to help guide them through their suffering.

Of the remaining, many bereaved persons will suffer in silence until their grief shows up in alarming ways forcing an intervention. By then, they've most likely suffered through profound pain, sadness, hopelessness, and despair. 

Recognizing the Grief Stages

Grief is individual to each person who’s ever suffered through loss. However, the way we process grief and come to terms with our losses have some commonly identifiable commonalities. Even though every person deals with grief and loss differently, many shared experiences join us in our suffering. 

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