The Five Stages of Grief Explained

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Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the first to describe the five stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying, which was published in 1969.

The stages, which still hold sway in the collective consciousness, were listed as shock and denial, anger, bargaining and guilt, depression, and finally, acceptance. In her book, Kubler-Ross emphasized that a person can go through these stages more than once and stages can overlap. 

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Kubler-Ross's five stages have helped millions of people talk openly about death and loss. It also paved the way for other books on grief to become available. However, mental health professionals have determined that this model is an outdated way of describing grief. 

As a result, researchers have come up with newer ideas about coping with death and loss. If you are dealing with grief, the descriptions of all five stages may help you gain an understanding of your complex and very personal experience with grief.

Stage 1: Shock and Denial

In the first stage of grief, you may have difficulty believing your loved one has died. Their death can seem like a bad dream, a lie, or some kind of trick, and when shock sets in, you can feel overwhelmed and numb. Your senses create a blurry reality, disconnecting you from your surroundings, hence the descriptor of “shock and denial.”

While this can feel uncomfortable, shock insulates and protects you from too much stimulation. The human senses can only process so much information at once. With your senses dulled, your body tries to avoid sensory overload. 

Your first reactions

The first moments of shock can happen in an instant. As a result, your nervous system’s fight-flight-freeze reaction sets in as you try to handle the terrible news, and you struggle to make sense of what happened.

At some moments, your loved one’s death may seem completely unbelievable. You might insist that it didn’t happen until you get proof or can see for yourself. 

Denial can linger

The initial stage of shock may last for only a bit as you get more time to sit with the change. However short your feelings of shock can feel, you may be in denial for a longer period.

It can be common to perhaps forget the loss for a few moments when you first wake up in the morning. Or you might go about your normal routine imagining your loved one is somewhere else for a while. 

Eventually, your emotions and reality catch up and start seeping under the facade. Your denial gradually gets weaker and emotions start rising to the top.

» MORE: How do you host a virtual funeral? Start here

 

Stage 2: Anger

Your anger may surprise you when dealing with death. Anger is an intense emotion and can arise in various ways. A lot of times, it can be an energetic and powerful version of a more vulnerable feeling. Fear, sorrow, shame, or guilt may end up being the true source of your anger. 

People feel immense social pressure to control upsetting feelings. Most likely, you've spent years learning how to stuff your emotions down. However, when grief and death enter your life, it can seem like your emotions are spilling out everywhere. At this stage, your anger may pop up frequently.

When you lose someone, you can feel lost and lonely at a moment’s notice. Anger can be felt as a surge of strength and control, which may come out as destructive behavior or unkind words. No matter how negative your actions may appear to others, remember that feeling anger is essential and normal. 

Keep the emotion flowing

This overflow and expression of emotion can be exhausting. At points, you may want to shut down and ignore your feelings more than anything in the world. But the more you acknowledge them, the more easily you may be able to cope with your loss.

You might feel rage toward a doctor, your loved ones, a higher being, and even yourself. You may find that anger comes easily, but talking about your deeper emotions does not. As you accept your anger, you may find it easier to embrace your other feelings, too.

Stage 3: Bargaining and Guilt

During the bargaining stage, you may be searching for a sense of control, praying to numb the pain, or pleading with the heavens to bend the rules of death. You’re willing to do just about anything to avoid facing your painful reality.

In this stage, you realize how vulnerable you are and how deep your emotional pain can run. The loss of control feels so uncomfortable you’ll accept any false hope to escape your grief. You might find yourself fantasizing about your loved one coming back to life. 

Unfortunately, the flip side of this stage is guilt. An endless string of “if only” thoughts can haunt you for a while.

  •  “If only I’d gone to more doctor’s appointments, we’d have found a better treatment and she’d still be alive.” 
  • “If only we had stayed home that weekend, he wouldn’t have gotten into that accident.”

Blaming yourself

This guilt feels real but is often just a trick of your mind. If you heap enough blame on yourself, the situation can seem more clear cut.

Sadly this is also a form of bargaining, as you accept false blame to resolve the emotional tension.

Stage 4: Depression

In the depression stage, you realize the finality of your loss. The emotional weight of death settles in and you feel surrounded by it.

When you are depressed, you may appear noticeably sad in many ways. You may openly cry, look distant and withdrawn, and be in a down mood much of the time. You might also struggle with physical symptoms like insomnia, oversleeping, or loss of appetite.

In addition to feeling sad, it’s likely that you are preoccupied with missing your loved one and possibly thinking more about your mortality. Your hopeless feelings may come out in conversations with others. 

  • “I’m never going to feel happy again.”
  • “What’s the point in getting out of bed?” 
  • “How am I supposed to live without them?”

Your mind may seem filled with sadness and despair. It can be hard to stay in touch with daily life for a while. You may feel like isolating yourself and stepping away from your social activities.

However, the desire to isolate is normal. It can seem like a dark and lonely part of grieving, but it is natural to feel deep sadness now. The depth of your emotion shows how meaningful the other person was in your life.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Acceptance is the stage where you finally acknowledge and accept reality. However enormous and painful it may be, the finality of death cannot be avoided or changed. When you embrace this viewpoint, you gain some level of peace. 

It may take some adjustment and your emotions may still be turbulent. However, you can finally sense that your feelings are not as intense anymore.

For example, your sadness and loneliness have softened somewhat. You might also notice that acceptance takes up less emotional energy and space, leaving room for other areas of life to come back into focus.

Your new normal

While this stage is called “acceptance,” this does not mean that you are now OK with your loved one’s death. This is seldom the case. 

Acceptance is about not resisting reality anymore, but rather allowing the loss to be part of your new normal. The pain is still there and the loss is part of you, but daily life can go on again.

You can accept that life cannot ever be like it was before. Instead, you begin to move forward with the loss in mind. You can slowly rebuild routines and redefine goals, knowing your loved one will not take part anymore. This realization can be painful. However, this rebuilding process can feel like a breath of fresh air.  

Updated Ideas about Grief

Experts agree that grief is not a cookie-cutter process. You will share similar emotions and struggles with many other grieving people. However, there is no single correct way to deal with loss.

Some researchers have updated the five-stage process by relabeling the five phases of grief. These phases are more flexible, can overlap, and can occur out of order.

Tasks of grief

Dr. J. William Worden, professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, saw grieving as a set of four tasks. As you grieve, you actively work through four tasks over time. These activities are not easy, but they provide a healthy method for facing and living with your loss. They are listed as the following:

  • Task 1 - Accept the reality of the loss 
  • Task 2 - Work through the pain of grief 
  • Task 3 - Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
  • Task 4 - Emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life

Grief is Unique for Everyone

Though many people dealing with loss share similar experiences, each journey is unique. No matter what any expert says, your grief process is personal.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. If at any point you feel as though this grief is too burdensome to handle alone, remember that you can always seek help from your loved ones, your local community, and mental health professionals.


Sources

  1. Kellehear, Allen. “5 Stages of Grief.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, (n.d.),         www.ekrfoundation.org/5-stages-of-grief/5-stages-grief/
  2. Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death And Dying. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan 1970, c1969. Print.
  3. “The Tasks of Grieving.” University of Colorado Denver, (n.d.), www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/departments/neurology/clinical/palliativecare/patients/Documents/The%20Tasks%20of%20Grieving.pdf
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