The Five Stages of Grief

There is no manual on how to cope with loss, and there is no right or wrong way to go through the stages of grief that may arise. Mourning or grief is an intimate and unique experience, and if someone you know or you are going through a loss, these new emotions can feel confusing and overwhelming. There are at least five emotions associated with grief. In an effort to understand the grieving process, numerous mental health experts and researchers have dedicated a lot of years to studying it. One of these experts was Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who, in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, examined five of the most common emotional reactions to losing someone and created the Kübler-Ross, model which is the theory of the five stages of grief, which we shall examine here.

1. Denial

This is the stage where you are in the belief that you can survive the loss. You start to deny the information and this can mean that you are almost going numb as a result. You are in a state of shock because life has changed instantly. For example, if you received the news of the death of a loved one, you may be clinging to the false hope that it was a mistake. 

The denial stage means you are living in what is known as a “preferable” reality rather than the “actual” one. It’s almost like a natural defense mechanism. Once the shock and denial begin to fade, this is when the healing process begins.

2. Anger

Upon moving from the “preferable” reality to the “actual” reality, the symptoms of anger may set in. You may look to blame others for your grief or you may redirect your anger to close friends or family. This is the stage where you make statements like “why me?” and “life’s not fair!” This anger can also force you to start questioning your beliefs in higher powers, especially if you are religious.

If you are going through this stage, it’s important to actually feel the anger; in fact, mental health professionals are in agreement that this is a very necessary stage. Even though the individual may seem like they are constantly angry, it will disappear. In fact, the more the individual feels the anger, the quicker it will disappear. It is important to not suppress this, especially in the context of grief, because it is a natural and necessary response. When we experience grief we can feel disconnected from reality, and directing anger toward something can provide a bridge back to reality and connect with others again.

3. Bargaining

The bargaining stage is an example of false hope. Those who are religious may find themselves making a secret deal with God, and you may believe that you can avoid grief if you negotiate effectively, whatever the context. Feeling grief can be so debilitating that it means we will do anything to get life back to how it was before the event, so much so that you are willing to make major life changes. It’s also at this stage where we can feel guilty. The “what if” statements can arise here. These emotions and thoughts are not uncommon, and as difficult as they may feel, they can help you heal as you begin to confront the reality of the loss.

4. Depression

Depression is commonly accepted as the predominant form of grief. Many people associate depression with grief instantaneously because it represents the emptiness we feel when we lose someone or something we care about. It’s at this stage where we can withdraw from life and feel like we are in a fog, or not want to get out of bed. Intense sadness can cause you to feel different in other ways including: 

  • Feeling vulnerable. 
  • Not wanting to eat. 
  • Not enjoying life as we once did. 
  • Distraction. 

It’s important to remember that these are all temporary and a direct response to the grieving process.

5. Acceptance

The acceptance stage is not necessarily about being “okay” that something happened. In the context of losing someone we love, we won’t accept that “it’s okay that they died,” but rather, “even though somebody died, I will be okay.” It is at this stage that your emotions can stabilize and you re-enter reality.

Accepting is coming to terms with the fact that this new reality is going to be part of your life. It’s important to point out that this is not necessarily a good thing, but it is something that we can live with. There can be good days and bad days, but during this stage, it doesn’t mean that you will never have another bad day because you’ve accepted it, but people tend to notice that the good days usually outnumber the bad ones. It’s at this stage where you can start to engage with people again and potentially make new relationships as time goes on. This is when we understand that the loss can never be replaced, but we evolve as a result.

The Importance of Understanding the Stages of Grief

These five stages of grief are useful for anybody going through the grieving process, but it’s important to point out that everybody’s journey is unique. Kübler-Ross herself pointed out that it can be a non-linear process. While these stages are often spoken about as if they happen in an order, where you effectively move from one stage to the next, this isn’t often the case. 

People can experience these feelings of grief at different times. Some people may not experience all of the stages, and depending on the grief or loss, the stages or symptoms can feel severe or not so severe. Some people can also find themselves within one phase of grief for some time, especially if there are other co-occurring issues, such as mental health problems.

When we’re talking about grief, it’s important to also point out that there is no time limit on this. There are many ways to experience grief, and if we can have an understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to bereavement as time goes on, grief can take up less space within your life.