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The Five Stages of Grief

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When we lose a loved one, the pain we go through can feel unbearable. Understandably, grief is complex and sometimes we wonder if the pain will ever end. We go through many different emotional experiences such as anger, confusion, and sadness.

Illustrated by Emily Roberts, Verywell

5 stages of grief

A theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggests that we go through five different stages of grief after the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally same acceptance.

Refuse

The first stage in this theory, denial helps us minimize the pain of great loss. As we process the reality of our loss, we are also working through the emotional pain. It’s hard to believe we’ve lost an important person in our lives, especially when we may have just talked to this person last week or even the day before.

Our reality has completely changed in this moment of loss. It can take a while for our minds to adjust to this new reality. We’re reflecting on experiences we’ve shared with someone we’ve lost, and we may find ourselves wondering how to move on in life without this person.

This is a lot of information to discover and a lot of painful images to process. Rejection tries to slow this process down and get us through it one step at a time, instead of risking the possibility of being overwhelmed by emotions.

Denial is not just an attempt to pretend that the loss doesn’t exist. We’re also trying to absorb and understand what’s going on.

Angry

Feeling angry after the death of a loved one is normal. We are trying to adjust to a new reality and we can feel extremely uncomfortable mentally. There are so many things to deal with that anger can allow us to get emotional.

Remember that anger does not require us to be very vulnerable. However, it tends to be more socially acceptable than admitting we’re scared. Anger allows us to express our emotions without fear of judgment or rejection.

Unfortunately, anger tends to be the first thing we feel when we begin to release the emotions associated with loss. This can leave you feeling isolated in your experience and seen by others as inaccessible in times when we could all benefit from comfort, connection and reassurance.

Bargain

When dealing with loss, it’s not uncommon to feel so hopeless that you’re willing to do almost anything to ease or minimize the pain. Losing a loved one can cause us to consider any possible way of avoiding the present pain or the pain we anticipated the loss. There are many ways we can try to bargain.

Bargaining can have many different promises, including:

  • “God, if you can heal this person, I will change my life.”
  • “I promise it will be better if you let this person live.”
  • “I will never be angry again if you can stop him/her from dying or leaving me.”
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When negotiation begins, we often direct our demands to a higher power or something greater than us that can influence a different outcome. There is a keen sense of who we are in these times when we realize there is nothing we can do to influence change or a better end result.

This feeling of helplessness can cause us to respond by bargaining, which gives us a sense of control over something we feel out of control. While haggling, we also tend to focus on our own faults or regrets. We can look back at our interactions with the person we’re losing and record all the times we felt disconnected or might have caused them pain.

People often recall times when we may have said things we didn’t mean to, and wish we could go back and behave differently. We also tend to make the drastic assumption that if things had gone the other way, we wouldn’t be in an emotionally painful place in our lives.

Depression

During the process of grieving, there comes a time when our imagination calms down and we slowly begin to look at the reality of our current situation. Bargaining is no longer an option and we have to face what is happening.

We begin to feel the loss of our loved one more. As our panic begins to ease, the emotional fog begins to clear and the sense of loss becomes more present and inevitable.

In those moments, we tend to step back while the sadness grows. We may find ourselves withdrawn, less sociable, and less accessible to others about what we’re going through. While this is a very natural stage of grief, dealing with depression after the loss of a loved one can be extremely isolating.

acceptance

When we come to the place of acceptance, it is not that we no longer feel the pain of loss. However, we are no longer fighting the reality of our situation, and we are not fighting to make it any different.

Sadness and regret can still be present during this stage, but emotional survival tactics such as denial, bargaining, and anger are less likely.

Click Play to learn more about the stages of grief

Kinds of Grief

As we look at the five stages of grief, it’s important to note that everyone grieving is different, and you may or may not go through each of these stages, or go through each of them in order. The outlines of these stages are often blurred — we can move from one stage to another and possibly back again before completely transitioning to a new stage.

In addition, there is no specific timeframe recommended for any of these periods. Someone can go through periods fairly quickly, such as within a few weeks, where it can take another person months or even years to move into acceptance. Any time it takes for you to move through these stages is perfectly normal.

Your grief is unique to you, your relationship with the person you lost is unique, and emotional processing can feel different for each person. You can accept to take the time it takes and remove any expectations about how you’ll perform when dealing with your pain.

Get advice from the Very Good Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and Therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can stay mentally strong while coping with grief.



By the hour: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Additional models

Although the five stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are considered one of the most recognizable patterns of grief and loss, there are other patterns of grief that should be noted.

Each model or theory works to explain patterns of how pain can be perceived and processed. Grief and loss researchers hope to use these models to provide understanding for those grieving the loss of a loved one, as well as to provide information that can help those in the healing profession disease provides effective care to those who need adequate guidance.

Theory of attachment and grief

Legendary psychologist John Bowlby focused on studying the emotional attachment between parents and children.In his view, early experiences of attachment to important people in our lives, such as caregivers, help shape our sense of safety, security, and connection. .

British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes developed a grief model based on Bowlby’s theory of attachment, suggesting there are four stages of mourning when experiencing the loss of a loved one:

  • Shock and numbness: Loss during this period feels unacceptable. Most closely related to the Kübler-Ross stage of rejection, we get overwhelmed when we try to deal with our emotions. Parkes suggests that this stage is also accompanied by physical pain, which can lead to somatic (physical) symptoms.
  • Longing and searching: As we process loss during this period, we can begin to seek solace to fill the void that our loved one has left. We can try to do so by visualizing memories and looking for signs from the person to feel connected to them. During this stage, we become very preoccupied with the person we have lost.
  • Desperate and disorganized: We may find ourselves wondering and feeling angry at this stage. The realization that our loved one does not return is real, and we may have difficulty understanding or finding hope in our future. We may feel a bit aimless during this stage and notice that we withdraw from others as we process our pain.
  • Reorganize and restore: During this period, we feel more hopeful that our hearts and minds can be restored. For the Kübler-Ross acceptance stage, our sadness or longing for our loved one doesn’t go away. However, we aim to heal and reconnect with others for support, finding small ways to re-establish some normalcy in our daily lives.

How to help when others are grieving?

It can be very difficult to know what to say or do when a person has experienced a loss. We do our best to provide comfort, but sometimes our best efforts can feel inadequate and futile.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid saving or repairing. Remember, the person who is grieving doesn’t have to be fixed. In an effort to be helpful, we may offer encouraging, hopeful, or even humorous comments to try to ease their pain. While the intentions are good, this approach can make people feel as though their pain is not seen, heard, or valued.
  • Don’t force it. We might be desperate to help and make the person feel better, so we believe pushing them to talk and process their emotions before they’re really ready will help them faster. This is not necessarily true, and it can actually be an obstacle to their healing.
  • Make you accessible. Provide space for everyone to grieve. This lets the person know we’re there when they’re ready. We can invite them to speak to us but be sure to provide understanding and confirmation if they are not ready. Remind them that you are there and don’t hesitate to come to you.

A very good word

It’s important to remember that everyone deals with loss differently. While you may find that you go through all five stages of grief, you may also find that it is difficult to categorize your feelings into any of the stages. Be patient with yourself and your feelings in the face of loss.

Allow yourself time to process any emotions, and when you are ready to talk about your experience with loved ones or healthcare professionals, do so. If you are supporting someone who has lost a loved one, remember that you don’t have to do anything specific, but allow them to talk about it when they are ready.

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