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Mental Health

The Stages of Grief, Explained (and How to Cope With Loss)

The stages are not fixed — they are meant only to help you comprehend what you're going through.

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Grief is a sneaky emotion. One minute you feel okay; the next, you’re inconsolable, experiencing your loss all over again. 

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It’s also messy and mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting. Feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and dread are compounded by reminders of and mementos from the past. It’s simultaneously overwhelming and numbing, so much so that it can be difficult to get out of bed, let alone take care of the tedium that daily life requires.

If you’re lucky, friends and colleagues will try to support you with what they think are encouraging words: “You’re not alone” and “This, too, shall pass.” Unfortunately, almost nothing anyone says or does can eliminate grief. Rather, you learn to accept it, and ultimately, make peace with it, so that one day, it’s no longer the center of your life. 

Part of making that peace is understanding the process, which according to experts, can be painful and non-linear, but is absolutely necessary to your healing and mental health.  

What are the five stages of grief?

You’ve likely heard about the five stages of grief, perhaps from a family member or loved one who has either experienced a loss or hopes to console you as you mourn yours. The idea that we grieve in five stages actually originates from the 1969 book On Death and Dying by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Dr. Kubler-Ross spent her career researching how grief affects those left behind after a loss. The five stages of grief were developed from her observations — now known as the Kubler-Ross model, which suggests that the grieving process occurs in a series of steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Contrary to popular belief, these stages don’t necessarily occur in order, and some of us might not experience all five of them. Everyone’s grieving process is unique, and one stage might last longer for us than for others. The five stages are merely a model to help us understand an extraordinarily personal experience.

Some experts question the five stages model, claiming that it’s overly simplistic and not representative of a lived grief experience. The key is to treat this five stages model not as a step-by-step guidebook for loss but as a starting point for understanding grief and the complex emotions that come with it. With this mindset, the model can be a powerful tool for managing grief and promoting empathy among caregivers.

Denial

Denial comes first in the five stages model (but remember, you may experience denial at any point in your grieving process — or not at all). According to the University of Washington’s counseling center, denial can feel like confusion or numbness; you might feel yourself shutting down, as if in shock, or consistently forgetting about your loss.

From the outside, denial might look like avoidance. The denial stage is marked by excessive busy-ness as a means of numbing pain. To an outsider, someone in the denial stage might look like they don’t care about their loss. In reality, the opposite is true — psychologists have long recognized denial as a defense mechanism against pain. Rather than a lack of caring, denial reflects a busy subconscious trying to protect the self from an incredibly painful loss.

Anger

Anger after a loss can be extremely difficult both for a grieving person and their caregivers. An angry person might lash out at the world and their loved ones, express aggression and cynicism, or exhibit dangerous behaviors like increased substance use. It’s important to remember that anger is a natural part of the grieving process, especially after a particularly unexpected or untimely loss.

You might be tempted to shut down your anger or stuff it somewhere deep inside yourself where it can’t escape. But according to the Harvard Medical School, expressing anger is an important step in releasing it. Find a healthy way to express your rage, such as writing an angry letter to your former employer and burning it, hitting a punching bag, or sitting down to talk about your anger with someone who cares about you.

When we stuff up our emotions, they boil over in unexpected and painful ways. Try not to feel guilty for your anger, but accept it as a natural response to grief, and find a safe way to express it. Feeling angry after a loss is entirely natural.

Bargaining

Stage three of the Kubler-Ross model is the bargaining stage, the hallmark of which is making deals with yourself or a higher power. They look like this: “If I go to church every day this week, Sarah will go into remission,” or, “If I’m extra kind this week, I’ll get my job back.” 

From the outside, bargaining seems futile, but it’s a way of asserting control and regaining power in a situation that has spiraled out of control. We all know the feeling of wishing we could reverse time and prevent a loss from ever happening. Bargaining is a psychological manifestation of that feeling, where guilt, shame, and anxiety are prevalent, and blaming oneself for the loss is common. 

If you’re watching a loved one grieve, bargaining may look like rumination, overthinking, or perfectionism. Whether the grieving person is your significant other, child, or friend, tell them you’re here for them. If they lash out, consider contacting a mental health professional or support group. At some point in our lives, we will all experience grief, and providing a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear is the best gift you can give your loved one or yourself.

Depression

Depression and grief can look similar. In fact, the medical community agrees that there is a tangled relationship between depression and grief, and one might morph into the other.

For a long time, mental health professionals and healthcare professionals did not diagnose grieving patients with clinical depression, even if they exhibited all of the symptoms of depression. Despite their similarities, the healing process for grief and treatment for clinical depression are not always the same. It might not make sense to prescribe antidepressants to a grieving person, just as it might not make sense to talk to a depressed patient about the Kubler-Ross model.

However, the lines between the two conditions are often blurred — especially in cases of complicated grief. Experts at the Mayo Clinic describe complicated grief as a state of being unable to move on from a loss after more than a year, which can lead to clinical depression.

Those of us who have lost a close loved one know that grief is never linear, and it can take years before your good days outnumber the bad ones. If you’re experiencing complicated grief or depression after a loss, please know that your feelings are natural. What you’re experiencing is a normal, albeit painful, part of the human condition, and the best thing that you can do for yourself is seek support.

Acceptance

Acceptance is the final stage in the Kubler-Ross model of grief. Every loss is different, and the time it takes to reach acceptance will vary from one person to another. At certain points during your grieving process, you may feel that you will never reach the acceptance stage. That’s okay. Just take it day-by-day, and lean on your support system as much as possible. Accepting a new reality is a slow process.

The Sixth Stage of Grief

Thirty-six years after the initial publication of On Death and Dying, Dr. Kubler-Ross co-authored a follow-up titled On Grief and Grieving with David Kessler, an expert in the field of grief. Kessler had written several books about grief, but it wasn’t until the unexpected death of his 21-year-old son that he identified the sixth stage of grief: meaning.

According to Kessler, we live in a world that doesn’t accept grief in its full complexity, but rather wants us to grieve linearly and move on. We beat ourselves up for grieving “too long” or “too much,” and we shame ourselves and suppress our true feelings. But in doing so, we may be suppressing the true beauty of grief — the meaning that it allows us to give our lives and the struggle that makes us more fully human.

All of us will experience grief; it is an inescapable part of being human. Embracing our pain or providing a listening ear for others doesn’t make the grief go away, but it does allow us to find meaning (and hope) in what we had and what we have.

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