• December 7, 2021

The stages of grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.” These stages of grief were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness, but many people have generalized them to other types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a loved one or a break-up.


The five stages of grief

  1. Denial. In the first stage, you may feel like you are in a bad dream. Denial is not only an attempt to pretend that the loss does not exist, we are also trying to absorb and understand what is really happening. As we process the reality of our loss, we are also trying to survive emotional pain.

denial helps us minimize the overwhelming pain of loss.


  1. Anger. Once you come to terms with the reality of the situation, there is tendency to become frustrated and externalize your grief in the form of anger. Often this manifests as criticism of people close to the loss such as doctors or family members. Unfortunately, anger tends to be the first thing we feel when we start to release emotions related to loss. This can leave you feeling isolated in your experience and perceived as unapproachable by others in moments when we could benefit from comfort, connection, and reassurance.


  1. Bargaining. This stage involves holding out hope that a better outcome can be attained. Often it takes the form of negotiation with God. While bargaining we also tend to focus on our personal faults or regrets. We might look back at our interactions with the person we are losing and note all of the times we felt disconnected or may have caused them pain.


It is common to recall times when we may have said things we did not mean, and wish we could go back and behave differently. We also tend to make the drastic assumption that if things had played out differently, we would not be in such an emotionally painful place in our lives.


  1. Depression. The fourth stage involves despair, sadness, and isolation at the finality of the loss. We start to feel the loss of our loved one more abundantly. As our panic begins to subside, the emotional fog begins to clear and the loss feels more present and unavoidable.

In those moments, we tend to pull inward as the sadness grows. We might find ourselves retreating, being less sociable, and reaching out less to others about what we are going through. Although this is a very natural stage of grief, dealing with depression after the loss of a loved one can be extremely isolating.


  1. Acceptance.In the final stage, we come to a place of acceptance, it is not that we no longer feel the pain of loss, but we are no longer resisting the reality of our situation. When people embrace the finality of the loss they experience a kind of inner calm and peace coming to terms with the loss. Sadness and regret can still be present in this phase, but the emotional survival tactics of denial, bargaining, and anger are less likely to be present.


If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll heal in time. However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages—and that’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through any of these stages. And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in.


Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In her last book before her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”


Summary and Key Takeaways

Grief is a process that largely unfolds on its own. Rather than trying to force it into something specific or run away from it, try to approach it with acceptance and gentleness:

  • Don’t put time-limits on your grief.
  • Don’t compare your grief to other people’s.
  • Spend time grieving intentionally.
  • Seek out the right social support.
  • There’s more to grief than sadness.
  • Take your self-care seriously.


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