What Are the Stages of Grief? (The Best Way to View it)

Unfortunately, grief due to the loss of a loved one is something that almost all of us have to live through at some point in our lives, and although this deeply upsetting experience is unique to every person, there are some common emotions and feelings that many people share.

What are the Stages of Grief

In this post, we discuss some widely held beliefs about the stages of grief, what they are and how it can help people dealing with bereavement to understand that their feelings are normal and that other people are likely to have experienced similar thoughts and emotions.

The “Five Stages of Grief” model

When we talk about the “stages of grief”, we are referring to the ideas of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychologist who introduced the concept in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying.

In fact, Kübler-Ross’s work was originally based on her experiences with terminally ill patients rather than those who had recently been bereaved, but her work was later applied – by Kübler-Ross herself and by others – to the kind of grief caused by the loss of a loved one.

According to Kübler-Ross, there are five stages of grief that people commonly experience. They are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

In her book, these were presented as being linear, so that patients were seen to start at 1 and work through them until they arrived at 5 – although later, Kübler-Ross claimed that this had not been her intention.

What are the problems with this model?

After the publication of the book, these five stages became popular among counselors and others dealing with people who were working through bereavement, but since then, these ideas have been criticized.

First, it has been pointed out that the process of grief is unique for everyone who experiences it, and that seeing it as a linear progression through these five stages is a misrepresentation.

Kübler-Ross seemed to agree with this argument since she herself later expressed regret that people had interpreted her work as suggesting these stages were linear and universal due to the way she had presented them.

Rather, people can experience the stages in any order, they can occur at the same time, they can return after they have ended and for some people, certain stages may not occur at all.

Furthermore, her work has been criticized for its lack of empirical evidence, relying much more heavily on personal experience and interpretation. Indeed, later evidence-based work by other researchers has seemed to refute her “five stages” model.

Her findings were also attacked for being related to only one culture at one particular time, which suggests that even if they were true for the group she worked with, they might not be universally true.

So in short, for these and several other reasons, her ideas have largely been debunked within the scientific community.

Why do we still use it?

So if her ideas have now been rejected by most scientists in the field, why do we continue to talk about the five stages of grief and why do some people continue to apply them?

Although they might now be less common in clinical settings, these five stages of grief can still be useful to reassure people experiencing grief that their feelings are normal and that there is nothing wrong with them or what they are experiencing.

When people are going through a bereavement, they may need all the help, support and reassurance they can get, and understanding that others have been through something similar can be important.

Furthermore, it may also help others around them understand what they are going through, which, in turn, may help them provide more sympathetic support.

What’s the best way to view the five stages of grief?

As we have seen, the five stages shouldn’t be seen as some kind of grieving plan that needs to be worked through in a set order to help you emerge from the other end in a better way.

An alternative to this kind of linear approach is to refer to the five stages as a ladder that needs to be climbed, something that acknowledges that “progress” is not always up but can also be down, but this is not a useful approach either.

Perhaps the best analogy is that the five stages are like visitors who can arrive at any time. Sometimes they come alone, sometimes they come with others and sometimes they don’t come at all.

Sometimes one of them can return suddenly and unexpectedly, even many years later, long after you’ve reached the acceptance stage.

Understanding that these feelings are normal can help a great deal in healing from the loss. At the same time, knowing that not experiencing all or any of the five stages of grief is normal is important too, and if the grieving person understands all of this, the model can still be of use.

The five stages of grief

So now we understand the “five stages” model, its uses and its limitations, now let’s take a closer look at each of the five stages to see what they entail.

1. Denial (and isolation)

What people feel:

Although as we’ve stressed, the five stages are not linear, often the first reaction after the death of someone close is denial.

This is a natural human defense mechanism that is designed to protect us from the onset of overwhelming emotions that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to handle.

In the denial phase, although we might be aware of what has happened on a rational level, on an emotional level we are simply unable to process it and so reject it.

The experience of denial is often accompanied by feelings of shock, numbness, confusion and even meaninglessness. You may feel like you are walking around in a mental fog and that what has happened doesn’t feel real.

Some people also try to isolate themselves from others, partly because seeing others and answering their questions would mean facing up to the reality of the loss.

This phase may be short, but it can equally last for a long time, depending on the person and the circumstances of the loss.

How to deal with it:

When dealing with the loss of a loved one, it’s important to understand that these feelings of denial, confusion and meaningless are perfectly normal. It’s a natural reaction to something we can’t process, and it helps protect us until we are ready to face what has happened.

There’s no timeframe for getting through this phase so take all the time you need – and given enough time, you should eventually feel ready and able to face the reality of your loss.

However, you should try to avoid becoming lost in your isolation and seek the comfort of those around you. If you feel you are having too much trouble finding your way through these feelings, you should also consider seeking the services of a professional grief counselor.

2. Anger

What people feel:

When people emerge from denial, they often feel angry about what has happened. They may experience rage directed at the unfairness of life and the universe and the frustration that we can’t control what happens in life or protect our loved ones from harm.

Anger may also surface as resentment or bitterness – these could be directed, for example, at survivors of the accident that caused the person’s death or they could be more general and unfocused.

During this stage, it’s common to conceal or suppress feelings of anger, but that can mean they often come out at the worst moment when the bereaved loses control.

Often, the person will realize the unfairness or irrationality of venting such anger at other people, which can cause feelings of guilt, a sense of weakness for the loss of control and further anger, creating a vicious cycle.

How to deal with it:

Again, it’s important to understand that these feelings are natural and are commonly experienced by others going through similar situations.

At the same time, you should understand that these feelings need to come out and suppressing them won’t help, so finding a way to release them in a way that won’t harm others is vital.

The way you do this will depend on you, but some common ideas involve sports like running or boxing, writing a journal, speaking to people or even going to a remote spot to scream, shout and cry.

On the other hand, turning to alcohol or other substances is not a healthy way to deal with things and should be avoided.

If you have trouble dealing with this grief-related anger, you should seek professional help from a counselor.

3. Bargaining

What people feel:

Another stage that many people experience is the bargaining stage.

Among Kübler-Ross’s terminally ill patients, this may have taken the form of bargaining with God or the universe to grant extra time or even a cure in return for a certain behavior.

For example, people may have promised to give up smoking in return for being allowed to live long enough to attend a wedding or a birthday party.

However, among those experiencing grief for the loss of a loved one, it is more likely to take the form of “what if” statements such as “what if I’d driven to pick him up instead of telling him to take the bus home?”.

Of course, lines of thought such as these will often end in a sense of guilt or despair since it’s impossible to change the past.

Sometimes people might even plead with God or a higher being to put things right and bring the person back in return for a certain behavior – even if, on a rational level, they know it’s not possible.

How to deal with it:

As ever, even though this kind of behavior might feel irrational or even crazy, it’s extremely common and it’s important to realize this. Indeed, many people will have experienced something similar after something far less serious than the loss of someone they love.

This kind of behavior can be taken as a positive sign that you are ready to accept what has happened, and bargaining represents a desperate last attempt to grab hold of anything that can give you hope or comfort.

Seek out friends and talk to them about your feelings as this will often help, and if you need extra support, don’t be afraid to speak to a professional counselor.

4. Depression

What people feel:

Although long-term depression is often the sign of mental illness, after a death, it is quite normal to experience it at some point.

It can manifest itself as deep sadness, anxiety, meaninglessness, regret and apathy towards life, and it can also cause people to want to retreat back into isolation.

How to deal with it:

Depression is a normal, expected part of the grieving process, and you should try to accept it as such.

Seek out people who can help you through it and try to engage in activities that can take your mind off your loss and your feelings of depression. Many people find sport or creative activities are a great way to work through feelings like these.

At the same time, know that there is no time limit for you to banish feelings of depression, and if people – sometimes with the best intentions – tell you it’s time to shake it off and move on, you should ignore them and deal with things in your own time.

5. Acceptance

What people feel:

Eventually, many people arrive at the phase known as acceptance – although it’s important to note that for some people, this stage may never arrive.

Acceptance doesn’t mean you have fully come to terms with what has happened, that you are fine with it or feeling happy again, but it means you no longer require the coping mechanisms of the other phases to deal with your loss.

It means that although you may still feel profoundly sad at what has happened and may miss the person deeply, you are ready to accept it and carry on with your life without them.

In short, the other four stages represent you fighting against the reality of what has happened whereas this stage means you can finally accept it and move on, even if it may never feel completely ok.

How to deal with it:

When you reach the stage of acceptance, you may find you are able to look back at the life of the person you have lost and remember the good times you had together.

This may awaken more feelings of sadness, but you will also have plenty of fond memories to cherish.

Some people may enjoy reminiscing about the one they lost while others may wish to commemorate them in some way.

In the end, you will come to realize that even though you have lost the person, you will always have your memories of that person, and that is something you will be able to hold onto forever.

Additional stages – a “seven stages” model?

In the years following the publication of Kübler-Ross’s work and even after her death, people have continued to discuss her ideas, and some have even suggested refining her model by adding extra stages.

David Kessler, a colleague who worked with her while she was alive and published a book authored by them both after her death, suggested “meaning” as a sixth stage – and others have proposed more alternatives.

Sometimes, the “denial” stage is preceded by a “shock” stage, in which the overwhelming emotion is numbness and a lack of understanding.

A “reconstruction” phase is also sometimes added before the final “acceptance” stage, which includes mentally rebuilding one’s life.

For this reason, you may sometimes hear people talking about the “seven stages of grief”, although these don’t have any more grounding in empirical science than Kübler-Ross’s original five.

The best advice is that if these extra stages can be used to help people, then all the better – but if not, there’s no need to place undue emphasis or importance on them.

In any case, as we’ve already mentioned, grief is such a unique, personal experience that ideas about such clearly defined stages aren’t likely to be very helpful. What people need most of all is time as well as the love, support, patience and understanding of those around them.

Read More: Dreaming of Dead Father: Meaning & Interpretation

Prolonged griefs syndrome

It should be pointed out that, while we have stated above that people should be given as much time to grieve as they need, prolonged grief can also develop into a recognized mental disorder.

Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD) is defined as a condition where sufferers are unable to resume a normal life a year after their bereavement.

If you have suffered a loss and are still suffering debilitating effects from the experience a year or more after the bereavement, you should seek advice from mental health professionals to help with your recovery.

Related: Why Does Grief Come in Waves?

Use the five stages model if it helps

The “five stages of grief” model is most useful in helping people going through grief understand that other people have been through similar experiences and that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

People shouldn’t be rushed through grief and should be encouraged to deal with it in their own time and in their own way. And if Kübler-Ross’s model for grief can help with that, even in some small way, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be used.

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