Understanding the Stages of Grief

A woman cries while looking into the mirror.

There are few things more devastating in life than losing a loved one. Unfortunately, in our hectic culture, many of us don’t get much time and space to deal with the aftermath of loses like these. Yet it is inevitable that we all go through a process of grief after losing someone we cherished; in fact, psychologists have identified some universal stages of grief commonly experienced after loss.

The Psychology of Grief

At some point in your life, you probably learned or heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These were first identified by Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. But what you may not know is that, although Kübler-Ross’s work is still well-respected by psychologists, it has also been misunderstood at times.

For example, the stages are not necessarily experienced in a linear fashion. You may not experience the stages in the exact order listed, or in distinct forms. You might even experience stages that haven’t been identified!

As David Kessler, who co-authored several books with Kübler-Ross explains, the stages of grief are only meant to be used as a framework to understand your particular process of grief. Everyone grieves in their own unique way and in their own time.

All said, understanding that there are some collective truths about the grieving process can be reassuring as you begin your journey through grief. Losses — especially traumatic ones — can be difficult to process, so knowing you are not alone in your feelings might give you some much-needed solace.

Stages of Grief Explained

So what should you expect as you experience the stages of grief? Let’s examine the five stages and the common characteristics of each.

1. Denial

Denial is commonly experienced at the beginning of the grieving process. However, it can be experienced later, and may even come and go as you process your loss. Denial is a defense mechanism, one that may be protective during our fragile state.

In its way, denial helps you survive your loss. Although you don’t want to remain in this stage forever, there is a certain grace given to you by denial — a little extra time to hold your most intense feelings at bay as you begin to recover from the shock of the loss.

2. Anger

Many of us are reluctant to feel emotions like anger, but they are a normal and necessary part of the grieving process. Our anger might be directed at nearly anyone involved in our loved one’s death: the doctors who we think did not do enough to save them, family members we feel did not pay due respects, or friends who did not embrace us in our time of need.

We may even feel anger toward our loved one for leaving us, or at ourselves for not being able to save them. Remember part of this anger stems from the deep love (or other strong emotions) you felt for the person you lost, and you will pass through this stage in due time.

3. Bargaining

If your loved one was ill before dying, you may have had a period of bargaining as you learned of their diagnosis and watched their condition deteriorate. “Please take me instead,” you may have thought. Or you may have begged for more time.

These sorts of thoughts often continue after the loss. You may go over the death multiple times in your mind, wondering if there was something you could have done differently, or some way you could have prevented the inevitable. The bargaining phase goes hand in hand with guilt, and this can be the most difficult aspect of grief for many of us.

If you identify yourself in this stage of grief, try to be gentle with yourself. You are not to blame for your loved one’s death.

4. Depression

Depression is the stage many of us identify most with the loss of a loved one. But as painful as depression can be, it is an indication that you are experiencing your loss in the present, and more fully than you did in the previous stages of grief.

Although no one wants to stay in this stage for too long, if you are able to feel your sadness, it means you have begun the process of accepting your loss. You are no longer denying, bargaining with it, and you are no longer stuck in your anger.

Let yourself feel your sorrow over this loss as much as you can. It’s important not to try to run away from this feeling; it is natural, and a normal part of grieving.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance is a stage some people never get to, unfortunately, especially if they don’t allow themselves to experience all the other emotions that come first.

It can take years to get to a place of acceptance about the loss of someone you love, so give yourself that time. Accepting someone’s death does not mean you are justifying it or making it ok. You are simply accepting it as reality and something you can’t change.

You will never forget the person you lost, and your grief will always be there, but you have learned to adjust, grow, and find a way to live without them.

Don’t Grieve Alone, Reach Out If You Need Help Coping

Understanding the stages of grief after loss can be freeing for many people because it gives them a roadmap for understanding the myriad intense and complicated emotions they are experiencing.

However, no one can go through a grieving process alone. You are meant to be supported by friends and family as you move through these difficult stages. For many of us, professional help from a therapist is necessary as we process this difficult experience.

Most of all, whatever stages of grief you experience — and in whatever order — your feelings are valid and understandable. Take your time moving through them, and remember that the best way to heal is to let yourself experience your feelings as fully as possible, without judgment, and with loving care.

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