Understanding the 5 Stages of Grief and Loss

Published on: 29 Jan 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
A woman cries while looking into the mirror.

Updated 7/26/2022

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

“The stages of grief and loss are often considered when there’s a death or loss of a loved one within our life. However, it’s important to recognize that the stages of grief are not death-specific. They can be used for any significant loss within our life (i.e., end of a long-term relationship, distance between close friends/family, etc.). So, it’s important to acknowledge that grief occurs in different instances.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Grieving is never easy, but learning about the process might help you understand the difficult emotions you’re dealing with. 

Grief counseling can help.

Get help recovering after loss. Sign up for grief counseling today.

The Psychology of Grief — Kübler-Ross Model

At some point in your life, you probably learned about or heard of the concept of stages of grief:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

These were first identified by Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. What you may not know, though, is that although Kübler-Ross’s work is still well-respected by psychologists today, it’s also been gravely misunderstood at times.

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

As David Kessler — co-author of multiple books with Kübler-Ross — notes, 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. That said, understanding that there are some collective truths about the grieving process can be reassuring as you go through your grief journey. Losses, especially traumatic ones, can be difficult to process. 

Knowing you’re not alone in your feelings might give you some much-needed solace. If you’re grieving or have ever experienced grief, and you’re interested in learning more about the different stages of the grief model, read on.

The 5 Stages of Grief Explained

While it’s common for people to experience these emotional states while grieving, not everyone will go through all 5 stages, or even experience them in order. As we mentioned, grieving isn’t linear, and there isn’t a “right” way to grieve. The stages of grief and loss are different for every person.

1. Denial Stage

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 for a grieving person during their fragile state.

In its own way, denial helps you survive your loss. Although you don’t want to remain in this stage forever, there’s 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 and pain of the loss you just experienced.

While denial can be beneficial in this way, it also has the potential to be damaging. Denial can keep people from talking about the problems they’re dealing with or seeking the treatment that they need. Learning to recognize denial can make you more aware of your own behaviors.

Examples of denial

  • Refusing to accept a diagnosis
  • Avoiding any discussion of a loss
  • Acting like a loved one isn’t really gone
  • Keeping busy to distract yourself from your feelings
  • Pretending that everything’s okay

Tips for dealing with denial

Denial isn’t necessarily a problem, but it can become an issue if it’s keeping you or a loved one from acknowledging your feelings. When you’re grieving, it’s important to surround yourself with supportive people who you feel like you can open up to.

Other tools that can help you work through denial include journaling and support groups. Even if you don’t feel like you’re ready to open up to others just yet, give yourself opportunities to work through what you’re thinking and feeling.

2. Anger Stage

Many of us are reluctant to feel emotions like anger, but it’s actually a very 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 didn’t do enough, the family members who we feel didn’t pay due respect, or the friends who we believe didn’t 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’ll pass through this stage in due time.

Being angry is perfectly normal — it can even be healthy if you channel your feelings in an appropriate way. Anger can give people a sense of control and optimism about the future.

Examples of anger

  • Feeling furious at factors related to your loss, such as the healthcare system or a disease
  • Lashing out at your loved ones or others around you
  • Bottling up your feelings until you have emotional outbursts

Tips for dealing with anger

While people often think of anger as a harmful emotion, not all anger is inherently bad. In the long term, repressing angry feelings can be harmful to your emotional and physical well-being. Instead of ignoring your anger, you should try to channel it in a healthy way.

In the short term, it can be helpful to have healthy ways to release your rage. Journaling, art, and even screaming can be a way to let your feelings out. Once you’ve calmed down, you can verbalize your feelings to others.

You can also work to give your feelings a purpose. Many people become involved in advocacy or activism after a major loss. When anger is acknowledged, it can be a force for positive change.

3. Bargaining Stage

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. Maybe you begged for more time.

These sorts of thoughts often continue after the loss. It’s natural if you’re going 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, which can be the most difficult aspect of grief for many of us.

If you identify with this stage of grief, try to be gentle with yourself. Don’t look for ways to blame yourself for your loss. There’s no way to change what happened in the past, but you do have control over the choices that you make in the future.

Examples of bargaining 

  • Obsessing over the past and thinking about what you could have done differently
  • Hoping for a magical solution or a miracle
  • Trying to negotiate with a higher power
  • Promising to do things differently if your loved one survives

Tips for dealing with the bargaining stage

Overthinking is common during this stage of grief. Instead of fixating on these thoughts and feelings, you should acknowledge them and get some perspective. It can be helpful to discuss your feelings with someone you trust, or you can try things like meditation or journaling for mental health.

When you’re caught in a guilt spiral about past events, it can also be helpful to redirect your attention to things you can change in the present. Even doing something small — like finding little ways to take care of yourself by going for a walk, reading a novel, or spending time with loved ones — can help you to regain a sense of control.

4. Depression Stage

Depression is the stage many of us identify with most as we grapple with losing a loved one. As painful as depression can be, though, it’s an indication that you’re 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 can feel your pain and intense sadness, it means you’ve begun the process of acceptance. You’re no longer denying or bargaining with it, and you’re no longer stuck in your anger.

Let yourself feel your sorrow and pain over this loss as much as you can. It’s important not to try to run away from this feeling; it’s natural, and it’s a normal part of the grief process. Seeking grief counseling at this stage may help you resolve your feelings of sadness before they turn into full-blown clinical depression.

Examples of depression

  • Feeling numb or hopeless about the future
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Sleeping all day
  • Struggling with day-to-day responsibilities

Tips for dealing with depression from grief

During the depression stage, it’s common for people to question if their feelings are a burden to those around them. This can cause some to bottle up their emotions, which can make depression worse. It’s important to allow yourself to accept support from others and open up to the people around you.

Many grieving people find it helpful to create rituals that allow them to remember the person they lost. You could try writing a letter to your loved one, making a donation in their name, or sharing stories about them with others. These kinds of rituals can help you process loss.

5. Acceptance Stage

The sad thing is some people never get to this final stage, 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’re justifying it or making it ok. You’re simply accepting it as reality and something you can’t change.

You’ll never fully forget the loss you experienced, and your grief will always be there on some level, but you’ll eventually learn to adjust, grow, and find a way to go on. Moving forward with your life can be a way to honor what you lost.

Examples

  • Appreciating the time you had together
  • Finding peace with the past
  • Working to create a new path forward

Tips for navigating acceptance

While accepting loss can feel like a betrayal, it’s anything but. Coming to terms with your loss doesn’t mean that you’ve forgotten your loved one or that you don’t care about them. It simply means that you’ve acknowledged and have accepted that your life has changed. 

Accepting a loss doesn’t mean that you’re not still grieving or that your feelings will just disappear. It’s normal to have good days and bad days. However, making peace with your loss can allow you to move forward in your life.

“The term “stages” is a bit misleading in the context of the cycle of grief. A person does not go through 1 stage at a time to gain acceptance. Rather, it’s a bit more complicated and messy. A person can be in more than 1 stage at any given time, or they may jump around from stage to stage in no specific order. They may also revisit a stage they feel like they worked through before. Emotions are messy, and so the stages of grief are also messy. There is no timeline of how long each stage will take or if one truly gains ultimate acceptance in grief. The important part is learning to work through these emotions and being okay with the loss over time.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

When to Seek Help

While not everyone experiences the 5 stages of grief and loss in the same way, the feelings associated with each stage are extremely common. Whether you’re angry, in denial, feel depressed, or are bargaining, you’re not alone. It’s okay to give yourself time to heal. If you find it hard to deal with unresolved grief or prolonged grief, there’s no shame in seeking grief support, such as seeking a grief counselor.

If your feelings of grief are overwhelming, though, or if you don’t have a strong personal support system, you may find it helpful to seek professional help with Talkspace. There’s no cure for grief, but treatment can help you to process your feelings and find healthy ways to engage with your emotions.

Sources:

1. Board P. Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss (PDQ®). Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK66052/. Published 2020. Accessed June 23, 2022.

2. Litvak P, Lerner J, Tiedens L, Shonk K. Fuel in the Fire: How Anger Impacts Judgment and Decision-Making. International Handbook of Anger. 2009:287-310. doi:10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_17. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_17. Accessed June 23, 2022.

3. Harburg E, Julius M, Kaciroti N, Gleiberman L, Schork A. Expressive/Suppressive Anger-Coping Responses, Gender, and Types of Mortality. Psychosom Med. 2003;65(4):588-597. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000075974.19706.3b. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12883109/. Accessed June 23, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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