Therapists’ Tips for Working Through the Stages of Grief

stages of grief

While dealing with grief, often we want to speed through it, get it over with, be done with it — but, according to therapists, it’s best to allow yourself to feel your feelings in order to truly heal.

You may have heard of the “5 stages of grief,” and while many experience similarly staggered emotions when mourning, no two people, or their experiences, are the same. Not everyone experiences each stage, or each stage in the accustomed order.

The stages of grief were developed in the late 1960s by Swiss psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who first wrote of the five-stage grief model in her book On Death and Dying. Her model was developed by her work with the terminally ill. The stages were initially created from those who were preparing for their own deaths after being given a terminal diagnosis. This was later adapted to those going through grief and it has received some criticism since. It’s important to keep in mind, there are different “methods” of dealing with grief, and the five stages is just one of how grief is processed.

Traditionally, the 5 stages of grief are listed as:

Denial

Denial can give you a little more time to hold your most intense feelings at bay as you begin to recover from the shock of the loss, before you’re ready to work through some of these challenging emotions.

Anger

Anger might be directed at nearly anyone involved in a loved one’s death. You may even feel anger toward the loved one for leaving us, or toward yourself for not being able to save them. It’s possible for this anger is directed at a higher power, or toward the diagnosis or illness itself.

Bargaining

If you’re grieving someone who was ill prior to dying, you may experience a period of bargaining when you learned of their diagnosis and watched their condition worsen. You may have had thoughts like: “Please take me instead,” you may have begged for more time, or tried to make a deal with a higher power to keep the person alive.

Depression

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 working through your anger. The full weight of the loss has hit and you’re experiencing the associated sadness.

Acceptance

Accepting someone’s death does not mean you are justifying it or making it OK. You are accepting it as reality and something you can’t change. You’re beginning to make peace with the idea of your loss.

Despite each stage not entirely being applicable to everyone, or in the order established by the Kübler-Ross model, the stages can still help us understand and process our emotions. Grief is more than just one emotion — it’s many emotions, thoughts, and feelings — a process we go through after a loss. Our Talkspace therapists chimed in to give tips on how to best conquer each stage of grief, and the associated emotions.

Talkspace Therapists On the 5 Stages of Grief

We turned to Talkspace therapists Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT; Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S; and Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP; to provide insight for those who are grieving, in order to help them progress in their grieving process.

“Have patience and recognize it’s not going to be a smooth process of going from one stage to the next; it’s often messy and there are a lot of ups and downs with the stages, going from one to another and then back again.” —Elizabeth Hinkle, LMFT

“There’s no magic way to get through each stage; overall, I think having some understanding of the process of grieving, and practicing acceptance around the experience of grief, can be a helpful pathway forward.” —Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S

A therapist’s tips by stage:

Below, Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP provides some tips to navigating each stage of grief.

  • Denial: Understand that not wanting to believe what happens is a coping mechanism that allows us to deal with the pain.
  • Anger: Let it out in a healthy way, by exercising, journaling, or talking about your feelings.
  • Bargaining: Reframe, use positive thinking to remind yourself your loved one is resting, or free of pain.
  • Depression: Do not bottle it in. Let it out in therapy, writing, drawing, or honoring your loved one by doing an activity he/she/they enjoyed.
  • Acceptance: Congratulate and reward yourself for being able to move forward. You have been resilient and your loved one would be very proud of you!

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone grieves differently, and there’s no correct way, or timeline, to grieve. Our hope is that these tips provide further insight into managing grief. With time, support from loved ones, and maybe a therapist — you will feel better.

If you have feelings of being “stuck” in grief, you may have developed persistent complex bereavement disorder — long-lasting, severe, and debilitating — grief. Be sure to seek help from a professional, as therapy, medication, or both can get you on your way to feeling better.

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