Understanding the Stages of Grief Empowers You

People sometimes comment, "What, they are stages of grief? Doesn’t everyone work through their grief differently?" Absolutely. However, many persons who are grieving appreciate having a general guide for working through their losses. When someone is in the middle of profound grief, it can provide a very strong sense of normalcy and calm to know that many people struggle with some of the same issues that we are struggling with. Furthermore, although everyone's grief journey is different, there is a general pattern that seems to fit for most people--though not necessarily in the same order, and certainly not on the same timetable. 

Where Does This Model Come From?

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a pioneer in the area of grief and loss. Her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” had a major impact on how our society thinks about the dying process. However, this model has applicability well beyond death and dying, and it has indeed been successfully applied to other grief and loss situations, including but not limited to

  • The end of an intimate relationship or friendship
  • Loss of a job
  • Loss of one's physical capacity and/or independence
  • Moving to a new area--and thus leaving a community behind
  • Loss of sexual function

What are the Five Stages of Grief?

It is very important to emphasize that these stages are NOT linear, in other words, they don't proceed in an orderly fashion. Expect to bounce around from various stages,  backward and forward. That's completely normal. 

  1. Denial: Loss, especially sudden loss, can be overwhelming and shocking. Thus, our first reaction is often denial. We want things to continue as is, and it can be very hard to accept a new reality.
  2. Anger: “This is bullshit!” exclaimed one of my clients when discussing her reaction to the sudden death of her husband of 20+ years. Her reaction makes sense, doesn’t it? Life is, at times, very unfair. I encouraged her to express this anger and release it in numerous ways, until she felt it subsiding. It took time, but eventually her anger did subside.
  3. Bargaining: Depending on the situation, this stage doesn’t always fit. However, for someone who is facing their own death or the loss of a lifestyle, job, or loved one, the notion of bargaining is certainly very understandable. We start saying to ourselves, to others, or to God “If you can just get me through this, I will do X, Y, and Z!”
  4. Depression: At some point, the reality of the loss sinks in, and so does the sadness and depressed feelings that come with this. We begin to accept what has happened or is happening. We may experience regrets about things we’ve said or done at this stage. Sometimes people can get stuck at this stage. If you feel that this is true for you, seek professional help. Also, check out my page on depression for further insights on that condition. 
  5. Acceptance: If we are able to face our denial and anger, get past our desire to bargain, and accept and work through our depression, we can eventually reach a point of acceptance with regard to the loss. It is commonly misunderstood that having acceptance means being okay with what happened to you. This isn't the case. We may always grieve the loss, but we have a level of acceptance that allows us to move forward in life and face what is next. In other words, the loss is put into context within our life as a whole.  
  6. In his recent book "Finding Meaning", renowned grief expert Dr. David Kessler (who worked for many years with Dr. Kubler-Ross), proposed a sixth stage, called....you guessed it....finding meaning. In this excellent and very powerful book, Dr. Kessler talks about the sudden death of his own son, and shares his own experiences and those of many others in the quest to make sense of tragedy and move forward in life. 

While there's no doubt the grief cycle is a very individual process, one thing that is certain and that applies to everyone is this: if you deny or stuff your feelings inside of you, this will backfire. The grief energy will manifest one way or another, and if not expressed, one of the following will likely result:

Numbness, and a general bluntness in emotional expression, is a very common observation of clients who initially consult with me about their grief. Counseling can help you work through this.

Physical ailments such as high blood pressure, hypertension, etc.

Mental health problems such as anger, anxiety, depression, etc. 

In order to work through one's grief, it is vital that we allow ourselves to feel the unpleasant emotions and vulnerability that are a natural part of the process.

It is equally important that we have support in doing this--whether that be from friends, family, a professional counselor, or other supportive presence in our lives. Whatever you do, please don't stuff it inside; the result will be emotionally toxic for you. Help is available. You can get through this. 

Additional information on the Five Stage Model of Grief.

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Do I Ever Get Over This?

Having helped many people cope with numerous losses, and hearing clients lament that other people tell them to just 'get over it', I should emphasize that none of this is easy! In fact, dealing with a severe loss is one of the hardest things in life.

However, with courage, as well as openness to and acceptance of our emotional reality, it is most certainly possible to come to a level of acceptance. Please understand that acceptance does NOT mean that you are completely at peace with your loss. Obviously we still feel hurt and pain. However, once we have moved through the stages of grief and loss, we reach a place where we have integrated the loss into our larger realm of our life and thus are able to move on with our lives. We do not forget about the loss, but now we have a level of acceptance about it that empowers us to move forward. 

As much as anything, ongoing self-care is crucial to our well-being. Make it a part of your life, if it's lacking. You will be much happier and (more helpful to those around you) if you take care of yourself! Click here for more information on specific and healthy self-care routines. 

It's Not an Orderly Process

The stages of grief look very orderly on a sheet of paper (or a webpage). However, it’s important to note that we don’t usually move through the stages in a 1-2-3-4-5 fashion. We often move back and forth through various stages, and it often feels like we take one step forward then one step back. Keep at it. Grief therapy can help, too. Feel free to contact me for a consultation about your loss.

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