The Five Stages of Grief

On the list of most difficult things about simply being human is experiencing the suffering of loss. Whether you’re a child or a grown-up, when a loved one or something significant to you can no longer be part of your life, the discomfort is excruciating. Greif can be viewed as taking a number of stages. A common concept is the five stages of grief. In this article we will look at the five stages of grief as well as a couple other theories of grief.

The five stages of grief: What does grief feel like?

For many people, grief might feel like this:

You wake-up, and for just a moment, things are relaxed. Then, in a rush, everything comes flooding back. You recall what you’ve lost. Your throat closes, your tummy heaves. Yesterday, you didn’t imagine you had any tears still left to cry, however right now they’re streaming down your cheeks like a waterfall. Your upper body is tight and it feels tough to breathe. You don’t understand how you will deal with the day ahead, and you feel alone in your suffering.

Grief affects each individual in a distinct way. Any significant loss begins a process known colloquially as “the stages of grief.” But what, precisely, are these phases, and how can knowledge understanding of them help the bereaved?

The five stages of grief and what Is “Grief?”

“[Grief is] a reaction to any form of loss… [It] encompasses a range of feelings from deep sadness to anger, and the process of adapting to a significant loss can vary dramatically from one person to another.” – (Mastrangelo & Wood, 2016)

The five stages of grief

Generally people know grief to be the complicated pain that comes after the death of a loved one. But this anguish isn’t exclusively associated with someone dying. You can encounter these strong emotions following a wide variety of experiences, including:

  • Breakup or divorce
  • Estrangement
  • Job loss
  • A Miscarriage
  • Limb amputation
  • Diagnosis of terminal condition
  • Moving to a new location

People sometimes feel that labelling their experience as “grief” is unsuitable unless they’re mourning the death of a person. But grief is a normal human feeling, and the loss of anybody (or anything) a person held dear can bring about a mourning period.

Everyone will have attachments, and when those connections are severed, it can be distressing. Any pet owner would feel devastated if they lost their beloved companion, and yet our society is reluctant to recognise the real suffering that comes with such a loss.

People mistakenly think that “grief” is a single emotion, but it is actually a complicated, multifaceted reaction to loss. Grief is comprised of many emotions and even actual physical reactions. It is not simply a psychological process. It can generate physical signs and symptoms in the body too.

The five stages of grief and recognising common physical symptoms of grief. These can include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Nausea or digestive problems
  • Weight reduction or increase
  • Aches and pains
  • A pounding heart
  • Breathlessness and lightheadedness
  • Sleep problems

According to Psychology Today, people are very likely to experience these types of symptoms for four to six months following a loss, and men encounter an increased risk than women.

It is important to recognise your emotions when you are mourning. Trying to compartmentalise or minimize your discomfort won’t cause it to go away and could aggravate physical symptoms. However, the only way to handle grief is to experience it.

None of us feels grief in the same manner. Your life experience is distinctive, as will be your grieving process. But for the most part, people experience a similar array of emotions any time they mourn.

There is absolutely no right or wrong way to go through the negative feelings of loss. Neither is there a right pathway to healing for all people. You will find your own personal approach in your own time frame.

Psychologists have researched grief to fully understand how people process loss. Several well-known theories seek to describe the mourning process. By understanding the stages of the grieving process, you will more fully understand your own path. It can also be validating to recognise that others share your experience.

The five stages of grief

This is the most well-known theory of grief. Most people are probably acquainted with this model, and it has become a cultural shorthand for mourning.

The five stages of grief come from the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist from Switzerland. In 1969, she published a book titled, “On Death and Dying.”

Dr. Kübler-Ross originally developed of the five stages of grief as a technique to explain the psychological progression felt by people who have been diagnosed with terminal diseases. These sufferers are grieving their own lives as they are attempting to live them.

She referred to this as process “the stages of death.” These include denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Before long, people noted how this grief cycle is applicable to the emotions faced after losing a loved one and other encounters of loss.

The grieving process is a set of emotional stages. These emotions are how humans approach a traumatic loss. They are really equally how we manage, and how we recover.

Over and above these processes, Dr. Kübler-Ross investigated how people communicate their grief to other people, seeking signs of acceptance. We also seek indications of acceptance and healing in ourselves following a major loss. Perhaps that is why you are now looking at this post currently.

As outlined by Dr. Kübler-Ross, and as supported by psychologists all over the world today, the five stages of the grieving process consist of:

Stage #1: Denial

Denial entails persuading yourself that your traumatic event has not occurred, or you deny its permanence. At times denial is an attempt to persuade others the event has not taken place, so you can also believe this yourself. But deep inside you recognise the truth.

Denial often means denying your own suffering or feeling of loss. For example, following a loved one’s death, perhaps you make an effort to act like that loss meant nothing or does not affect your daily life. If you experience denial when fired from a job, you might arrive at work as if nothing has taken place. If you are in denial during a divorce, you may postpone telling your friends and make-believe your life has not changed.

Stage #2: Anger

Individuals frequently experience angry whenever they lose someone you care about or suffer other traumatic events. Breakups often result in a significant angry period. So do divorces, medical diagnoses, deaths, and job terminations.

In this stage, you take your frustrations out on other people or even oneself. You may feel moody or agitated for weeks, snapping at colleagues, or shouting in traffic.

People are often embarrassed about anger. It is among the most misunderstood feelings. Interestingly, anger actually drives you into healing. It is a vital step in coping with the loss.

Discharging angry feelings also lets out tension, and it can give you a feeling of control. Losing an important relationship can lead one to feel impotent and powerless. Restoring control of a moment can be a good reminder that life continues on.

You should try to release your anger in ways that will not harm other people. Shouting into a pillow is a cliché for a very good reason. But if you do fly off the handle at an undeserving person, try not to be too hard on yourself. Nobody is perfect, and the people in your life are likely to be understanding if they understand you are in mourning.

Stage #3: Bargaining

If you pray, perhaps you have said a prayer to your higher power requesting them to change something that happened? Or maybe you offered to improve an area of your life, and in exchange, requesting a specific consequence? This is bargaining.

Bargaining is the wish or belief that you can simply swap one set of circumstances for another. You could be hoping to undo something that has already taken place (“I’d call Granddad every single day if only I could have him back”), or to prevent a looming deadline (“If Jo chooses not to move, I’ll tell her how I really feel”).

Bargaining brings-up challenges you don’t want to face. But in the process of trying to bargain, you pressure yourself to acknowledge that the event has taken place. By asking a higher power to bring someone back, you are implicitly declaring that they are gone.

Stage #4: Depression

Depression after a loss is not necessarily the same as clinical depression, but these two kinds of ongoing sadness impact people in a similar fashion.

Depression is described as sadness, repeated crying, loss of appetite, and/or interrupted sleep. Many people suffer aches and pains. Your immune system also becomes vulnerable, leading you to become more vulnerable to illness. Unlike clinical depression, this kind of grief-related depression usually goes by after some time.

If you feel like your loss is the end of your life or that you have lost your reason to live you may be encountering thoughts of death or suicide. Suicidal thoughts usually are not always the wish to kill oneself. They may also be a desire to “stop existing.” Wanting to go to sleep and not wake-up is a form of suicidal ideation. If you feel you no longer have a reason to live, or are having thoughts of wanting to die or harm yourself, you should immediately speak to a mental health professional. You can also call The Samaritans.

Stage #5: Acceptance

According to Dr. Kübler-Ross, acceptance is the phase when you recognise your loss. You see simply how much the loved one (or thing) meant to you. The truth of your loss is firmly rooted, and you no longer make an attempt to bargain it away. You can see a way to progress in life.

Typically, you feel peace in your acceptance. However you may still encounter sadness and anger. Accepting a loss does not always mean you’re no longer sad. It means you recognise the permanence of the situation whilst carrying on to live your life. You have not forgotten your loss, but it no longer overtakes your daily existence.

In a way, acceptance can be as distressing as any other part in this process. Keep in mind that acknowledging the permanence of loss does not mean you will ever forget your loved one. Even if it is no longer the main focus in your world, remembering them will always be important to you.

The five stages of grief: Grief is not a One-Size-Fits-All

Not everyone experiences all five of these stages, and they do not necessarily take place in a linear manner. Some individuals become trapped in a cycle of anger and depression, continually moving between phases two and four.

Dr. Kübler-Ross’s model is useful, but it isn’t the only way of thinking of grief utilised by mental health professionals.

An additional way to examine the grieving process is J. W. Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning.”

Worden posits that grief is less about passively experiencing feelings and far more to do with actively digesting your sadness.

The four tasks are:

  • To accept the reality of the loss
  • To work through the pain of grief
  • To adjust to life without the deceased
  • To maintain a connection to the deceased whilst moving on with life

This model is not only applied to death. Let’s look at its usefulness in an estrangement:

Jack has decided he can no longer talk to his mother, who financially abused him. He has cut all contact, and functionally, he no longer has a mother.

He accepts this reality by not contacting her for advice or to share good news.

He works through the pain by talking to his brother, who confirms that their mother took advantage of them both.

They adapt to their new reality by spending holiday seasons together rather than visiting with other family members and potentially seeing their mother.

Jack retains his connection by periodically looking over childhood photos and remembering the version of his mother who didn’t manipulate her children.

The process still takes time. You cannot expect to complete these activities in a single day, like a check list. But Worden’s model gives agency to the grieving party. You do not have to wallow in your sadness. Rather, you can interact with with your emotions and adjust to your new reality.

Greif and the Rituals of Remembrance

One way to engage with grief and manage it directly is by creating rituals. A ritual is any purposeful activity that symbolises something else. They give purpose to actions and engage us with something greater than ourselves.

A ritual can make you feel closer to a higher power, your family, your community, or even your inner self. They can be small, daily reminders, or larger events that occur once a year. You can invite other people into them or do them alone.

In a time of chaos, creating rituals is a way to bring control back into our lives. You may not be able to control the swirling sadness in your head, but you can control when you choose to light a candle, take a bath, or say a prayer.

Dr. Kenneth Doka encourages his clients to connect with deceased loved ones through rituals. He describes ways to categorize these ceremonies and how they can help the bereaved:

Rituals of Continuity

These rituals establish that the person or thing which is gone is still a part of your life. Despite the loss, the connection remains. For someone who had to move to a new city, this could be having a Zoom call with friends from your previous city to keep that bond strong.

Rituals of Transition

Cleaning-out the deceased’s room or donating their belongings is a major milestone. It represents accepting that they will not come home and can be painful for those left behind. You can turn this dour chore into a ritual by including friends and family.

Rituals of Affirmation

Writing a letter or a poem to your missed loved one is a way to ground your feelings and memories. This ritual allows you to connect with their memory and thank them for the good things they brought to your life.

Rituals of Intensification

These rituals connect people in a community. They are a way to reinforce a common identity and grieve together. The AIDS quilt is an example of this, as are annual gatherings of veterans’ groups.

Rituals to Commemorate

Smaller, everyday rituals can be worked into your schedule to acknowledge grief regularly. You can light a candle and say a prayer, look through old photos, or visit your loved one’s gravesite.

How Long Is the Grieving Process?

One of the most common questions a counsellor is asked is, “How long is the grieving process?” Unfortunately, no answer fits all people. Different people will have different reactions to loss. A person could feel relieved after the death of a grandparent who suffered from Alzheimer’s yet be undone by the death of a peer.

Try not to judge your emotional responses when you are bereaved. Each person has a unique life, and we cannot measure our connections to the people and places we love against another person’s. Divorce is one of the most traumatic events a person can go through, and yet some people will try to push their friends to “move on” quickly instead of mourning this loss.

Whatever you are grieving, be it a pet, a friend, a boyfriend, or a beloved job, honour your feelings. You should not feel pressured to “get over” something at someone else’s pace.

As individuals, we experience grief in our own ways and our own time. If you are suffering from grief, let yourself go through the stages in any order.

Understand your feelings as they occur and accept these emotions as you develop coping mechanisms.

How Do I Help Myself Heal After A Loss?

In the immediate aftermath of a loss, you will likely feel directionless. It can feel impossible to get through the day, and your energy will be divided. If you need specific guidance, keep these tips in mind:

Take Care of Yourself

Self-care is important every day, and especially when you are grieving. Marketing teams have co-opted the term “self-care” and turned it into shorthand for bath bombs and sheet masks, but true self-care is meeting your basic needs for hygiene, nutrition, and sleep.

Do Not Grieve Alone

You may want to retreat into your room and cry alone for days on end when you lose a loved one. While it is important to take time for yourself and process your feelings, try not to become disconnected from your community. Your family and friends will want to care for you, and though it is hard to let people in, you should let them. You will likely find that sharing your experience makes you closer to those individuals.

If you are mourning, you might not have the energy to shower or cook for yourself, but it is vital not to let your own health fail when you are bereaved. Remember that your loved ones would not want you to fall apart without them. Our guide to self-care during the holidays has tips that can be adapted to any time of year.

Seek Professional Counselling

If you need more support than your personal network can provide or struggle with your mental health before grief upended your life, consider seeing a counsellor or therapist. Grief counselling will give you the tools to understand and process your emotions.

Family counselling is useful for families who wish to heal and learn together. Whether your loved one died suddenly or after a protracted illness, it can be useful to come together and share your perspectives while an unbiased moderator guides the conversation.

Group therapy is a useful tool for those who feel isolated. If you don’t have a community to lean on, you can find one through this communal experience. There are counselling groups that cater to any number of bereaved individuals. If you lost someone to addiction, cancer, or drunk driving, there are groups that meet regularly to process these shared experiences.

What If My Grief Is Unbearable?

Sometimes, a loss is simply too much to endure. Be aware that there is a difference between grief and trauma, and the recovery processes for each are different. Trauma blocks the grieving process, and when you attempt to partake in mourning rituals, you will be retraumatized again and again.

If you are suffering from flashbacks, uncontrollable crying, panic attacks, loss of identity, intrusive thoughts, or feelings of worthlessness, you are likely experiencing trauma, and should immediately contact a professional.

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