grief

Explaining the Five Stages of Grief and Their Significance

Grief is universal, but also very personal. At one stage in everyone’s life, there is likely to be at least one encounter with grief. It could be related to the death of a loved one, the end of a long-term relationship, or the loss of a job.

We all grieve in different ways. However, there are some common elements in the stages and the order of feelings people experience when going through grief. Whatever the change that alters the course of your life, it is important to find effective ways of dealing with grief.

In this article, we discuss the five stages of grief, their meanings, and when to seek professional help.

What Is Grief?

Before we can discuss the five stages of grief, it helps to explain the concept. Grief happens naturally as a response to loss. In most cases, the pain resulting from a loss can be so overwhelming that the person experiences all forms of intense emotions ranging from sadness, guilt, and disbelief to anger.

Sometimes, the pain resulting from grief can be disruptive to the extent of disrupting physical and mental health.

Coping with the loss of something or someone you care about is a painful experience. While many people associate grief with the death of a loved one, it can come from any form of loss, including:

  • End of a long-term relationship
  • Loss of a job
  • Serious illness
  • Retirement
  • Miscarriage
  • Loss of safety following a trauma
  • Death of a pet
  • End of a friendship, etc.

You should understand that, regardless of your loss, you shouldn’t feel ashamed of your feelings. Don’t think that grieving should be reserved for specific things (this phenomena is referred to disenfranchised grief). If the object, person, or animal was important to you, it is okay to grieve and go through the stages on your own pace.

What Are the 5 Stages of Grief in the Kübler-Ross Model?

While many theories have been created to explain grief stages, one of the most popular remains the one presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kübler-Ross, a renowned psychiatrist, suggested that people go through five distinct stages when grieving loss.

The five stages, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance form part of the framework that makes up people’s learning to live with loss. This model is a tool meant to help grievers with framing and identifying what they are feeling.

But you should remember that the five stages are not stops in a linear timeline of grieving. That means that not everyone follows the same order when going through the five stages. The process of grieving is as unique as each person going through it.

Let’s briefly explore these stages.

Denial

According to the Kübler-Ross stages of grief theory, the first stage in the grieving process is denial. Sometimes the pain from losing someone or something can be so overwhelming that grievers get to lose themselves to it.

Denial helps us minimize the overwhelming impact of that pain. As the person tries to process the reality of the magnitude of the loss, they are also striving to get through emotional pain.

When you lose someone or something that is important to you, your reality shifts completely during that moment of loss. If it is profound, the human brain needs some time before it can adjust to what has happened. In this state, you may find yourself struggling to find a way to move forward with the new reality. The information can be overwhelming and the imagery that needs processing can shock one’s system.

The objective of denial helps to slow down the process of digesting information taking you through the stages gradually. Instead of risking the possibility of being overwhelmed by the loss, denial allows you to pause the process, taking things one step at a time.

This does not mean you are not pretending that you have not experienced an immense loss. Rather, it means that you are still trying to understand and absorb what is happening.

Anger

It is a common thing for us to experience anger when we experience immense loss. When we lose someone or something, anger is a way of telling us that we are trying to adjust while still going through immense emotional turmoil.

You don’t have to be vulnerable to feel anger after losing someone or something you love. However, in most cases, people tend to accept being angry over confessing being scared. Anger allows a person to express their feelings without fearing being rejected or judged.

The unfortunate thing is that anger is usually the first thing we feel when releasing emotions. This often leaves people feeling isolated as they go through overwhelming feelings. Those around the grieving person may also deem them unapproachable at a time when social support and comfort are most needed.

Bargaining

After experiencing loss, grievers often look for ways to minimize or get rid of the pain at this stage. Losing someone or something you love can push you to want to do almost anything possible to avoid facing the pain. Different people bargain in different ways, making promises if only the pain can be reduced or alleviated.

Those who are religious tend to make promises to God. Bargaining, in this sense, means that you are trying to appeal to a higher power and request a chance to change the circumstances.

When faced with overwhelming loss, human beings tend to turn to a higher power as they realize that the happenings are beyond their control. When you start to understand that nothing you do can improve the situation, the feeling of helplessness can push you to protest through bargaining. This stage is your way of trying to gain control over an event that seems to be beyond your control.

Bargaining is also the stage in the grieving process where the person starts to look back at the interactions or moments when they could have done or been better. Maybe you told the person you have lost something you did not intend to or wish you could turn back time and make things better.

Depression

Depression is the fourth grief stage in the Kübler-Ross model. As a person processes loss, there is a period where they start to calm down and examine the reality of the situation. At this stage, we feel like there is no point continuing to bargain and have to confront the situation as it is.

It is at this stage when we begin to truly feel the loss of the people of things we love. As the feelings of panic start to reduce, the weight of the loss becomes more evident. It is during such moments when the sadness we feel in relation to the event grows and we become less sociable.

While depression after losing someone or something is a normal part of the grieving process, dealing with it can be very isolating. If you or someone you care about is struggling with depression, the best thing to do is to see a therapist.

Acceptance

The third stage in the grieving process is acceptance. When a person starts to acknowledge and accept the loss, it does not mean that they no longer feel the pain associated with losing something or someone. Rather, it means that they have stopped resisting the reality of what has taken place and learned to live with it.

Of course, people experiencing the acceptance phase may still struggle with moments of sadness and regret. However, they are less angry and look forward to the future and what it may bring.

The 7 Stages of Grief: An Alternative Model

While the Kübler-Ross model is generally accepted and widely cited, there are other models that can be used to explain the stages of grief. Another one uses a seven-stage process to help with understanding grief. According to this model, those who have lost people or things they care about go through these grief stages:

  • Denial and shock — where feelings are numbed, and you don’t believe what has happened.
  • Pain and guilt — the loss seems unbearable, and you feel that you are making life hard for others.
  • Anger and bargaining — you feel annoyed, lash out at others, and start to negotiate with a higher power to get relief.
  • Depression — you start to isolate yourself from others as you try to process and reflect on the loss.
  • The upward turn — the feelings of pain and anger has reduced, and you are more relaxed and calmer.
  • Reconstruction and working through — here, you start to put the pieces of your life back together and consider what the future holds.
  • Hope and acceptance — at this point, you start to gradually accept the new reality and hope for a better future.

When to Seek Professional Help with Grief?

The pain associated with grief can sometimes make people want to isolate themselves from friends and family and retreat into a shell. However, having people who support you is critical when healing from loss. Even people who are usually not comfortable talking about their feelings should learn to express themselves when grieving. The most important thing is to avoid isolating yourself.

Also, while pain and depression are normal during grieving, complicated or clinical depression should be a cause of concern. If left untreated, it can lead to serious psychological and emotional problems, including suicidal ideation. However, grief therapy can help people struggling with depression get better and move through grief stages healthily.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression due to grief, licensed therapists from Calmerry can help manage your feelings. They will help you learn healthy ways to cope with your grief and recover from it.

Kate Skurat

Kate Skurat

Licensed Mental Health Counselor | Washington, United States

Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has worked in healthcare since 2017. She primarily treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and grief, as well as identity, relationship and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience has focused on individual and group counseling, emergency counseling and outreach. Read more