It is a natural reaction to loss that varies depending on the nature and significance of the loss, our personality, coping differences, and prior life experiences. Even though grief is unique to each person, the variety of emotional experiences one goes through can be explained through distinct stages of grief.
What is Grief?
Grief can be described as a natural reaction to loss; it is the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love and/or value is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense your grief will be.
Very intense grief typically creates a sense of being out of control due because of the overwhelming feelings being experienced. Some examples of loss include the death of a loved one, ending an important relationship, job loss, the loss of independence through disability, including many others.
However, even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief, such as graduating from college or moving away from home. Whatever the loss, the grief process is highly personal and there should be no shame in grieving. Despite the general stages of the grieving process, one should not believe that grieving is appropriate only in specific situations or that it has a universal timeframe.
The Stages of Grief
In 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist called Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her theory of the five stages of grief, also known as the “Kübler-Ross model”. The theory was based on her studies of patients facing terminal illness and the ways in which impending death affects a person and their environment. It has become applicable to other types of negative life changes and personal losses. In her work, Kübler-Ross explains how the patient, their family and loved ones all coped with loss.
According to the Kübler-Ross model, the stages of grief include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (Kübler-Ross, 2005).
Denial – “This can’t be happening to me”.
The first stage helps us survive the loss and is about finding a way to get through each day. It is a temporary way of dealing with the rush of overwhelming emotions; a defense mechanism. We are in a state of shock and denial, life makes no sense, and most people describe feeling “numb”. In this stage, we wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, and why we should go on.
Denial helps pace the feelings of grief, letting in only as much as one can handle. According to Kübler-Ross, when you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, only then has the healing process actually begun. Hence, when denial starts to fade the feelings that were being denied gradually surface.
Anger – “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
Anger is paramount in the healthy healing process. Even though your anger might seem endless, the more you feel/express it, the more it will begin to dissipate. However, anger can have no boundaries, extending from the loss itself onto anger with friends, family, loved ones, and other people who had been involved in the loss. Anger can go so far as to possibly distort the bigger questions one might have of faith and fairness in life in general.
It must be recognised that underneath all the anger is immense pain, and some people will say that their anger is just another indication of the intensity of the love that has been lost. Throughout this phase, many psychologists will remind us that we know more about suppressing the anger than adequately feeling it and sharing it.
Bargaining – “Make this not happen, and in return I will ___.”
Sometimes we begin with bargaining before the actual loss occurs. After the loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. Our head becomes full of “what if” and “if only” statements. Consequently, guilt often accompanies bargaining, and during this stage many might begin to find fault in themselves and what they believe they could have done differently.
This stage can trap us into living in the past, so we must be reminded that bargaining is a natural response of trying to negotiate our way out of the sheer pain of the loss.
Depression – “I’m too sad to do anything.”
After bargaining, our attention moves into the present. The empty feelings become ever so real, and grief sets in on a deeper level. Depression is another appropriate response in the grieving process, yet we often treat it as an unnatural state which needs immediate fixing. If we consider grief as a means of healing, then depression is one of the steps along the way.
It must be noted though, that despite the considerably shared symptomology between grieving and clinically diagnosed major depression, there are still very distinct differences to take into account. Having major depression prior to grieving can further complicate the grief process. Also, without handling the depression stage the next stage of acceptance is highly unlikely.
Acceptance – “I am at peace with what happened.”
In spite of the fact that most people say they don’t ever feel the same, the main misconception about this stage is thinking that you will to be “okay” after a great loss. No one is ever okay with a significant loss, and we might never really like our new reality, but eventually we accept it and learn to live with it.
At first, you might try to live as before, but with time you will learn to readjust. Sometimes finding this acceptance can result from having more good days than bad ones. With time, we learn to make new connections, listen to our needs, and invest in our friendships, but we cannot accept any of it if we have not given grief its time.
As we learn about the stages of grief, we must keep in mind that the emotional processing of grief is highly personal; people grieve in their own ways, and not everyone has to experience each one of the aforementioned stages. Likewise, it is not necessary to go through the stages in their exact order, and we might go back and forth between two stages before fully moving onto the next.
There is also no specific time period for each stage. One person may struggle for months, or even years. to move through to a place of acceptance, whereas another may experience the stages of grief fairly quickly (in a matter of weeks). Within this context, psychologists are also exploring “post-traumatic growth”, a positive psychological change as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning (Tedeshi, 2004).
Additional ways that can help cope with the grief process are setting goals (something to look forward to), doing things that nourish and replenish you, developing/re-establishing routine, finding help with other sources of stress, feeling secure with people you trust, finding hope and comfort from those who experienced something similar, and giving yourself the right to change your mind.
Be aware of drug and alcohol use during this period, as you cannot prevent or cure grief. The only way out of it is through the grief process itself. A final reminder would be to be prepared around holidays and anniversaries as they can bring up painful memories.
After all, grief is our body’s way of responding to difficult loss and trauma. Albeit the five stages are being used as a general framework, we must respect that the grieving process is highly individualised and has no set timetable. Whatever the cause of the grief might be, it is important to stay healthy while dealing with the pain that accompanies it, along with keeping in mind that the pain is tempered as time passes.
MSc Psychology, Student Counselor
Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. New York ; Toronto: Scribner.
Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.