The stages of grief were first introduced in 1969 in the book On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross that chronicled terminally ill patients.
Since then the 5-stages of grief model has been adopted by the psychological / self-help community as the standard for identifying and processing grief and loss in its many forms.
Of note is that the stages are dynamic, you may progress through the steps in order or bounce around throughout them until you finally come to terms with your loss. Understanding what the stages represent will help you through the process
The stages are physical, emotional, and social in nature. Grief has the habit of paralyzing you and preventing you from participating in your usual activities.
DOES THE 5-STAGE MODEL APPLY TO EVERYONE?
The original 5-stage model of grief was designed for people diagnosed with terminal illness. Throughout the years it has grown to encompass any form of grief or loss. The author also noted at a later date that the stages were designed to illustrate how a person grieves, not the order that loss is felt.
There is also criticism that this model does not cross over to other cultures. Although limitations have been identified, the 5-stages of grief model are a helpful framework in understanding how you grieve.
Grief has a habit of resurfacing in the future. Being aware of the stages and cyclic nature of them will help you cope when intense emotion overcomes you.
WHAT IS GRIEF
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grief as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavements.”
Grief is not solely about death – the loss of anything significant including a friendship, relationship, pet, job, housing, becoming an empty nester, divorce, or anything that causes disruption to your life that means a lot to you can trigger the grief process.
STEP 1: DENIAL AND ISOLATION
Denial is a defense mechanism that allows a barrier of numbness and dislocation between you and the reality of what is happening.
When in denial you will simply not believe the situation is real. Your mind will block events that are too overwhelming to you.
Denial as a coping mechanism shuts out everything else, allowing you to get through the initial crisis and shock.
After the initial shock, you will often lose interest in everything around you. You will feel that nothing is worthwhile.
You will feel like your life is meaningless and you just can’t go on.
Simple tasks may be too complicated to complete. Feeling totally overwhelmed by everything will stop you in your tracks, adding to the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.
You will shrink back into your own world. Believing that no one will understand what you are going through.
You will have a tendency to isolate.
STEP 2: ANGER
Anger can be irrational. You will find ways to assign blame to everyone and everything else, including the person, place, or thing you have lost.
The pain you feel has to be expressed in some way. Lashing out in anger and projecting your pain onto other people is the easiest and most explosive way to act out.
People who are trying to help and soothe you will be the recipients of your projected anger.
There is resentment for being put in this situation. You will assign all sorts of blame for all of the problems and new responsibilities you are suddenly faced with.
You will assign blame to yourself for not being able to influence or prevent the situation from happening.
You will most likely curse your higher power and lose faith and hope that everything happens for a reason. You will wonder if you are being punished for something.
Anger and frustration will manifest as crying jags, yelling at people, pets and objects. You may even throw things around. Taking your anger out on other people or inanimate objects will not make you feel better.
If you do not get a handle on anger you are in danger of alienating the people who want to help you.
Anger will cloud everything you say and do until you gain control of it. Anger will stop you from facing reality and in all likelihood will damage your relationships with those close to you.
STEP 3: BARGAINING
Making promises to higher powers that you will either stop doing or start doing something different is where you start to bargain.
If only the powers that be will give that person, relationship, pet, friend or loss back. Or stop the process of disease or dissolution.
Making all sorts of promises is unrealistic. You cannot change the situation, no matter how hard you pray or bargain, threaten or plea. The Universe is not yours to control.
Getting caught in a negative self-talk cycle, and focusing on what you could have, should have, or would have done to influence the situation is not going to change the outcome.
Another dysfunctional coping mechanism is playing the tape through to an imaginary end where everything works out the way you want it to. You will believe that this would have been the reality ‘if only.’
You want everything to go back to the way it was, or prevent the event from happening. Staying stuck in the bargaining or dreaming mindset will stop you from having a look at your part or from looking at the situation realistically.
You cannot in any form or fashion change the outcome.
STEP 4: DEPRESSION
Once you realize that nothing you can, will or could have done will change the outcome, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness will occur.
You will believe that you cannot go on without the person, place or thing. You won’t be able to function. Your daily activities will come to a grinding halt.
Starting to beat yourself up because in your mental health state you are lacking the energy or efficiency you usually display is common. You are often your own worst critic.
Adding your own guilt into the equation will not help.
There will be periods of time where you simply don’t have the energy or drive to do anything. You will get stuck in your own mind.
The fact you have to go through the process of putting things in order, administering instructions, arranging new details, having to say goodbye to the person, place or thing. There are so many other activities vying for your attention.
Gone is the way of life as you know it. The uncertain future is petrifying. You don’t know if you can do it, or if you can go on.
Guilt over the negative feelings you have towards the situation. Feeling guilty over things you could have done or said, not wanting to go on, not wanting to face the future is common.
Depression can be episodic and will pass. Short term depression does not indicate a larger mental health problem. Depression is part of the healing process as you come to terms with your new reality.
If you are unable to work through this on your own, do not hesitate to seek help. There are certain times in life where you simply do not have the experience or expertise to figure it all out
STEP 5: ACCEPTANCE
Understand that the chapter of your life that included the person, place or thing, has ended. You don’t lose the memories because the situation changes. You have the opportunity to make new memories for yourself.
Acceptance includes understanding that nothing you could have done would have made a difference.
You are accepting that the loss has happened and you begin to rebuild and repair your life so that you can again function and get through your days.
Accepting something doesn’t mean you are ok with it, that you no longer feel pain, or suffer from lasting effects of the loss. It does not mean that you will forget.
Acceptance is the process of coming to terms with what has actually occurred. It gives you the peace of mind to move forward.
Your ability to function, and to enjoy your days will return. Your confidence will return.
The paralysis you felt during the early stages of grief will ease. Your life will get back on track.
You will start with small steps until your life is once again fulfilling and happy.
HOW YOU CAN HELP YOURSELF
The grief process doesn’t follow a linear path. Each stage is experienced over time, sometimes more than once. You will bounce between stages until you finally move through acceptance, and beyond.
Allowing yourself to actively participate in each stage and understand that mixed emotion and irrational thoughts are part of the process.
There is no time limit on grief. Know there will be a time when remembrance doesn’t feel like a knife to the heart, it will progress to recalling the good things and the lessons you learned from it.
Everyone has a level of personal resiliency. This means you have the ability to survive and move on from traumatic events. Using your strengths to get through loss will make the process easier.
There will be events that trigger strong grief reactions even years later. Be assured that you still have control of the situation, and this too will pass.
Communities often have free drop-in grief support groups. If not, ask your health professional if they offer grief counseling.
Talking to someone about your feelings and getting help to process and cope with the situation is beneficial if you find yourself truly stuck in any one stage of grief or are having trouble making sense of everything that is happening right now.
Tuck this knowledge away so in the event you are prepared for some of the ups and downs of the grieving process. It will give you some comfort to know that you will be ok.
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- The five stages of grief. https://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/
- Baier, M., & Buechsel, R. (2012). A model to help bereaved individuals understand the grief process. Mental Health Practice, 16(1), 28–32. https://doi.org/10.7748/mhp2012.09.16.1.28.c9281
- TRAYLOR, E. S., HAYSLIP, B., KAMINSKI, P. L., & YORK, C. (2003). Relationships between Grief and Family System Characteristics: A Cross Lagged Longitudinal Analysis. Death Studies, 27(7), 575–601. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481180302897
- DePauw, M. E., & Luther, J. B. (1988). Grief as a Process: What Helps, What Hurts, What Heals. Journal of Counseling & Development, 67(2), 115. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.1988.tb02059.x