Grief is intense and overwhelming sorrow. We often associate grief with death, but you may experience grief when reflecting on any loss. You may experience grief after a long relationship has ended. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people reported feeling grief over the loss of what the next coming months would bring. Think of how much people lost due to COVID-19. Grief was a natural reaction.
But grief is not just one emotion. Grieving a person’s death, for example, may take weeks, months or even years. During this time, you may experience grief through different emotions.
These emotions are laid out in the five stages of grief. In this video, we’re going to break down those stages of grief and how they guide you through the grieving process. While many of the emotions associated with grief have a negative connotation, they may be necessary or even helpful to the person in mourning.
Who Created The Stages of Grief?
The five stages of grief are also known as the Kübler-Ross model. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist whose work centered around terminally ill patients. In 1969, she wrote On Death and Dying, which introduced the five stages of grief.
On Death and Dying originally applied the five stages of grief solely to people experiencing a terminal illness. Since its publication, Kübler-Ross has stated that the five stages of grief could be applied to anyone experiencing grief. And this includes grieving a breakup, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, etc.
The book received immense praise, and Kübler-Ross was named as the “100 Most Important Thinkers" of the 20th Century by Time Magazine.
Psychiatrists have expounded upon her work and additional stages have been proposed. For now, we’re going to focus on the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model.
The Five Stages of Grief Are…
The first stage in this model is denial. This stage can be especially troubling for family and friends of the person grieving. A person in denial may appear to not fully grasp the reality of the situation. They “can’t believe” that their loved one has died or they tell people that they are fine without any help.
This stage is troubling because it often doesn’t reflect reality. Friends and family may feel frustrated with a loved one who is in denial. They may also worry that the weight of their loss may come crashing down on the person at any minute. But we enter this stage of denial to prevent the weight of loss to come crashing down on us.
Denial is often thought of as a defense mechanism, or a way to “dose” the overwhelming feelings of loss. We may use the analogy of a coffee drinker. A coffee drinker can handle a few sips of caffeinated coffee at a time, but the idea of chugging a whole pot at once can be unpleasant and unhealthy. In the same way, denial allows us to “sip on” the feelings of grief without letting it overwhelm us completely.
Denial becomes unhealthy only when it prevents someone from moving through the other stages of grief. At some point, a person will have to face the reality of their loss and process their emotions accordingly. It’s certainly painful, but it’s the only way to move through grief and come out a stronger and more accepting person.
The next stage of grief is anger. This is another feeling that prevents us from addressing grief head-on. We may transform our grief into anger and direct it toward the person who we lost, the world at large, or even things that have nothing to do with the loss.
Say, for example, you are grieving the end of a relationship. You may direct your anger at your ex. Maybe you are grieving the loss of a family member to cancer. You may direct your anger at the cancer itself, the healthcare system, the doctors, your higher power, etc.
Anger allows us to work through emotions without being completely vulnerable. Unfortunately, this can cause tension for friends and family who may not be grieving as intensely. Anger can push away the people who are here to support us through this time.
Again, anger is natural, but can become unhealthy. But once the anger is exhausted, a person can face their emotions head-on and ask for help.
Bargaining is the third step of grief. During the stages of denial and anger, we avoid vulnerability. But a person grieving cannot avoid being vulnerable for long. Bargaining is a person’s last-ditch effort to regain control over their situation and avoid vulnerability.
When someone is in the “bargaining” stage, they are attempting to explain the loss or “make a deal” in order to avoid the loss altogether.
Bargaining looks very different among people who are religious or not religious. A classic example of bargaining is begging to God for the grief to end. They may say that they’ll never cheat or never skip church again, only if God can give them their loved one back.
But bargaining is not limited to the religious. Other examples of bargaining include:
- “If I had only gone to the doctor sooner, I could have prevented the spread of the disease.”
- “If I had only checked in with them, they wouldn’t have died.”
- “If I had been a better boyfriend, then I wouldn’t be so alone.”
Like denial, this can help to slow the overwhelming feelings that come with loss. Humans are meaning-making creatures, and therefore have a natural inclination to “make sense” of loss. Unfortunately, sometimes these losses cannot be explained.
Depression is the fourth stage of grief, but it’s the one that we most commonly associate with loss and the grieving process. During this stage, the person faces their loss head-on. They become vulnerable and feel overwhelmed with sadness.
To an outsider, depression can appear to be the quietest of all the stages. A person who is depressed may choose to isolate themselves from others. Socializing, joking, or even getting out of bed can feel too exhausted for someone experiencing depression.
Someone in this stage may be exhausted by the thoughts they are experiencing, often for the first time throughout the grieving process. They may question their own mortality. They may be asking themselves how they can go on without their loved one, their job, their relationship, etc. Their hobbies, job, or day-to-day routine may seem pointless.
Again, while this is natural for someone experiencing grief, it can be dangerous. Depression may lead to suicide or other destructive behaviors. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) today and speak to a counselor.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of a dark tunnel. The final stage of grief is acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t equate to happiness or complete healing. A person who is grieving may still miss their loved one. A person who is dying of a terminal illness may still fear what is to come. But the grieving person accepts their loss and begins to move forward while acknowledging the reality of the situation. There is little effort made to change that reality, even if the reality is painful.
Just because a person has begun to accept their reality doesn’t mean the grieving process is “done.” Denial, anger, or any of the other stages may still be present after a person has entered acceptance. It is also normal for a person to experience these stages “out of order.”
Alternative Stages of Grief
Kübler-Ross’s model was developed as she observed and worked with people experiencing terminal illness. She did not conduct experiments or gather evidence to back up the existence of the model. Since 1969, studies on the five stages of grief have offered conflicting opinions.
Other psychologists have offered additional or alternative stages of grief. David Kessler co-authored a book with Kübler-Ross titled On Grief and Grieving. In 2019, he proposed that there was a sixth stage of grief: meaning.
The five stages of grief suggests that there is a path that we may follow while experiencing grief. But grief ultimately looks different when experienced by different people. If you are experiencing loss, reach out to family and friends for support. Reach out to a professional for help. It is possible to move on after a loved one’s death or an especially heart-wrenching breakup. You may just need some support along the way.