Grief is a natural and necessary emotional response to loss. It is a complex process that involves various psychological, social, and physical aspects that differ from person to person. Grief can occur when someone experiences the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or a significant change in life circumstances. While most people are familiar with the well-known five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), it’s important to recognize that these stages don’t necessarily follow a linear path and may vary in duration and intensity from person to person. Let’s explore each stage so you can learn how they may affect you or your loved ones going through a grieving process.
The first stage of grief is usually denial, where a person may feel numb, disoriented, or disconnected from reality. This is a protective mechanism that allows the person to absorb the shock gradually and avoid overwhelming emotions. It’s normal to want things to remain as they were before the suffering began. This could include feeling like your loved one didn’t die or holding on to hope that somehow things will improve. Although it’s natural to denounce what we can’t bear or understand initially, prolonged denial can hurt us more in the long run. Overcoming the denial stage requires taking a step back from our emotions and recognizing that loss happens in life and we’re not alone in experiencing grief.
At some point during the grieving process, it’s common for individuals to feel angry. Anger is often seen as an outward expression of the intense emotions that come with grief and can manifest in various ways. Anger might stem from feeling helpless, confused, or frustrated during the grieving process or you may feel angry with a person who died or blame yourself for not being able to prevent your loved one’s death. The emotions that are provoked during this stage may be strong and overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that they’re temporary. It’s essential to be patient with yourself as you go through this process, and try not to judge yourself too harshly. Accepting that anger is a normal part of grieving can help ease feelings of guilt and shame that often accompany this emotion while still seeking ways of coping in meaningful ways.
Bargaining is a cognitive process where individuals may attempt to negotiate or bargain with their thoughts, emotions, or with some higher power in a desperate pursuit to undo the loss. During this stage, people often make promises or act out rituals as a means of restoring what they lost. They might try to make a deal with a higher power or think if they had done things differently, the loss could have been avoided. It’s important to remember that while bargaining can help individuals regain control over their emotions in some temporary sense, it’s not necessarily reality-based or effective in coping with grief long-term. Ultimately, accepting the loss and moving towards healing is necessary for sustained emotional well-being.
The depression stage is characterized by feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness. One of the triggers of the depression stage is the realization of the extent of the loss. As reality sets in, people become aware of the deep pain and emptiness that comes with the loss they are experiencing. Another trigger is the sense of loneliness that comes from the loss. For example, losing someone can sever connections and relationships, leaving the grieving person feeling alone and disconnected, leading to depression. This stage can last for weeks or even months before eventually decreasing in intensity. Practicing acceptance, seeking support, engaging in self-care practices, and finding what works best for an individual’s situation will help alleviate the feelings associated with depression. However, if left unresolved, prolonged depressive symptoms could result in clinical depression. That’s why it’s so important to seek help from a mental health therapist if depression feelings become unmanageable.
Acceptance is the stage where we come to terms with our loss and begin to move forward to create new meaning our lives. Acceptance does not mean forgetting the memories and emotions attached to the loss, but rather it means accepting that the loss has occurred and that it has caused immense pain that we are able to work through. During the acceptance stage, we must acknowledge our emotions and allow ourselves to feel them fully. This can be difficult, especially if we have been suppressing our feelings for a long time. We also need to develop a new sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. By finding ways to create a fulfilling and purposeful life after loss, we can honor what or who we have lost and create a new normal for ourselves after loss.
Thinking about grief in these five stages is one way to conceptualize the grieving process, but it’s important to understand that grief is a complicated and multi-faceted process that looks different for everyone. Some individuals may experience intense emotions when they first encounter loss, while others may not feel anything until much later. Additionally, each individual might move through grief in their unique way and at their own pace, making it challenging to predict how long the grieving process will last or what stages they will go through. Everyone’s experience is valid. No matter what your individual experience with grief looks like, we are committed to providing empathy, understanding, and gentle support to walk alongside you in your healing journey.
Written by Lauren Presutti