The stages of grief

Updated: Sep 5

Navigating the loss of those special to us is a complex, ongoing journey and is one of life’s most difficult experiences. Throughout life, we experience many instances of grief – caused by relationships, situations, monumental change or troubled circumstances. If you are here because you have lost someone you care about, we wish to acknowledge your loss and emotions you may be experiencing. Experiencing a loss during COVID-19 may bring additional challenges and your experience of grief may not be the same as before. In light of national Loss and Grief Awareness Week, we will explore the Five Stage Grief Model to increase our understanding of the grieving experience.





Psychiatrist Kübler-Ross developed the five-stage grief model when working with terminally ill patients, with the purpose of summarising common responses to loss that many people have. The five stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The purpose of these stages is not to suggest that there is a typical response to loss – as our grief is as unique and individual as we are. Instead, Kübler-Ross emphasises that these stages are not linear - some people may experience all stages and others may not experience any of them. The model is now most commonly understood as a framework to help us in learning to live with loss. Understanding each stage may be useful when navigating your journey and to identify what you may be feeling. Each stage is briefly described below:


Denial

The first stage of grieving initially helps us survive the loss. Life may feel overwhelming and lack meaning. We may start to deny the news of the loss and consequently be in a state of shock and feel numb. It is common in this stage to wonder how life will go in this different state. In this stage, we use denial to not live in actual reality, but instead live in a ‘preferable’ reality where circumstances may be different. However, denial can assist in pacing our feelings of grief and staggering its impact. Denial is a way of letting in only as much as we can handle. It is common to ask yourself questions while beginning to accept the reality of the loss. The journey of healing will start, but in doing so, you may find that the feelings denied initially may begin to surface.


Anger

Anger is a necessary part of the healing process. It is common to think why this is happening to you, why things could not be different, and why life is unfair. Some may redirect their anger to their interpersonal relationships. Mental health professionals and researchers agree that anger in this stage needs to be felt and serves the purpose of anchoring or grounding us to reality. Some may feel disconnected from reality, isolated or deserted during a grief event. Here, the direction of anger towards something or someone may act as a bridge to connect to people again and to bind us to reality.


Bargaining

When something bad happens, some of us may catch ourselves making a deal in exchange of experiencing the loss. We tend to falsely believe that the grief can be avoided by making a type of negotiation, which is termed as bargaining. It may sound like a dialogue of “if you change this, I’ll change this”. Some of us may pray for a negotiation and adopt many “If only…” and “What if...” statements. The underlying intention is the desire for life to return to as it was before the loss. This stage is often accompanied by feelings of guilt, as our “if onlys” may point us to find faults within ourselves or what we think we could have done differently. This stage can be characterised by remaining in the past as we try to negotiate our way out of the pain and hurt. It is important to remember that these stages are responses to feelings, and you may sit in these response for minutes, hours or weeks as you transition between stages.


Depression

A commonly accepted form of grief - depression may represent the sense of emptiness that is commonly felt when we return to accepting the loss. For some, the grief may occur at a deeper level and this stage may feel as it is ongoing. Some may experience a fogginess of intense sadness, withdraw from usual activities or find it difficult to be their usual selves. It is important to acknowledge that experiencing a loss is a depressing situation, and feeling depressed is a normal and appropriate response. It is encouraged to speak to a mental health professional if you are finding this time particularly difficult, and to connect with your support systems. If you experience suicidal thoughts during this time, please contact your GP or trusted health professional immediately.


Acceptance

The last stage of grief, acceptance, is often confused with the notion of everything being all right, which is not the case. Most people do not feel all right about the loss of a loved one, but this stage is about accepting the reality of the loss and acknowledging this new reality as permanent. Although we can never replace what is lost, we may make new connections, change, grow, reconnect, re-invest in our pleasures and begin to live again. Finding acceptance looks different for everyone and can be a process of adjustment and readjustment. Some may feel guilty in finding this acceptance as if they are betraying their loved ones by doing so. It is important to remember that we cannot begin to live again until we have given grief its time.


If you or a loved one is having a difficult time coping with an event of grief, please contact a health professional or mental health provider. Seek help immediately if you experience thoughts of suicide, and call 111 if you are in physical or immediate danger. If you believe you are suffering from depression, feelings of detachment, or experience a sudden change in behaviour for more than two weeks, please speak to your GP or trusted health professional. Our free 24/7 national Anxiety Helpline is also available for support (0800 ANXIETY; 0800 269 4389).


Further resources:

Skylight Trust – Articles on different types of loss and grief

Grief Support Services – Further info and support for people dealing with grief


References:

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2009). The five stages of grief. In Library of Congress Catalogin in Publication Data (Ed.), On grief and grieving (pp. 7-30).

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss. Simon and Schuster.