The 5 Stages of Grief

Grief is a normal, necessary, and cathartic emotion that we experience when going through tough times. Since grief is such a complex emotion, there isn’t just one state of grief – we feel many stages of grief as a way of processing traumatic experiences and loss. As defined in the Kubler-Ross model, people go through 5 stages of grief, although these stages can look different with each individual.

1 – Denial

The first stage of grief is denial. When we go through a traumatic time or loss such as losing a loved one, our mind’s first reaction is to slip into denial. This defense mechanism is a reaction to being overwhelmed, and we try to hide from the facts in order to shield ourselves from having to process the information. This stage can last for moments or can linger on for much longer.

2 – Anger

After denial comes anger. Once we have accepted the facts of the situation, our first, gut-reaction is anger because it is one of the most carnal and simple emotions – in this sense, it is easier to experience anger than sadness. Anger can be directed at many different places – friends, family, objects, a dying or deceased loved one, or just generalized, situational anger. This anger can be expressed as resentment, and even though we may recognize that our anger is irrational, this doesn’t change our emotional reaction.

A very common target for this anger is the physician who diagnosed the illness/was unable to cure your loved one, or the person who told you the news of your loved one’s passing. If you feel you are at risk of this, make sure to give the doctor time to explain the situation and details. While it isn’t a perfect solution, this might help you rationalize the anger you are feeling and move on with your emotional process.

3 – Bargaining

The third stage of grief is bargaining. After we can no longer rely on anger to numb out the sadness of loss, we turn to “what if” statements – what if we had used a different doctor, what if we had recognized the signs sooner, etc. This is our brain trying to rewrite the past, if only mentally, to bargain with the universe for a different outcome. Even if we logically know that this rumination and cycling about the past will not change the present, there is still a feeling that if we only think hard enough, we may be able to “solve” the problem. This can lead to guilt if we feel that we could have done more or behaved differently and the outcome would have been better.

4 – Depression

After we are done bargaining, the next stage of grief is depression. There are two types of depressions that typically are parts of grief. One type of depression is related to the practical implications of the loss at hand – we worry about the costs, the interactions that we will have with other loved ones, the grief process that others are going through. The other type of depression that typically is associated with grief is related to the emotional processing of this loss. We realize that our lives will never be the same, and we grieve for this devastation.

5 – Acceptance

The final stage of grief is acceptance. Once we have processed the implications of the loss, both emotional and practical, we can move towards accepting and moving on. While this is the most peaceful stage of grief, it is not happy – it is calm. There may even be a shame in acceptance – we may feel that by accepting, we are disrespecting the memory of lost loved ones, and this is another hurdle we must overcome.

Read I Don’t Care that Your Cat Died – What Not to Say in Grief.