Grief is a powerful emotion that will touch virtually everyone at some point in their lives. It’s commonly experienced after the death of a loved one, the end of a meaningful relationship, or a traumatic event. While it’s a common human experience, it’s also a deeply personal one. There are many different ways in which an individual may feel and express their grief; the five stages model is just one way of breaking down the different phases of this experience. It may not apply to everyone, but it can provide comfort if it resonates with you. Read on to learn more about the five stages along with ways to get support as you move through your own grief.
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About The Five Stages Of Grief Model
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced the model of the five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying in 1969. Since then, some have expanded on the stages and their typical manifestations. Others reject the model entirely, believing it to be outdated. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler address this in On Grief and Grieving, 2014, saying: “The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives”.
According to Kübler-Ross, the stages are not stops on a linear timeline but rather a framework to help people learn to live with their loss. The various stages give you a way to identify your feelings so you can begin to work through them and process your grief. There is no set order for experiencing them, and some people don’t go through all the stages. Others may naturally return to stages they experienced previously while skipping past others altogether.
The bottom line is that each person will experience grief in a different way, and models like this one simply serve as tools for those who find them helpful rather than prescriptive templates for how one should live through feelings of grief. If you don’t find the five stages model helpful, you might look into others such as the dual process model (DPM), the six-R processes of mourning, or the four phases of grief.
“People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another.
We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one”. –On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler
The Five Stages Of Grief
If you or a loved one is going through the process of grief, it may be useful to learn about the five stages outlined by Kübler-Ross because they may help an individual put words to their experiences. Her five stages are as follows.
Though, again, the stages may happen in any order, it’s not uncommon for denial to come first.
It can be viewed as an instinctive mechanism to help an individual survive the intense, immediate pain of a loss and to defend themselves from feeling the total weight of their grief all at once, right away. This stage may leave a person feeling like they’re in shock, numb, or disconnected from reality.
Feelings of anger are another natural part of many people’s healing journey. Kübler-Ross advises allowing yourself to feel the stages of anger, because sitting with it rather than trying to avoid it can enable you to process it and work toward healing. She relates that grief can make you feel as if your connections to the world have been severed and you’ve been set adrift, alone at sea with your emotions. Anger, then, gives you a direction and something to connect with—especially after the numbness of denial.
The bargaining stage typically involves an intense desire to go back and change the past so you can prevent the event that induced your grief from happening. It often takes the form of trying to negotiate with a higher power for the chance to go back in time and change things, or promises to live a certain way in the future if things could go back to how they were. Kübler-Ross cautions against getting lost in such “what if” or “if only” fantasies, however. The inability to make these impossible deals often causes guilt over what you feel you could have done differently. Instead, treating yourself with as much compassion and gentleness as possible may be the best course of action. Bargaining often offers people a sense of hope or control, however fleeting, which they may need to get themselves through to whatever stage of their healing process comes next.
As your attention returns to the present—rather than ruminating on the past or trying to bargain for a different future—you may feel the full weight of your grief. You may experience it as feelings of emptiness or sadness, which may well be deeper or more pervasive than sadness you’ve felt in the past. According to Kübler-Ross, the death of a loved one or another grief-inducing loss is depressing, so depression is a natural, appropriate reaction. Again, self-compassion and self-care are often important when experiencing the emotions of this stage; judging yourself for the natural emotions you feel is unlikely to help you progress toward healing. Letting yourself lean on social support can also be helpful during this and all other stages.
Acceptance is an often-misunderstood stage of grief. Many assume it indicates being “over” the loss or feeling “back to normal”. However, in reality, this stage is focused more so on learning to come to terms with your new reality. It’s about understanding the truth of the situation, in contrast to other stages where you may not yet have grasped what has happened or may be hoping to realize that it was just a bad dream. A common characteristic of this stage is finding ways to live with your grief as you move forward with your life.
How Long Does Grief Last?
There’s no set timeline for grief. The same loss may affect two people in entirely different ways and for different lengths of time, so there’s no accurate way to predict how long your feelings might last. However, if acute symptoms of grief persist for more than six months or longer than is expected for that person’s circumstance and culture and they interfere with their daily functioning, it’s possible they may be experiencing a mental health condition known as complicated grief. Additional symptoms include frequent, intense feelings of loneliness, frequent, preoccupying thoughts about the loved one lost that interfere with daily functioning, an inability to accept the loss, and excessive avoidance or proximity-seeking of reminders of the loss, among others. Complicated grief is treatable, usually with a form of psychotherapy that focuses on concepts like self-observation and reflection, companionship, and imagery exercises.
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How Therapy Can Help You Process Grief
Grief can feel isolating, but it’s important to remember that help is available. Leaning on family and friends can be nourishing during this time. Some may also choose to seek the support of a trained mental health professional. They can offer you a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express your emotions, and they can assist you in developing healthy coping mechanisms to help you move through and live with your grief.
For those in the thick of the grieving process, traveling to in-person therapy appointments may seem difficult, intimidating, or exhausting. Since research suggests that online therapy may be an effective intervention for grief, you might consider this format as an alternative. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed counselor who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Regardless of the format you may choose, there are mental health professionals available to support you in your grief.
Grief is a unique, individual experience, but you don’t have to go through it alone. The information outlined above may help you understand various stages of the grieving process so you can identify the emotions you’re feeling. You might also consider meeting with a therapist for further support as you process your grief
Still curious about the five stages of grief? Here are some of the most commonly asked questions that a grieving person may have.
Which stage of grief is the hardest?
Everyone deals with grief differently. Some people may struggle the most during the denial stage, and others may struggle most with anger during their healing process. There's no right or wrong way to experience grief, and not everyone experiences every step.
You may even cycle through the grief stages several times before finding acceptance. Support groups are a great option for those struggling with their grief, as you can connect with others going through a similar process and feel less alone in your intense emotions.
Why me? Why did this happen?
For many who have lost someone, the question "why me?" can come up often. In all reality, there is no good response to this question. Death and loss are part of the cycle of life, and they are extremely painful for those who are left behind. This is a natural response, but we know how difficult it can be.
The best way to heal from grief and understand it is to learn to live with a new reality and know that the intense sadness won't last forever.
How do people overcome grief?
Grief can be so difficult to overcome, especially in the case of sudden death or an unexpected trauma with family realtives. The best way to overcome grief is to get through it. During the grieving process, many resources are available, such as support groups, online therapy, and more.
If you are experiencing trauma symptoms such as intense fear, reliving the event in your mind, and feeling hypervigilant, it is time to get help. Processing trauma and grief at the same time can be scary, and a trained mental health professional is a good option to help you through it.
Is it 7 or 5 stages of grief?
Studies about grief medically reviewed in Europe PMC show that grief is different for everyone. Some people may experience seven stages of grief, and others may experience other stages that aren't listed. The 7-stage grief model shows two other steps, including the upward turn and the move towards getting support.
These two extra stages, especially the sixth stage, are the times when most people going through grief start to turn their energy into productive healing. The 5-stage grief model (also known as the Kubler-Ross Model by Elizabeth Kubler Ross) includes these steps in the final step, which is acceptance.
Can I grieve a medical diagnosis?
Some people may experience grief when they have experienced a distressing diagnosis, such as in the case of terminally ill patients. This grief can also sometimes be seen alongside clinical depression and trauma. It is totally normal to grieve a medical diagnosis or a terminal diagnosis.
If you are dealing with major depressive disorder, grief, or traumatic symptoms related to your diagnosis, a licensed mental health counselor with experience in chronic illness and terminally ill patients can help.
Understanding grief in its entirety can take a long time, and there's no shame in asking for help for any one stage that you're going through.
Many people who experience grief continue to seek support when they are in the acceptance stage if they need to. Reach out to family relatives and friends as well, as being isolated can make grief worse.