Understanding the Five Stages of Grief

In 1969 psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross defined the five universal stages of grief. These five universal stages have since been used to describe how we react to heart wrenching loss. As a point of reference these universal stages are helpful. But, it is also a fact, grief is an experience unique to each individual, and finding ways to healthily navigate the experience of grief is vital to moving forward.


These are the five stages of grief, and helpful ways to healthily navigate the pain and fear that accompany them. Take note, moving through grief is a timely and sensitive matter, if you learn you are experiencing grief, give yourself some grace.


DENIAL


Denial is the first stage of grief and is also an important survival tactic and an act of self protection. When in the denial stage it can feel as if life is meaningless and makes no sense. Letting life fall apart can feel like free falling and fear can surface, but there are points in life where letting go is necessary. This stage of grief can leave someone feeling grief stricken and in a state of shock. Nonetheless, shock and denial make survival possible, and short-term denial is nature’s way of only letting in as much as we can handle. Denial begins as a reaction to stress, painful thoughts, conflict, and anxiety while accepting reality indicates the start of the healing process. Feelings originally denied will begin to surface as this stage comes to a close.


It is a vital part of the healing process to observe without judgment, and gain an understanding for what is driving fear and leading to denial. Furthermore, there are consequences for not taking healthy actions towards healing. Healthily expressing emotions and fear creates space for healing. This where a journaling practice can provide support. It is also helpful to have supportive people to open up to, and it can also be helpful to seek out a grief support group.


ANGER


Anger is driven by pain and has no limits. Anger is a necessary stage of grief, and an ample part of the healing process. The more you can lean into feelings of anger, the faster these feelings will dissipate. While experiencing grief, feelings of abandonment may surface and anger can serve as the structure missing when there are feelings of nothingness. Anger can seem like a bridge over troubled waters. Unfortunately, suppressing anger is more normal than healthily feeling it. On the flip side, being angry can also seem more acceptable than being sad.


Navigating anger requires introspection and when you are ready to move away from anger it is likely time to reflect on what or who you are angry at. The thought of continuing life without a loved one feels infuriating and disorienting. The truth is, suppressing these feelings will only inhibit you from moving forward. Anger is secondary to pain. Important questions to consider are-- what is my fear, what is my pain, and what is my sadness? These answers are likely at the root of anger. Most importantly do not suppress or ignore your feelings. Going through your feelings is the only way to heal.



BARGAINING


Bargaining is full of what ifs, if onlys, and shoulds. Life changes and resistance immediately surfaces when faced with a challenging circumstance. Adjusting to reality is challenging and it is normal to want life to return to “normal.” There may be the urge to bargain with pain, trying to make a truce of sorts. Bargaining with the divine is also quite common. The past has a way of paralyzing you with sentiments of “if only” or things you could have done differently. Bargaining provides a temporary escape and can even offer hope.


While bargaining is normal, bargaining can be disappointing and like the other stages of grief, it is important to surround yourself with supportive people.



DEPRESSION


Unfortunately depression is squarely in the present moment and depression can seem like it will last forever, but it is the appropriate response to great loss. Trying to “fix” or “snap out” of depression is common and it is important to realize the seriousness of the situation, usually depression is the appropriate response, and depression is an important and necessary step of grief.


Signs of depression can include a change in appetite, a change in sleeping habits, changes in appetite, and changes in motivation. All of these are quite common. A great way to cope with depression is to consider it an unwelcome visitor. Do not try to escape depression but instead lean in, and explore the feelings surfacing. These feelings of sadness and emptiness have the power to cleanse and heal. Eventually leaving these feelings behind will feel liberating.



ACCEPTANCE


Acceptance is realizing life without your loved one is the new reality. Acceptance is not about being okay, but instead understanding that this is the reality and a new way of living. Acceptance is readjusting. Acceptance means there is an opportunity to make new connections and build new meaningful relationships. Instead of denying feelings it is important to listen to your needs, and evolve and grow. In the acceptance stage investing in friendships, and in yourself is invaluable. Acceptance is not the “final stage,'' but a part of the process.


Start a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal encourages you to look at the positive parts of the day and can help with navigating more challenging times.


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© 2020 by Markesha Miller, Ph.D.