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Understanding the 5 Stages of Grief

Written by Gina Sartirana · Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC · December 12, 2023 ·

Navigating grief is a deeply personal and complex process that varies significantly from person to person. However, understanding the five stages of grief, as proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying," can provide a framework for understanding our own experiences or supporting others through their grief. These stages are not linear and may not occur in the same order for everyone. It's also common to move back and forth between stages or experience multiple stages simultaneously.

  1. Denial: This first stage helps to minimize the overwhelming pain of loss. Here, individuals may struggle to accept the reality of their loss. They might believe the situation is a mistake or hope for a scenario where it can be avoided. Denial is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock, allowing one to process their grief at their own pace.
  2. Anger: As the masking effects of denial start to wear off, the pain re-emerges. Not everyone experiences overt anger, but it's a common response. The individual may lash out, asking "Why me?" or directing their anger at others, including the deceased, themselves, or higher powers. Anger can stem from feelings of abandonment, helplessness, unfairness, or injustice associated with the loss.
  3. Bargaining: In this stage, individuals often dwell on what could have been done differently to prevent the loss or mitigate its impact. They may make deals with a higher power, promising to change if only their loved one is returned or their old life is restored. Bargaining can be accompanied by intense guilt, as individuals agonize over what they could have done differently.
  4. Depression: As the reality of the loss fully settles in, individuals may retreat, isolate themselves, and spend much time reflecting on what they have lost. Depression in the context of grief is an appropriate response to a great loss. It might feel like a quiet, empty sadness. This stage is often the longest and is characterized by feelings of emptiness, despair, and deep sorrow.
  5. Acceptance: Acceptance does not mean one is 'okay' or 'happy' with the loss. Instead, it indicates an understanding of the reality of the situation and a more stable emotional state. In this stage, individuals come to terms with the loss, understanding it as a permanent part of their life. They may start to plan for the future and resume normal activities, although the sense of loss can remain.

It's important to note that these stages are not a roadmap to bereavement or a timeline for healing. Everyone experiences grief differently, and it's normal to cycle through these stages in a non-linear manner. Understanding these stages can help individuals recognize their feelings and seek appropriate support. It's crucial to allow oneself or others the space and time to grieve in their own way and at their own pace. Professional support from therapists or support groups can be invaluable in navigating the complex emotions associated with grief.

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