The Five Stages of Grief
According to the American Psychological Association, grief is defined as the anguish experienced after a significant loss. While this is usually first and foremost associated with the death of someone beloved to us ー such as a family member, partner, friend, or pet ー grief is simply an emotion that we feel when we lose something. Bereavement ー which is the loss or death of someone important to us ー is one of the most profound ways of experiencing loss. Yet there are different types of grief, and they doesn’t always involve death.
In reality, grief can be felt after any major loss, whether that’s the loss of a person or a job, or the end of a romantic relationship. The loss of mobility or health, a miscarriage, or a long-awaited opportunity that one was working towards; the end of a once-close friendship, or leaving one’s home country ー particularly if it’s for good, or not by choice ー can also create feelings of grief. The type of grief that isn’t associated with bereavement is sometimes also called non-traditional grief, or disenfranchised grief.
Grief tends to be unpredictable and it can make someone feel a range of emotions, from sadness and disappointment to anger, or even guilt. For some people, the impact may be felt instantly, while other people may be numb to it at first, burying their feelings. Some people may spend a prolonged period mourning the death of a loved one, while others may move on considerably quickly. Yet to put it generally, grief causes negative feelings.
After all, it’s not only about dealing with a loss: it also involves dealing with the life changes associated with that loss. Particularly when it comes to bereavement, one of the most challenging parts of grief is that people have to adapt to their new reality: one without the person they have lost. Although grief is a normal reaction to loss, and there is no standard time frame for how long it “should” take for someone to grieve, prolonged or unprocessed grief can damage one’s daily functioning. In more serious cases, this can potentially lead to mental health issues such as prolonged grief disorder and complicated grief disorder.
Whatever someone is mourning, one thing remains true: grief is a complex feeling involving mixed emotions, that everyone experiences differently. But processing it is important, and as painful as it can be to grieve, going through the process is the only way to move forward. Although everyone copes with it differently, learning about the psychology of grief can help you to know what to expect, and find your way through the grieving process.
What Are the 5 Stages of Grief?
In psychology, one of the most commonly-used models for understanding and dealing with grief is the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the Five Stages of Grief. First introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 in her book, On Death and Dying, it illustrates the universal stages of grief.
After years of working with terminally ill people and observing how they reacted to their own terminal diagnoses, Dr. Kübler-Ross noticed that each of her patients had, at some point, gone through one of these five stages as a key step in processing their loss. She then summarized them into this model, as outlined below:
Stage 1 - Denial
Individuals at this stage typically respond to the unfortunate news of loss with confusion and shock: “This can’t be happening.” During this stage, it is also common to show avoidant behavior towards things that could potentially remind someone of what they have lost. For example, people may avoid looking at pictures of their lost loved one, or listening to songs that that person liked, since these stimuli can remind them about the loss. Allowing the reality of the loss to sink in can be extremely painful, and this avoidant behavior can be a way of protecting people from experiencing the complicated and difficult feelings that deep down, they know are on the other side of their denial.
Stage 2 - Anger
Soon enough, the individual may start realizing that denying their loss isn’t helping. They may then begin to react by expressing anger towards themselves, others, or even the world in general, asking questions like “How could this happen to me?” In this stage, people may even feel fury, and start to blame other people or things ー such as the unfairness of life ー for their loss. Anger can be triggered by many factors, and the triggers and reactions alike can be highly individual. People at this stage might also become anxious and easily irritated by their surroundings.
Stage 3 - Bargaining
In the third stage, the individual may begin evaluating the loss, finding ways to hopefully improve the situation. It’s a defense mechanism that helps someone regain a sense of control over their fate despite their current vulnerability, and postpone the sadness or pain of accepting the loss, through a number of “What If” or “If Only” negotiations. For instance, religious individuals may make a plea to God, while someone with a terminal health issue may seek out desperate means of changing their diagnosis. In the case of a job loss or divorce, questions such as, “If only I had stayed at work later every night, maybe they wouldn’t have made me redundant,” or “If only I’d listened to my partner more, they would have stayed” may arise ー or in the case of bereavement, “If only I had taken them to the doctor sooner we could have caught this in time,” “If only I had called them that night maybe I could have stopped them,” or “If only I had driven them home instead, maybe that accident wouldn’t have happened.” This irrational blame or taking-on of responsibility can lead to feelings of guilt.
Stage 4 - Depression
People at this stage become more certain about the loss and realize that the situation is likely to not be improved. It is completely normal for people to experience sadness and feel overwhelmed at this stage. The individual may cry a lot, spend a lot of time alone, and disconnect from their surroundings, isolating themselves from their social circle. They may experience changes in their appetite and sleep patterns. This stage tends to be one of the more long-lasting, and it’s a natural and extremely important part of the grieving process一but in more extreme cases, this stage of grief can cause someone to slide into clinical depression. It’s important for an individual to have a good support system around them, and understand that this type of depression and sadness often comes and goes in waves, with them feeling better or even “fine” one day, and extremely low the next. If the symptoms begin interfering with the individual’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis, with them struggling to get out of bed for a prolonged period of time, or make it back to work even if they’re at risk of losing their livelihood ー or even having thoughts of their own death or suicide, feeling like they simply cannot go on due to the loss ー they may need to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
Stage 5 - Acceptance
During this stage of grief ー which is usually the final stage ー the individual starts to accept the situation. As they come to terms with reality, and find their emotions stabilizing, they begin to embrace the fact that life and its various responsibilities must continue ー and indeed, that joy can still be found. They understand that moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting or not caring about their loss or lost loved one, but simply that they must ー and can ー learn to live without it or them, adapting to their new reality. People at this stage tend to be thankful for what they had before it was lost, and feel deeply appreciative of what they still have in the present.
Although there are five stages in this model, Dr. Kübler-Ross herself suggested that these stages do not always necessarily appear in order. Grieving isn’t a linear process, nor is it the same for everyone; some people may also go through each stage more than once. The grief process involves an “emotional roller coaster effect” ー meaning that one may jump from stage to stage quickly without following a specific pattern or a rigid framework.
It is also important to note that the Five Stages of Grief is just one model in psychology. In some cases, this model has since been expanded to include two more stages, known as The Seven Stages of Grief, while other theories exist on how individuals may respond to a loss, such as the Dual Process Model of Grief by Dr. Margaret Stroebe and Dr. Henk Schut.
Ultimately, there is no singular way to grieve, nor is there a right or wrong way to do so. Grief is a natural process that should never be forced, as everyone’s journey can be different. The important thing is for someone to have the time to process their grief ー whether that’s allowing themselves to have that time, or for the people around them to hold this space for them ー and understand their emotions, until they can reach the final acceptance stage and carry on with their lives. After all, moving on doesn’t mean we no longer care about what we’ve lost, or that it will no longer affect us ー it’s just that rather than staying within our grief, processing it lets us grow from it. If it helps us to reframe the language around grieving, then perhaps rather than "moving on", we can simply think of it as allowing ourselves to move forward.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: APA Dictionary of Psychology - Grief; Can I Grieve If Nobody Died?; Prolonged Grief Disorder: Mental Health Experts Identify the Signs; What Is Complicated Grief?; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Biography; On Death and Dying; What You Should Know About the Stages of Grief; The Dual Process Model Of Coping With Bereavement: Rationale And Description; Grief and Bereavement: What Psychiatrists Need to Know; How to Hack Your Hormones for a Better Mood.
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