What Are the Stages of Grief?

Grieving the death of a loved one brings waves of different emotions and feelings. One moment you may be feeling anger at the world for its unfairness. The next moment you may simply not believe any of it has really happened. Such a wild swing of emotions is very common.

How we cope with grief is as unique as the individual who has been lost. Jinny Tesik, with the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, says the way we grieve is as unique as our fingerprints. “No two people will ever grieve the same way, with the same intensity or for the same duration.”

Many psychiatrists and counselors recognize that there are certain threads present in the grieving process for most individuals. The concept of the stages of grief was popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1926 – 2004) a Swiss American psychiatrist. She was a pioneer in the study of death and was the author of the best-selling book, On Death and Dying, in which she first promoted her theory of five stages of grief.

Kubler-Ross emphasized that the stages are not meant to be a complete list of the emotions that can be felt. She noted that there was no particular order to the stages – that even the progress through the stages is unique to the individual. She would also observe that these stages of grief are present in other extreme, life-altering experiences other than death.

What Are the Stages?

Stage One: Denial and Isolation

Denial is usually the first, although temporary, defense that a person uses to cope with extreme loss. “This cannot be happening to me.” It is usually quickly accompanied by “I feel fine – leave me alone.” Denial is the refusal to accept the facts of the loss, either consciously or unconsciously. If dealing with death is personal, there is a refusal to take necessary steps to prepare for death, such as a will. If the grief is for someone else, the denial is prolonged by refusing to deal with the consequences of the death: visiting the gravesite, getting rid of personal belongings, or even filing necessary paperwork.

Stage Two: Anger

In this stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue indefinitely. “Why is this happening to me? It is not fair!” People become angry with themselves for how they are coping with the death. They become angry at others, often those closest to them, because the presence of friends often forces them to deal with the emotions. They become angry at a higher power, seeking someone with authority and power to blame for not preventing the death.

Stage Three: Bargaining

Another stage in the grieving process is an attempt to bargain for hope of an extended life. If it is personal, it is likely to be negotiated with a higher power. “Just let me see the birth of my grandchild.” “If you get me through this, I promise I will be a better person.” In this stage, the person understands that death is real, but there is an attempt made to dodge it or delay it.

Stage Four: Depression

During this fourth stage of grief, the person begins to understand and dwell on the certainty and reality of death. “What is the point of going on?” It is at this point that many individuals become completely stuck. The person may become sullen and silent, refuse to interact with anyone, and spend most of the time alone, crying uncontrollably. This process often allows the dying person to disconnect from the things and people of value.

Stage Five: Acceptance

In the final stage, the individual begins to figure a way to come to grips with their own mortality or that of their loved one. “I cannot escape this; I may as well become prepared for it.” The person who moves into this stage often feels an incredible sense of dignity and peace in their ability to cope with the inevitable.

How Long Do the Stages Last?

If grief comes in stages, we immediately want to know how long the stages will last. We want to know when the pain and sadness that travels alongside the loss will subside. The answer to that question is dependent upon many variables. First, an individual does not have to go through each of the stages in order to heal from the grieving process.

How long a stage or the entire process will take will vary for each individual. Several factors are involved in the process. How a loved one died, when they died, what their relationship was to us, how our personality tends to respond to change and loss and other circumstances going on in our life will all influence how long the grieving process will take.

Another factor that can influence the amount of time that grieving takes is the amount and quality of support that the individual receives from family and friends. A support system that offers encouragement, nurturing and care will allow for sharing about the loss and will promote healing.

Is it Possible to be Stuck in a Stage?

Movement through the stages of grief is extremely fluid. Anger may give way to depression, only to see anger become prominent again for a time. Recent studies indicate that if a person stays in one place for more than six months, there is a strong chance that professional help will be needed to assure healthy progress through grief.

If the pain associated with the loss is so persistent and severe that it hinders you from returning to a normal life, you may be stuck in a stage which is known as complicated grief. Some of the symptoms of complicated grief include intense longing for the deceased, denial of the death of the deceased, and extreme anger or bitterness over the loss. It is difficult to distinguish between complicated grief and clinical depression because the symptoms are so similar. If these feelings persist for several months, make every effort to seek professional guidance and help.