Grief is a very personal and nuanced experience, and everyone grieves in their own way. However, about 50 years ago, experts noticed a pattern in the experience of grief, specifically in terminally ill patients, and they summarized this pattern as the “five stages of grief”. Since then, the general public has accepted the five stages as a given, and they have been interpreted concretely as progressing in a linear fashion for all who grieve.
However, the experts who published them have since clarified that someone who is grieving could experience the stages in any order, and they may experience only some of the stages as opposed to all of them. Further, there is no set amount of time for which someone grieving will “stay” in any one stage, and someone can be experiencing more than one of the stages at any one time. The takeaway is this: it can be helpful to educate yourself on the five stages of grieving, yet it is important to be aware that everyone goes through grief in their own way.
Grief is most commonly experienced after the loss of a loved one, but feelings of grief can also arise after the loss of important possessions such as major financial loss or losses due to a natural disaster. One can also grieve more abstract concepts, like grieving one’s health after being diagnosed with a chronic illness. In sum, there is no end to the list of reasons why we grieve, but in general, grief is experienced when we lose someone or something that was very important to us.
Although the five stages of grief should be interpreted loosely, as explained, it can be comforting for those who are grieving to identify with any or all of these stages as familiar to their own grief. They are as follows:
1. Denial and Isolation
When someone or something important to us is irretrievably lost, it is natural to reject the idea that this is true. After all, it may be difficult to conceptualize living in a world where they/it is no longer. Relatedly, we may isolate ourselves to avoid reminders of the truth. Others who wish to comfort us may only make us hurt more while we are still coming to terms with the loss. Thus, it is natural to retreat to a place where we are better able to accept the loss on our own.
When it is no longer possible to live in denial, it is common to become frustrated and angry. We might feel like something extremely unfair has happened to us and wonder what we did to deserve it. This, too, is natural.
In this stage, the person who is grieving might somehow seek to change the circumstances of the situation causing their grief. For example, a religious person whose loved one is dying might seek to negotiate with God to keep the person alive. Bargaining may help the person cope by making them feel more empowered as opposed to helpless against their grief.
In this stage, the person who is grieving feels the full weight of their sadness over the loss. Some people who are grieving might become hopeless at some point. Some may even feel like there is no reason to go on living. While this is natural in the grief process, it is important to also be aware that clinical depression is different from grief alone, and it should be treated as such. See the blurred line between grief and depression for more information.
Eventually, the grieving person might be able to find peace after a major loss. Accepting a loss does not necessarily mean one is no longer grieving. In fact, many grief experts say that grief can continue for a lifetime after a major loss, and coping with the loss only becomes easier over time. Waves of grief can be triggered by reminders of the loss long after it has happened and long after the person has “accepted” it. These waves may also trigger a crossover into any of the other four stages because remember, the stages are non-linear.
In sum, grief is a personal, nuanced, and complicated process; it will not look the same for any two people who are grieving. However, those who are grieving may experience similar emotions during their journeys.
If you or someone you know is grieving, bereavement experts at Great Lakes Psychology Group can help. Make an appointment with a grief specialist today.