Grief can be experienced in reaction to any significant loss, although it is most commonly associated with the loss of a loved one or living thing that has died.
Instead of consisting of one emotion or state, grief is better understood as a process. About 50 years ago, grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross noticed a pattern in the experience of grief and she summarized this pattern as the “five stages of grief,” which are: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Someone who is grieving could experience the five 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 remain in any one stage, and someone can be experiencing more than one of the stages at any one time. In other words, grief is a very personal and nuanced experience, and everyone grieves in their own way.
Understanding the dynamic nature of grief can help those coping through loss as well as those helping others who are grieving. Here is more information on the five stages of grief:
1. Denial and Isolation
When we lose someone or something important to us, it is natural to reject the idea that it could be true. In turn, 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.
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.
In this stage, we might somehow seek to change the circumstances of the situation causing our grief. Bargaining may be an attempt to regain a sense of control as a defense against helplessness.
For example, a grieving person might seek to negotiate with themselves, the people around them, fate, the universe, or a higher power to change their circumstances. Bargaining can also look like ruminating about the details of the loss, seeking to understand or make sense of it, and wishing to go back and change the past in hopes of preventing the loss.
In this stage, we feel the full weight of our sadness over the loss. The grieving person may describe feeling deep sorrow, anguish, and mental pain.
Feeling extremely down in the wake of a loss is normal; however, it is important to be aware that clinical depression is different from grief, and they are treated differently by mental health professionals. See “The Blurred Line Between Grief and Depression” for more information.
Eventually, the grieving person may come to terms with their loss. Accepting a loss does not necessarily mean the person 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 of grief.
The Sixth Stage of Grief
In 2019, Kübler-Ross’s co-author David Kessler published his book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. In his book, Kessler chronicles his personal experience with grief after the death of his son and describes how beyond acceptance of the loss, finding meaning in the wake of a loss can bring hope and healing to the bereaved.
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 along the way.
If you or someone you know is grieving, Great Lakes Psychology Group can help. GLPG makes it easy to get started with online or in-person therapy. Click here to get started.
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