The 5 Stages of Grief: What's Normal and How to Cope

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Alecia Milano
Posted by Alecia Milano on May 21, 2019

Grieving is a complicated process.

This common, yet unique experience is something we all go through after the loss of a loved one. From shock or anger to disbelief and overwhelming sadness, we endure a variety of difficult and unexpected emotions during the grieving process.

As a way to help identify and understand what we may feel, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a five-staged grief model. This model suggests humans experience five stages of grief after a loss: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Below, we explain the five stages of grief to help you identify where you are in the grieving process, learn why you may be feeling the way you are, and see what you can to better cope with those emotions.

1. Denial 

“Shock is a merciful condition. It allows you to get through disaster with a necessary distance between you and your feelings.” — Lisa Kleypas

Many of us find ourselves in a state of denial when we first learn about the loss of a loved one. In this stage, we deny the reality of the situation. People often think, “I can’t believe this is happening. This can’t be happening.” 

Denial is a normal reaction to tragedy that allows people to rationalize the flood of emotions they feel. It helps one cope with what’s happened because it paces your feelings of grief. Rather than allowing us to become overwhelmed with grief immediately, we suppress our feelings by refusing to believe the news. Denial is our way of easing into grieving process.

Tip for dealing with the denial stage of grief: Allow reminders of your lost loved one to help ease you through the denial stage. This could mean looking at photographs, listening to meaningful songs or visiting their gravesite or planning their memorial. Reminders of the one you loved will help you accept the reality of your loss.


2. Anger

“Grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” — Vicki Harrison

The anger stage of grief often occurs when the shock and denial wear off and you start adjusting to the new reality. Losing a loved one is tragic. There is so much to process that anger can become an emotional outlet. You can’t understand why something like this could happen to you.

While deep down you know the object of your anger isn’t to blame, your feelings in that moment are so intense that you can’t think straight. You might look to blame complete strangers or close family members and friends for your grief, and you may become easily frustrated with everyday objects like your car or phone.

Interestingly, anger is an essential part of the healing process. It’s a way of venting. Do not keep your emotions bottled up—express them; scream if you need to. Remember, anger is just another way of expressing the intense emotions you feel for the one you lost.  

Tip for dealing with the anger stage of grief: Look for ways to channel your anger in a healthy way, perhaps through exercise, such as running or swimming.


3. Bargaining

“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” — Dr. Seuss

During times of immense grief, we may find ourselves bargaining with a higher power. In this stage, many people find themselves saying things like:

  • “I’ll live a better life if you keep this person from dying.”
  • “If only I had called him that night, he’d still be here.”
  • “Please God, if you heal my wife, I’ll try to be the best husband I can be.”

When we bargain, we make promises that can help us avoid the current or anticipated pain. We focus on our personal regrets and recall times we may have hurt the person we’re losing. It’s necessary to understand that bargaining is normal while grieving the loss of a loved one. It provides a temporary escape from the pain and helps us feel some type of control.

Tip for dealing with the bargaining stage of grief: Talk about these feelings and your bargaining hopes with close family and friends. Not only can they provide support, they can also offer some perspective that may help you better accept your loss.


4. Depression

“I’ll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Still does.” — Henry Rollins

There comes a time during the grieving process when our imaginations and emotions begin to subside and we see the reality of our situation. We are forced to face what’s happening and likely experience deep sadness.

Some of us may feel numb, like we live in a fog. We feel like there is no help and often isolate ourselves from the world. We don’t feel like talking or even getting out of bed.

Although depression is a very natural stage of grief, it can cause us to become extremely isolated. It’s important to feel your feelings, but in a healthy way. Take your time, acknowledge your pain and express your feelings to someone close to you.

Tip for dealing with the depression stage of grief: Find a creative way to express your feelings. Consider writing in a journal or putting together a scrapbook of old photos. These activities are healthy outlets for your feelings that help you avoid unhealthy behaviors and vices when the sadness is overwhelming.

Sleep is also commonly affected by grief, which in time can even lead to insomnia. This guide offers tips and advice on how to relearn healthy sleep habits following a loss.


5. Acceptance

"I don't want to forget, I want to be okay with remembering." — Faraway

This stage of the grieving process is when you finally accept the reality of the situation. Your emotions stabilize as you come to terms with your loss. You’re still in pain, but you learn to live with it. You understand that you can never replace the one you lost, but you start to recognize that you can grow from this experience and learn to live with the memory of your loved one.

Tips for dealing with the acceptance stage of grief: Find ways to commemorate the life of your loved one by memorializing their legacy. Memorialization is fundamental to the grieving process because it allows you to remember and honor your loved one. Memorialization comes in many forms including ceremonies, fun traditions and gatherings, and physical pieces of remembrance (like a memorial or urn).


Grieve at Your Own Pace

The grieving process is different for everyone. Many people do not experience these stages in this order. Rather, this model is a guide that helps you recognize your grief and understand why you feel these emotions. The best thing to do is to let yourself feel the grief as it comes.

Subscribe to our blog today for resources on grief—as well as memorialization and monuments.

Topics: Grief

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