After the loss of a loved one or the diagnosis of a terminal illness, we all experience some form of grief, and we experience it in different ways. Some may shut themselves off from the world while others may put on a brave face for their family; there is no wrong response. These responses represent two of the five stages of grief: denial and acceptance. The remaining stages of grief include anger, bargaining and depression. Together, these stages represent a framework for the grieving process that, over time, have become known as the “Five Stages of Grief.”
Grief is a strong and complex emotion that often stems from the death of a close friend or family member; however, people can also experience grief following the end of an important
relationship, the loss of a pet, the termination of a job or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Regardless of the type of loss, grief can cause individuals to feel helpless, confused or even overwhelmingly sad. And while the process of grieving can seem daunting at times, it’s a natural reaction to loss, and recovery is possible with time and support.
The History of the 5 Stages of Grief
The stages model was originally published in 1969 in On Death and Dying by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist who studied terminal illness. Kübler-Ross’s book documented the emotional process that people with terminal illnesses experience as they approach death. Based on her observations and interviews with hundreds of people with terminal illnesses, she identified the five stages that a person is likely to experience as they near death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Kübler-Ross developed these stages in response to an observed lack of understanding and sensitivity by healthcare professionals to the emotions of dying patients. She sought to provide physicians with a general framework they could use to identify common themes present in the end-of-life experience.
However, over time people have tried to apply these stages to their own grieving process in order to find some structure or semblance as to why they feel these emotions. It’s important to remember, though, that Kübler-Ross did not intend for the stages to apply to grievers, or for them to serve as a timeline towards healing. In one of her final books, On Grief and Grieving, she confirmed the misuse of the stages by stating, “The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss and, because everyone responds to loss differently, there are no firm stages or timelines to move through. Every relationship is unique, as is the individual grief we experience when we lose someone or something close to us.
That said, it can be helpful to understand the five stages of grief, as they can provide some insights in what you may experience following a significant loss.
What Are the 5 Stages of Grief?
Today, the Five Stages of Grief can still serve as a framework for how the grieving process works, but know that everyone experiences grief in different ways. Thus, some people may experience all five stages in chronological order, while others may only experience one stage. Further, there is no timeline to grief as it may take some longer time to heal than others and that’s okay.
The five stages of grief, as explained by Dr. Kübler-Ross, include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Denial is the first stage of grief. When we lose someone or something close to us, it’s natural to deny and question the truth. In this stage, we may isolate ourselves from the world and turn inwards. We may experience a deep sorrow or large void that we don’t know how to fill. How can we go on after this? Why should we go on after this? Denial helps us to cope with loss, and while it may not seem so at the time, it does help us begin the healing process and start to accept the reality of the loss.
When we can no longer deny the loss, it’s common to experience anger. Anger is an emotion we all know, and it can have no limits when it comes to loss. We may become angry at our family members, friends, doctors, our religious beliefs and even ourselves. It’s important to let yourself feel the anger during your grieving process because underneath that anger is your pain, which is just another indicator of how much you loved or cared for the person or thing you lost.
The next stage of grief is bargaining. During this stage, we will do anything to prevent the loss that occurred, and it’s often accompanied by guilt. This stage is a series of “What if…” and “If only…” statements, either spoken aloud to us or a higher power in which we believe. For example, “What if the doctor would have diagnosed him sooner?” or, “If only I had spent more time with her growing up this wouldn’t have happened.” Bargaining may also allow us to feel a sense of control over our grief.
After bargaining and reliving the past, we find ourselves back in the present moment where we feel the emptiness of the situation. This is the stage in which we can feel depressed or overwhelmingly sad when trying to cope with the loss. Depression after loss may not be a sign of mental illness because it’s a natural response to losing someone who or something that played an important role in your life, but it is important to seek out help from a licensed mental health professional if your depression impairs your ability to complete everyday tasks.
The final stage of grief is acceptance or coming to terms with the loss. Accepting the loss doesn’t mean the person grieving is “okay” or “alright,” it just means that they have accepted
that the person or thing lost is no longer with them physically. For someone who experiences a loss, they may never feel one hundred percent themselves again and it may take them some time to understand their new normal. It is likely to take a lot of time to find out how to carry on with their life while still cherishing the memories they had before the loss.
Steps of Grief and Moving Forward
Grief is an emotionally complex and personal experience that affects no two people in the exact same way. As we take into consideration the Five Stages of Grief, it’s important to remember that this model is a framework for the grieving process; there are no timelines or sequential stages to move through after we experience loss. Every relationship we have is unique and when we lose that relationship, we will process the grief associated with it in our own way.
At The Love Always Project, we understand that death and the grief that follows are a natural part of life. Still, they remain topics most would rather not discuss. We believe that we can best support grieving loved ones to heal by acknowledging and confronting these feelings. Access our additional grief resources here. Learn more about our mission to help others discuss end-of-life issues or join the movement.