The 7 Stages Of Grief And How They Affect Your Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Aaron Dutil, LMHC, LPC
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one or a significant change in your life, you have likely navigated the various stages of the grief process. Although almost everyone experiences grief at some point, it is a personal and unique experience.

While grief can be overwhelming, and the pain associated with it is real, it may be helpful to understand that it is a natural process. Identifying the various stages of grief, such as the denial and bargaining stages, and knowing what to expect during each can help you understand the emotional changes that occur following a loss. Starting online therapy and exploring helpful resources, like support groups or coping strategies, can be beneficial for many experiencing grief.

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Navigating the stages of grief can be challenging

Understanding the grieving process

Any event that results in a significant change in life can cause feelings of loss. Events that may cause grief include a move to a new location, a divorce or breakup, job loss, the death of a loved one due to a terminal illness, and much more. Some events can lead to complicated grief or even clinical depression.

Feeling overwhelmed in a grieving situation or questioning how long you will have these feelings is not uncommon. If you are experiencing grief, it is okay to feel a shift in emotions or even experience moments when you feel numb. It’s important to allow yourself to grieve, feel all the emotions, and know when to seek help, such as support groups or counseling. 

Everyone experiences grief differently. However, common grief symptoms may include: 

  • Intense sadness and feelings of emptiness or loss 

  • Numbed disbelief about the loss, making it hard to accept

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions, affecting daily life

  • Changes in appetite, either eating more or less than usual 

  • Disturbed sleep patterns, such as insomnia or sleeping too much 

  • Withdrawal from social interactions and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed 

  • Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches with no apparent medical cause

If you are grieving, you are not alone. Everyone experiences the emptiness and isolation of grief from time to time in life. Grieving marks the beginning of adjusting to a new reality without a loved one. 

Often, a helpful way to move forward after a loss is to allow yourself to go through the stages of grieving and use coping strategies like seeking a creative outlet or connecting with family members. In addition, services like hospice care help families and loved ones cope with the inevitability of death by providing physical, psychological, and spiritual support.

The seven stages of grief

There are various grief stages, including anger, denial, and other stages not widely recognized. While the grieving process may be split into five stages or more, not everyone experiences the stages in a particular order. Some may experience one stage more than once and for different lengths of time, as the grief process varies from person to person. For example, one person might experience a certain stage for a few days, while another might experience it for several weeks or months. 

The grief stages are all normal experiences of grief, and it's essential to understand that there is no instant relief or quick fix when it comes to healing. It's important to acknowledge your feelings, seek support, and give yourself the time you need to gradually lift slightly from the depths of grief.

Shock and denial

The early stages of grief, shock, and denial are typically when emotions are most profound. The fact that you have experienced a loss may be evident, but you may still have underlying feelings of shock, disbelief, or panic as you try to deal with the situation.

During this stage, many people experience physical symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, difficulty sleeping, decreased appetite, or heart palpitations. As these physical symptoms lessen over time, feeling emotionally "numb" is also common. Some people may describe this stage as feeling as if they are watching someone else's life on a movie screen or as if they are detached from the reality of what has happened, seeing things differently than before.

Pain and guilt

Once your shock starts to fade, you may begin to notice the pain of the loss. The pain may feel physical as well as emotional. You may feel guilty about something you could or should have done for the person (even if it's irrational). 

During this stage, it is normal to seek reason and wonder if you could have done something that would have prevented the loss or feel remorse for not being able to make peace with a loved one or maintain a healthy relationship. Although these feelings can seem overwhelming, they are natural emotions related to grief and part of the grief model. It's crucial to acknowledge these emotions and seek support, such as counseling, to help you cope with the complexity of prolonged grief or prolonged grief disorder.

Anger and bargaining

It is not uncommon for someone who is grieving to experience feelings of anger or frustration. Those who experience grief feel many emotions and thoughts that can be difficult to process. Some people may feel resentment toward the person responsible for the loss, such as a drunk driver. Others may have feelings of anger directed toward God or a higher power. Some who grieve might even experience stages of anger toward the lost loved one and may blame that person for leaving them, which may also cause them to feel helpless.

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Depression, reflection, and loneliness

During this stage, a grieving person generally begins to reflect upon the loss they experienced and how it has affected their life. The reality of the loss may be felt more during this stage, as attempts to bargain for more time are not realized. For some, this might be the hardest stage because it involves confronting deep sorrow and emptiness.

Withdrawal from others to deal with feelings of grief alone is a common occurrence during this stage. A person might also experience hopelessness or confusion about their own future. While personal time is important, it is also crucial to have a support system of people to lean on during this stage of grief. Some people may benefit from being in nature and having more space to think clearly.

The upward turn

During this later stage of the process, your initial intense emotions associated with grief may start to fade. It may be so slight that you don't even realize it at first, and you won't feel relief immediately. You may feel a little less pain, a little less sadness, and more positive emotions.

Reconstruction and recovery

For many people, mourning is a process. This process is not always about feeling stressed or overwhelmed, though. During the reconstruction and working through a phase of grief, a grieving person begins to work through the aftermath of grief and loss. 

This stage is as much a part of the grieving process as all the others. However, it may seem to take a different turn since, during this stage, you may begin to feel a sense of control over your life again.

Acceptance

Acceptance and hope represent the final stage of the grieving process or one that allows you to reflect on how the loss has shaped your whole life. Accepting a loss does not mean that you simply “get over it” or are content with what happened. Rather, it is the part of the process during which you can acknowledge the loss and feel okay with moving forward with your life. You might now be able to experience memories without suffering through despair, for example.

During this final stage, it may become easier to talk about the loss you have experienced. You may be more likely to open up about your feelings and thoughts with family or friends. While you might still have moments of feeling sad or regretful, this stage typically represents an ability to accept what has happened and to reflect upon good times rather than dwell on the sad thoughts associated with loss.

Seeking help from a mental health professional

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there's no exact timetable. Getting through this pain, however, can be extremely difficult to do on your own, and friends and family do not always have the insights or tools needed to help. 

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Navigating the stages of grief can be challenging

A mental health professional can provide support through all grieving process stages, from denial, anger, bargaining, and depression to acceptance. Licensed therapists and psychiatrists are familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and can offer insights into normal grief versus complicated grief. They may be able to teach coping mechanisms and practical ways to regain control over your emotional state, including sadness, loneliness, and other associated feelings of grief. 

There’s a common misconception that online therapy isn’t as effective as in-person counseling. Peer-reviewed studies debunk this myth and instead suggest that online grief counseling could be equally beneficial.

After registering online with BetterHelp, you’re matched with a licensed professional mental health expert and have the option to schedule sessions for times that work for you, day or night. Working with a therapist can help you move from grief to a balanced life with renewed joy and happiness. Take the first step today and make a positive choice for yourself.

Counselor reviews: Grief and death

"Sarah is a kind person who listens intently, focuses on issues, and then helps find successful strategies to deal with those issues. Never once did I feel that she was judging me or talking down to me. She was easy for me to open up to, she was professional, and she took me seriously. Together, we discussed issues of loss from the passing of my father, which had become more than I could handle alone. She not only validated my feelings of loss, but she also helped me find ways to mitigate those feelings, break them down into their roots and causes, and then address those. Coping with loss is hard work, but Sarah helped me find the tools I needed within myself to do that hard work and ultimately find success. I am a stronger person now. I am happy and confident. I may not know what is around the next corner, but I know that whatever it is, I can handle it."

"John has been very helpful in helping me set realistic goals to understand and work through my grief. No loss is ever easy, but being able to talk to someone who understands that it's not easy has been helpful."

Takeaway

Loss is one of the most difficult hardships we'll endure. The stages of grief may feel out of our control and can release a lot of painful emotions. Knowing the signs of grief and having strategies for taking care of yourself may be helpful.

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