If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one or a significant change in your life, you have likely felt some form of the 7 stages of grief. Grief is a defined as a mental suffering or distress that is caused by loss or affliction, sharp sorrow, or painful regret. Although everyone experiences grief from time to time, it is a very personal experience and typically, no two people experience grief the same-- especially when it is grief surrounding death of a loved one. Two of the most influential stages in grief are denial and bargaining.
While grief can feel overwhelming and the pain associated with it is real, it’s important to understand that it is a natural emotion and going through the grief process is a healthy way of dealing with loss. Identifying the different stages of grief and knowing what to expect during each one can help you understand the emotional changes that occur following a loss and can help you learn to cope.
Generally, when people hear the word grief, the death of a friend or loved one comes to mind. However, any loss that results in significant change in a life circumstance or role can cause feelings of loss or grief. It is not uncommon to wonder why you feel overwhelmed or to question how long you will experience these feelings of 7 stages of grief. If you are experiencing grief, it is okay to feel a shift in emotions or to even experience times that you feel emotionally unstable. It’s important to allow yourself to grief and to know when to seek help if grief becomes complicated or overwhelming to help prevent long term mental health challenges.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist introduced a model regarding the 5 Stages of Grief in a book called On Death and Dying. This grief model was one of the first models used to help individuals recognize the stages of grief and the effect it can cause. In the original book, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross referenced five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Through time, however, different sources have added what they believe to be other stages of grief. While grief models are often used to help individuals who are grieving understand the process and how to move forward, not everyone experiences the same order of grief stages or even experiences every stage.
When you are grieving, it can feel like a very lonely time. It’s important to know, however, that you are not alone. Everyone experiences grief from time to time in life. It is a normal reaction to loss. The best way to move forward after a loss is to allow yourself to go through the stages of grief.
Remember that you should not compare the way you grieve with how someone else is dealing with grief. Some people go through stages with little difficulty and find inner peace and the strength to move on with life without complications. Others may experience one or more stages more than once and for different lengths of time. Recognizing where you are in the process and knowing when to seek help can be helpful.
Shock and Denial
The first of the 7 stages of grief, shock and denial, is typically the stage 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 or disbelief. During this stage, many people experience physical symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, difficulty sleeping, decreased appetite or heart palpitations. 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.
Pain and Guilt
Once your shock starts to fade, you'll notice the pain. This is when it first starts to hit you that your loss is real. The pain may be extremely difficult to handle, and it may feel physical as well as emotional. You may even start to feel guilty about something you could or should have done for the person (even if it's illogical). During this stage, it is normal to 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 loss loved one. Although these feelings can feel overwhelming, they are natural emotions related to guilt and it is important to acknowledge these feelings as part of the healing process.
Anger and Bargaining
It is not uncommon for someone who is grieving to experience feelings of anger or frustration. Some people may feel angry at a person who caused a loss, such as a drunk driver. Others may have feelings of anger directed toward God or a higher power for not preventing the loss. Some who grieve experience anger toward the lost loved one and may blame that person for leaving them. During this time, some people who are grieving may try to bargain for a chance to have things end with a different outcome.
Depression, Reflection, and Loneliness
During this stage of grief, 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. Withdrawal from others to deal with feelings of grief alone is a common occurrence during this stage. While personal time is important, it is also crucial to have a support system of people to lean on during this stage of grief. Research shows that therapy can help alleviate depressive symptoms.
The Upward Turn
Finally, just when you think there can't possibly be anything good coming ever again, you'll start to feel a little better each day. It may be so slight that you don't even realize it at first, and you won't feel happy all at once. What you may feel is a little less pain, a little less sadness, and more of being okay. This is the last of the 7 stages of grief.
Reconstruction and Working Through
Grief is a process. The process is not always about feeling stressed or overwhelmed, though. During the reconstruction and working through phase of grief, a grieving person begins to start to work through the aftermath of loss. This stage is as much a part of the grieving process as all the others. However, it seems to take a different turn, as during this stage, you can begin to feel a sense of control over your life.
Acceptance and hope is the final stage of the grieving process. Accepting a loss does not mean that you simply “get over it”. Rather, it is the part of the process during which you can acknowledge the loss and feel okay with moving forward with your life and what the new normal is for you.
During this stage, you will likely find that it is easier to talk about the loss you have experienced without experiencing as significant an impact as you did earlier in the grieving process. While you may 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 the sad thoughts associated with loss.
Therapy Can Help with Your Grief
The stages of grief are different for everyone. You may only spend a few days in disbelief, while others may spend weeks. You may never go through a bargaining stage, while someone else spends a lot of time there. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there's no timetable. Getting through this pain, however, can be extremely difficult to do on your own. Seeking professional help, like what you can get from BetterHelp, can make a huge difference in your life and in your healing process.
If you're stuck in a stage of grief, or if you feel depressed, therapy can help. Sometimes being able to talk to someone else, share your stories, and express pain can be incredibly healing. Counselors can also help you learn strategies to cope with the difficult emotions you're struggling with. Read below for reviews of some BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Sarah is a kind person that 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 too, she was professional, and she took me seriously. Together we discussed issues of loss and grief 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 then address those. Coping with grief and 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."
Loss is one of the most difficult hardships we'll endure. The 7 stages of grief may feel out of our control and brings a lot of painful emotions. However, counseling can help you move from grief to a balanced and healthy life with renewed joy. Take the first step today.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
There are several grief models that professionals use to educate people about grief. Some models reflect five stages of grief, while others highlight more stages beyond the five. The 7-stage model of grief and the 5-stage model of grief highlighted in the book on death (written by Elizabeth Kübler Ross) are often referred to as the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model, are two of the most widely recognized models used when health professionals provide medical advice, diagnosis, and mental health support for people who are coping with loss, dealing with the death of a loved one, or other losses of loved ones.
Although different sources reference different stages of grief, the stages used when referring to the “12 Stages of Grief” are as follows:
How does grief affect the body?
Grief is the emotional response to loss or significant change. While it can cause significant emotional issues, such as depression, anxiety, or difficulty sleeping, the grief cycle can also result in physical changes within the body. Some people who are grieving may experience body aches, digestive issues, compromised immune systems or heart related issues. In fact, one phenomenon called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also referred to as “broken heart syndrome” is caused by a disruption in the flow of blood that is being pumped to a section of the heart. This disruption causes symptoms that mimic a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath.
Loss, grief, and the stages of recovery can have a long-term impact on your physical body if you’re not careful. For example, in some stages that people experience, like depression, they may not care about much else going on. This means that they may give up their old habits like exercising or eating healthy. If they take time to recover from grief, they may find that their physical health has deteriorated, and it will take hard work to get it back to what it was before.
What does grief do to your brain?
Cortisol is a hormone that becomes elevated in times of stress, also referred to as the stress hormone. During times of grief, especially if grief is prolonged or complicated, cortisol levels can be increased and can lead to anxiety or depression.
Can grief kill you?
Emotions, including grief, can have a significant impact on one’s overall health and well-being. Anger, which is one of the stages of the grieving process can cause an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and may lead to a heart attack.
Increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, that is experienced when a person is grieving can lead to alterations in eating and sleeping patterns, exhaustion, and heart palpitations. Prolonged exposure to stress has been lined to high blood pressure, weakened immune systems, chest pain, and is believed to contribute to the effects of early aging.
Loneliness associated with the natural stage of grief may lead to anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing grief and/or is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1800-273-8255 (TALK). The Lifeline offers free, confidential support to individuals who are experiencing emotional distress or are in suicidal crisis. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
No matter where you are within the grief cycle, it’s okay to reach out for help if you become overwhelmed.
There is no set amount of time that it takes for someone to progress through the seven phases of grief. There are different factors that may affect how long it takes for a person to grieve the loss of a loved one or a change in life circumstances. If a loss was anticipated, it is understandable that the grief process may not be as long or complicated as the grief that one experiences when a tragic accident or unexpected event that causes loss occurs. But that’s not always the case either. Sometimes even when you anticipate a loss, grief can still feel like it would even if you didn’t have time to prepare. It’s also normal for people to cycle through the seven phases of grief in different orders. Grief is natural, and it’s also natural that people can move in and out of the phases of grieving. This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. People experience grief in different ways.
The phases of grief were originally outlined in a book called On Death and Dying, written by Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in 1969. The Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model originally cited 5 phases of grief. Since its original publication, several experts have added what they believe are other phases of the grieving process and what is to be expected during each.
Grief affects everyone differently. While there is much speculation regarding which stage of grief is the most difficult to navigate through, it is the consensus of most professionals that there is no particular stage that is hardest for everyone who grieves. For example, if a person experiences the loss of a loved one that is unexpected, denial may be the most difficult stage of grief to overcome. If a loss or change in life circumstance was anticipated, depression, reflection and loneliness may cause a greater impact.
The loss, and recovery process can vary. If you are in the grieving phase, you may find that one stage may feel easy so you think you’re handling things well, but the next day could be the complete opposite. This is why it can be helpful to remember to work through the recovery phases one day at a time. It’s OK to not have it all figured out. Recovery can feel overwhelming and complicated. You may benefit from working with a therapist or loss coach.
Losing a loved one or dealing with a major life change can be distressing. It’s a common experience that everyone faces. Most people who experience a significant loss or change have a period of sorrow, numbness, or even anger or guilt. With time, those feelings ease, and moving forward with life becomes possible.
Grieving can be a confusing emotion for some people. If your closest friends or loved ones have not experienced a similar loss, they may feel unsure about what to say to comfort you. Remember, even if their words don’t come out just right, having a friend who cares can help you through this trying time.
Even when you have friends or loved ones around you, when you experience loss, especially complicated loss, it can feel very lonely. Sharing your experience with others who have experienced loss can help you find effective ways to communicate your thoughts and feelings. A bereavement support group is a great place to fellowship with people who understand what you are going through. Local hospitals, churches (if you are religious), and counseling centers often have bulletins with support group dates and times listed.
While most of us want to be healthy, it can be difficult to know how to ask for help, or how to start treatment. A new baby, an overwhelming job, or living in a remote area can all make it difficult to receive help. You can get an online psychologist or online psychiatrist to provide a clinical assessment without having to leave home or work. After registering online for your secure account with BetterHelp.com, you’re matched with a licensed professional (such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist) and have the option to schedule sessions for times that work for you, day or night.