Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Grief is a powerful, often overwhelming emotion that will touch virtually everyone at some point. It’s commonly experienced after the death of a loved one or the end of a meaningful relationship. While it’s a common human experience, it’s also a deeply personal one. There are many different ways in which an individual may feel, express, and describe grief.

Understanding grief and the Kübler Ross model, which consists of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance, is just one way of breaking down the different phases of this experience. It may not apply to everyone in a linear way, and some may even direct their anger towards God or inanimate objects. Yet, it can provide comfort if it resonates with you. Read on to learn more about the five stages and ways to cope, such as talking to someone about your feelings and getting support as you move through your grief.

Dealing with loss is never easy - we're here to help

About the five stages of grief 

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced the model of the five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying in 1969. Since then, some have expanded on the stages and their typical manifestations. Others reject the model entirely, believing it to be outdated. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler address this in On Grief and Grieving, 2014, saying: “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. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives”.

The grieving process is different for everyone

According to Kübler-Ross, the stages are not stops on a linear timeline but a framework to help people learn to live with their loss. The various stages give you a way to identify your feelings so you can begin to work through them and process your grief. There is no set order for experiencing them, and some people don’t go through all the stages. Others may naturally return to stages they experienced previously while skipping past others altogether. 

The grieving process may be influenced by many factors, such as the relationship with the loved ones lost, personal coping mechanisms, and cultural attitudes toward mourning. It's a deeply personal journey that sees family members and individuals work through the grief process in their own way.

The bottom line is that everyone experiences grief differently. The grief stage model simply serves as a tool for those who find it helpful rather than a prescriptive template for how one should live through feelings of grief. If you don’t find the five stages model helpful, you might look into others such as the dual process model (DPM), the six-R processes of mourning, or the four phases of grief.

“People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another.

We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one”. –On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler


The five stages of grief

If you or a loved one is going through the process of grief, it may be useful to learn about the five stages outlined by Kübler-Ross. These stages may help individuals put words to their experiences. Her five stages are as follows.


It is not uncommon for the first reaction to loss to be one of denial, in which individuals might feel deserted by the world in the wake of their sorrow. It can be viewed as a defense mechanism to help an individual survive the intense, immediate pain of a loss. This stage may leave a person feeling like they’re in shock, numb, or disconnected from reality. 


The second stage of grief involves feelings of anger, which are another natural part of many people’s healing journey. Kübler-Ross advises allowing yourself to feel the stage of anger, as suppressing anger may hinder your ability to process the loss and work toward healing. She relates that grief can make you feel as if your connections to the world have been severed and you’ve been set adrift, alone at sea with your emotions. Being angry gives you a direction and something to connect with—especially after the numbness of denial.


The bargaining stage typically involves an intense desire to go back in time and change the past so you can prevent the event that caused your grief from happening again. It often takes the form of trying to talk and negotiate with a higher power for the chance to go back in time and change things or making promises to live a certain way in the future if things could go back to how they were.

However, Kübler-Ross cautions against getting lost in such “what if” or “if only” fantasies. The inability to make these impossible deals often causes guilt over what you believe you could have done differently. Instead, treating yourself with as much compassion and gentleness as possible may be the best course of action. Bargaining often offers people a sense of hope or control, even if only for a moment, which they may need to get themselves through to whatever stage of their healing process comes next.


As your attention returns to the present—rather than ruminating on the past or trying to bargain for a different future—you may feel the full weight of your grief. You may experience it as feelings of emptiness or sadness, which may well be deeper or more pervasive than the sadness you’ve felt in the past. According to Kübler-Ross, the death of a loved one or another grief-inducing loss is depressing, so depression is a natural, appropriate reaction. Again, self-compassion and self-care are often important when experiencing the emotions of this stage; judging yourself for the natural emotions you feel is unlikely to help you progress toward healing. Letting yourself lean on social support can also be helpful during this and all other stages.


Acceptance is considered the final stage of grief. Many assume it indicates being “over” the loss or feeling “back to normal”. However, this stage focuses more on learning to come to terms with the new reality life makes for us. It’s a necessary stage that supports understanding the truth of the situation instead of failing to grasp what happened or hoping it was just a bad dream. A common characteristic of this last stage is finding ways to live with your grief as you move forward with your life.

How long does grief last?

There’s no set timeline for grief. People grieve in vastly different ways, making each process a unique experience. Therefore, there’s no accurate way to predict how long your feelings might last. 

However, if symptoms of unresolved grief persist for more than six months or longer than is expected and interfere with daily functioning, it’s possible to develop a mental health condition known as complicated grief

Additional symptoms include frequent, intense feelings of loneliness, frequent, preoccupying thoughts about the loved one lost that interfere with daily functioning, an inability to accept the loss, and excessive avoidance or proximity-seeking of reminders of the loss, among others. Complicated grief is treatable, usually with a form of psychotherapy that focuses on concepts like self-observation and reflection, companionship, and imagery exercises.

Dealing with loss is never easy - we're here to help

How therapy can help you process grief

Grief can feel isolating, but it’s important to remember that help is available. Leaning on family and friends can be nourishing during this time. Some may also choose to seek the support of a trained mental health professional. They can offer you a safe, nonjudgmental space where you can express your emotions, and they can assist you in developing healthy coping mechanisms to help you move through and live with your grief. 

For those in the thick of the grieving process, particularly when dealing with unresolved grief or the anticipatory grief associated with a terminal illness, the thought of traveling to in-person therapy appointments may seem overwhelming. In these moments, reaching out to a doctor sooner rather than later can provide crucial support. 

Since research suggests that online therapy may be an effective intervention for grief, you might consider this format as an alternative. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed counselor who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Regardless of the format you may choose, there are mental health professionals and bereavement groups available to support you.


Grief is a unique, individual experience, but you don’t have to go through it alone. The information outlined above, including the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, may help you understand various stages of the grieving process so you can identify the emotions you’re feeling. You might also consider meeting with a therapist for further support as you process your grief.
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