Understanding The Stages Of Grief

By: Dylan Buckley

Updated September 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Deborah Horton

If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one or friend, a change in a relationship, or dealt with a serious or life-changing illness, you have likely experienced grief in some form. Grief is a very personal experience, and, at times, it can be a very overwhelming emotion.

If you're experiencing grief, it's normal to have questions and to wonder what to expect as you move through the process and stages that come with grieving. You may wonder why you have certain emotions or if it is normal to have the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing. You may ask yourself questions like "Am I supposed to be feeling this way?" "Why are others not affected as much as me?" or "What am I supposed to be feeling at this point?" It can become easy to compare the way you handle grief with what you perceive as another's way to grieve.  It's important to understand that the emotions around grief are a personal journey and that everyone grieves differently.

Does Everyone Have Similar Experiences?

It is all a personal journey.  It is a process that takes time.  As difficult as the process may seem, there is hope, and learning to understand the stages of this emotion can be the beginning to understanding that this is part of the journey, not the end of your journey. Take your time to grieve through the stages. Allow yourself to do it in your unique way but remember that help is available if you feel that anything is significantly impacting your life.

The symptoms appear differently in each person. They may appear as emotional, physical, or social disruptions, depending on how well you cope with grief and other stresses in your life. It's not uncommon for people to experience physical symptoms from grief such as headaches, loss of appetite, or sleep disorders.  

Feeling like no one understands what you are going through or not feeling comfortable talking about the grief often leads to social isolation.

While some alone time is okay, it is also important to have a support system of people to interact with. 

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What Do the Stages of Grief Look and Feel Like? 

If you are dealing with grief, it's important to understand that it is normal to have good days and bad days. It's also normal to feel like your moods fluctuate from time to time throughout processing your grief. As we will discuss in more detail in this article, there are stages of grief that bereaved people usually experience. Your feelings are valid, and you have a right to grieve.

Stages of Grief

When many of us hear the word "grief", we associate it with sadness that is related to grief. However, people can experience it for other reasons. Any situation that disrupts life or the feeling of loss can result in a person grieving. The loss of a home or job, a relationship that ends, moving to a new city, or being unable to complete a goal can all cause similar emotions.

Reconstruction and Working Through Grief

Grief is a process, but it is not all about feeling overwhelmed or distressed. There comes a time in the journey of the stages when working through changes and learning to rebuild life begins to occur. As the emotions associated with the process begin to settle and the mental strain of the initial part begins to ease, it becomes easier to work through feelings and to seek solutions for managing emotions and life in general. During this stage, a bereaved person may begin to set goals for the future.

Keep in mind, although this stage is related to grieving, it is more about the bereaved person begins to have a sense of control over his/her life again. Life begins to feel less tumultuous and focusing on physical and mental well-being seems like a less daunting task.

Grief Stages - Acceptance and Hope

Accepting grief does not mean you can't acknowledge that the loss occurred. However, it is okay to take advantage of an opportunity to deal with the reality of the event that caused these emotions, to learn ways to cope with the emotions associated with it, and to move forward. The stage of acceptance and hope does not necessarily mean that every day will be happy. It does, however, offer the promise of better days ahead. 

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Does Mental Illness Impact Grief?

Mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, ADHD, and schizophrenia are a few illnesses that can lead to complicated bereavement. Because people with mental illness often experience alterations in the way they process thoughts and emotions, the effects of grief can be profound, the stages may change with the symptoms of a mental illness.

Postpartum depression, affective disorder, anxiety, and panic attacks can also make the symptoms of grief seem much worse. Recognizing symptoms of anxiety or depression and any other mental illness that you or a loved one has experienced is key to understanding when it's time to seek medical advice and a diagnosis.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with a mental illness and is also experiencing bereavement, it is important to see a primary care provider and/or mental health provider to make sure any necessary measures that can promote emotional well-being are implemented and followed.

Coping Strategies 

Grief can feel like an emotional rollercoaster at times. However, there are ways to learn to cope with grief and the sadness that occurs and to begin healing.

While each person deals with grief differently and goes through different stages of grief, there are some things that you can do to begin coping healthily.
  • Be intentional about self-care. During a period of grief, many bereaved people ignore self-care. Maintaining a healthy balance of rest, nutrition and social interaction will help relieve some of the difficulty that grief brings.   Remember, you are hurting. You don't have to do everything for everyone. Take care of yourself first. Read a book. Take a walk. Relax in a bubble bath. Anything you can do that focuses on helping your body and mind and relax and refocus will be helpful as you go through the process stages.
  • Avoid harmful behaviors. In times of stress, it is not uncommon for people who are struggling to deal with their emotions to resort to harmful behaviors. Some examples may include abusing alcohol or illicit drugs. If you feel the need to engage in unhealthy behaviors or habits, try to focus on things that are positive and that promote your physical and emotional well-being.
  • Talk to others. Grief has a way of making people feel there is no source for help and that no one understands what they're going through. This is not true. You don't have to experience grief alone. In fact, bottling up emotions and trying to pretend that things are okay when they are not could result in complicated grief. Seek the help of a support system of friends or loved ones who can listen to you and help you through the emotions as you begin to heal and process through your grieving. 
  • Don't be afraid to seek professional help. For many, the idea of seeking professional help feels uncomfortable. However, if you feel overwhelmed by one of the stages and need to learn ways to cope effectively, a mental health professional or counselor could be a critical person to include on your path to healing. The right professional can help you process your emotions related to grief and help you create a plan of action of how you will handle the days, weeks, and months to come as you go through the different stages of grief.

Getting Stuck?

Even with an active support system, the process is not always simple. Some people may feel unable or unwilling to move from one phase to another, leaving them feeling "stuck" in a particular stage. It's important to remember that these stages or steps are personal. These people experience what is known as complicated grief.  Complicated grief is the term used to describe a bereaved person feeling "trapped" in the emotions associated with grief. When this occurs, the bereaved person may express feeling unending feelings of anger or sadness and may remain in denial regardless of the efforts of others to help. This is a chronic condition that often requires the assistance of mental health professionals.

Some people may transition from one phase to another without difficulty but may remain in the cycle for what seems like an endless amount of time.  They may experience one or more stages of grief repeatedly.  Although these emotions can feel overwhelming, this does not always indicate a significant problem or lack of coping mechanisms.  The type of grief and how it occurred may play a factor in how easily a person moves through all the stages of grief and how they recover entirely from a grief.

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When grief doesn't end, BetterHelp can help. Online therapy, such as the therapy provided by BetterHelp, provides individuals an opportunity to connect with mental health professionals who are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to help facilitate effective coping and healing. Online therapy is convenient, as most sessions can be scheduled at the client's discretion and can be done anywhere a client has access to a phone or internet. Talking to a grief counselor online at BetterHelp.com allows you to work through your emotions in a safe and comfortable setting when it works best for you.

BetterHelp.com offers clients access to licensed, trained, experienced, and accredited psychologists, marriage and family therapists, clinical social workers, and board licensed professional counselors who can help tailor a plan of care specific to you and your needs. If you are experiencing grief, you don't have to experience the journey alone.  Reach out today and let our dedicated team of professionals help you through the grieving process.

BetterHelp Counselor Reviews

"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 to, 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 grief, 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."
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"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."
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Grief Conclusion

Grief is a natural part of losing something or someone you held dearly, and it takes time. If you feel your grief is a burden you can't carry alone, there are trained professionals at BetterHelp available to help when you need it.

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