Understanding The Stages Of Grief

By Dylan Buckley

Updated March 25, 2020

Reviewer Deborah Horton

Everyone experiences grief differently. Many people who lose a friend or loved one experience several stages of grief as they deal with a loss. Psychologists who work with people as they grieve have noticed the ways that people cope with the loss. There are some commonalities, including distinct stages such as denial, anger, and depression. There are a few more to name, but what you may not know is that these stages aren't about the grief of someone dying, but rather something extremely different. Read on to find out what these stages.

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What Does Grief Look And Feel Like?

If you're grieving a loss, you may have a lot of questions. Am I supposed to be feeling this way? Is it wrong for me to feel a certain way when others are feeling differently? How much am I supposed to be feeling at this point? The key to recovery is understanding where you are in the grief process.

Grief is experienced in many ways. Emotions can range from anger to sadness or even numbness. Everything you feel is valid, and despite how intense your emotions maybe, you're most likely progressing through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We will further cover these topics and other important aspects of grief later in the article.

Should I Be Reaching Out For Help?

Some people will move through each of the phases of grief on their own, but others may need help. Grief can be debilitating for those dealing with heavy losses, and there's the possibility of developing mental health disorders.

No matter the hardship, grief is a universal experience. It's not a matter of whether you'll grieve, but when. Many have sought help for their grief, and research shows that those who have reached out for guidance have responded positively.

But what is normal to experience during grief, what should you expect, and what may indicate a developing or underlying problem that needs help?

Important Things To Know About Grief

Before we dive into the five main stages of grief, and additional stages presented in other models, here are some important things about the grief you should know.

Types Of Loss

Most people associate the word 'grief' with the sadness that surrounds the death of a loved one. Yet people can experience grief after many other losses, including a breakup, losing a job or a home, having a part of the body like an arm or leg removed, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, or having to drop out of college. All of these situations can lead to a feeling of loss and may add an extra layer of complexity that therapy could address.

The Grief Process

You may experience the stages of grief in any order and any number of times. You may feel sad at the beginning, move on to anger, and then return to sadness. Take your time to grieve. Allow yourself to do it in your unique way,but remember that help is available if you feel grief is significantly impacting your life.

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What You Probably Don't Know About The Stages Of Grief

Many people don't realize that the stages of grief were developed to explain the emotional trajectory of people with a terminal illness. The stages originally appeared in a book called On Death and Dying, by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In this book, Kübler-Ross writes about the stages of death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

She did not develop the stages to describe the loss people experience when a loved one dies-only the experiences of the terminally ill, but after some time, people used these phases to explain personal losses as well. Below, the different stages are explained.

Denial

When you're in denial about the loss, you try to convince yourself or others the event hasn't happened or isn't permanent. You know the facts, of course. If your spouse has died, you might accept that it happened but then believe for a time that their death means nothing to you. If your parents have divorced, you might try to get them back together even after they've moved on to other relationships. Following a job loss, you might go back to work, thinking they didn't mean it when they fired you.

Anger

You may be angry with the person who left you, or you may feel angry with yourself. You might find yourself shouting at people, or showing irritation at everything from minor inconveniences to significant letdowns. This stage can happen at any time, even after you go through a period of acceptance. The benefit of the grief stages is that they help you deal with the loss and move on. Anger can energize you to do just that.

Bargaining

At some point, you may find yourself trying to reclaim what you've lost. This part of the stages of grief help copes with the loss. People often promise God they'll live a better life if the tragedy is undone. A child may promise to pick up their toys and stop arguing with their siblings if their parents will get back together. Bargaining is a stage that sometimes brings up uncomfortable discussions that go nowhere.

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Depression

You may feel sad and cry often. You might notice changes in your appetite or sleep patterns. You might have unexplained aches and pains. This stage can occur in a breakup, in the death of a loved one, or any other loss, but it's a situational depression that may soon pass naturally as you move toward acceptance.

Acceptance

The last of Dr. Kübler-Ross's stages of grief is acceptance. You understand what you've lost and recognize how important that thing or person was to you. You no longer feel angry about it, and you're finished with bargaining to get it back. You're ready to start rebuilding your life.

Complete acceptance brings peace-but often, this stage is never complete. Instead, you might feel sad during death anniversaries or angry when you feel life would work out so much better if you just had that thing or person with you now. When you accept the loss fully, you'll understand the stages of grief better.

The Seven Stages Of Loss

Dr. Kübler-Ross refined her model to include seven stages of loss. The seven stages of loss model is a more in-depth analysis of the components of the grief process. These seven stages include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross added the two steps as an extension of the grief cycle. In the shock phase, you feel paralyzed and emotionless. In the testing stage, you try to find realistic solutions for coping with the loss and rebuilding your life.

Other Variations

In addition to the five-stage and seven-stage models, you may have heard about the four stages of grief or the six stages of grief. John Bowlby, a British psychologist, studied the stages of grief and loss before Dr. Kübler-Ross presented her five stages of grief. His work was with children with attachment issues. One of these, of course, is grief. Bowlby's four stages of grief are: 1) shock and numbness, 2) yearning and searching, 3) despair and disorganization, 4) reorganization and recovery.

The six stages of grief is merely an extension of Kubler-Ross's original five-stage process. The only difference is that the shock stage starts before denial. What are the actual stages of grief, then? That is a question only you can answer. The stages of grief you experience might be different from someone else's.

Getting Stuck?

Sometimes the grief process doesn't go well. The bereaved may become stuck in one stage of grief, unwilling or unable to move through the process. In a worst-case scenario, the person can continue to be angry, sad, or even in denial for the rest of their life. When this happens, they usually need to talk to a grief counselor before they can move out of that stage. Otherwise, the intense pain might continue over many years. Also, they may miss opportunities to build a new life that can bring happiness in the here and now.

Even if you don't become stuck in one particular stage of grief and loss, you might get stuck in the cycle. You move through the stages, but then move back to the previous ones, never quite able to free yourself. This return to earlier stages usually means you haven't thoroughly dealt with them yet. In cases of extreme loss, this may be necessary for a time. Shock, denial, anger, and bargaining can eventually lead to acceptance.

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When Grief Doesn't End, BetterHelp Can Help

Grief counseling is available to help people who are overwhelmed after a loss. Whether you're stuck in your grief cycle, in one stage of grief, or are dealing with issues stemming from your grief, such as depression, starting your grief counseling journey will provide you with the necessary resources to help you recover.

Talking to a grief counselor online at BetterHelp.com allows you to work through your grief in a safe and comfortable setting when it works best for you. BetterHelp.com offers paid to counsel online with certified therapists and is effective for people who are grieving, depressed, have anger management issues, or are dealing with any other mental health or emotional problem. By choosing online counseling, you skip the wait and start receiving professional support and guidance immediately. Read some of the reviews listed below, from people experiencing similar issues.

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 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."

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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the seven stages of grief?

It's important to remember that everyone grieves differently when it comes to the topic of death and dying. The seven stages involved in the grieving process are 1. Shock, 2. Denial, 3. Anger, 4. Bargaining, 5. Depression 6. Testing, 7. Acceptance.

What are the five stages of grief in order?

In the theory of grief addressed in the Elizabeth Kübler Ross model, grief is a process that happens in identifiable stages that occur after experiencing the death of a loved one or other loss of a loved one. According to the 5-stage model for grief, loss, and the grieving process, the primary stages of grief are 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, and 5. Acceptance. This model focuses on providing advice, diagnosis, or treatment for people dealing with negative effects of the grieving process -- like exaggerated grief or complicated grief.

Are there 5 or 7 stages of grief?

There are at least two models that highlight the stages of grief after the death of a loved one or any other loss of loved ones. (The stages of grief as they are discussed is largely dependent on the editorial policy of the publication.) 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 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.

What does bargaining mean in the five stages of grief?

The "bargaining" stage of grief, loss, and coping with loss comes after the denial stage. During this stage, isolation and loneliness may cause the person experiencing grief to attempt to bargain with their higher power to reverse the circumstances of the loss or death of a loved one. Bargaining is an unrealistic yet common defense mechanism that causes people to believe they can somehow reverse negative events by promising to "do better" in the future.

How does grief affect the body?

Grief, loss, and coping with loss (even the loss of a job) can trigger physical and mental responses in the body. Unresolved grief, loss, and pain can result in the development of mental health disorders like eating disorders (including binge-eating), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other serious mental health issues. Many people suffering from grief, loss, and sorrow find themselves dealing with depression and need to learn new coping strategies on how to deal with the loss outside of denying the reality of the event (as in bargaining.) When you speak with a mental health professional, they can provide diagnostic tools like a grief quiz, an ADHD quiz or ADHD overview and bipolar disorder treatment for chronic mental health symptoms.

How long is the mourning process?

Getting to the acceptance stage of grief, loss, and rebuilding your life during the mourning process is a personal process that is different for everyone. Some people experience all five stages of the grieving process quickly, while others who have experienced a loss -- linger on in the process for years. This is why it's important to reach out to get help and learn more about suicide prevention resources when you're having trouble with healing from grief. A mental health expert can assist you with diagnosis, treatment, and a mental disorder test to let you know if your symptoms are triggering or aggravating mental disorders. If you or someone you know is in danger of imminent harm, please contact your local authorities, emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to get immediate support.

What does grief response mean?

"Grief response" refers to how you deal with the effects of overwhelming emotions of grief and loss. Many everyday situations can trigger a grief response. The diagnosis of a terminal illness (for yourself or a loved one) the death of a loved one, loss of a job, and other similar circumstances are all examples of situations that can trigger this response. Typical grief responses include denial, anger, bargaining, mentioned in the 5-stage and 7-stage grief models above.

What are the side effects of losing a loved one?

When you're dealing with the loss of a loved one, you can expect to have good days and bad days. Dealing with grief, loss, and learning how to live your new altered life can take its toll if you don't find a therapist or other certified mental health professional to help you learn new coping strategies to heal. Side effects of losing a loved one can vary from person to person but can include mental health effects like the development of eating disorders or binge-eating behaviors and even becoming enraged and throwing inanimate objects. Many people that experience grief, loss, or unexpected upsets in their lives find themselves dealing with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep disorders, and other mental health disorders.

How do you deal with the loss of a loved one?

When trying to deal with the loss of a loved one, the loss can be devastating for most. The key to understanding grief is to find new ways of coping with stress. You can do this by getting a diagnosis and treatment from a licensed mental health professional. A licensed mental health professional can provide you with palliative care and relevant health news as the first line of defense. Your mental health care provider can provide you with access to strategies and diagnostic tools (like the ADHD quiz listed above) for paying homage to the person who died -- while remaining mentally stable enough to regain control and carry on with your own life. For example, people with symptoms of bipolar disorder (or other chronic mental health disorders) can turn to a licensed therapist for bipolar disorder treatment. Mental health treatment occurs simultaneously with mental health treatments.

What are the eight stages of the grieving process?

While the 5-stage and 7-stage model outline popular stages of grief, there are also other theories of grief proposed like the 8-stage model. The 8-stage model adds stage that may be labeled as "guilt" or "testing," depending on your therapy provider's point of view.

What is the bargaining stage of dying?

During the bargaining stage of dying, people can become so overwhelmed with sadness and regret that they try to make a deal with God or their higher power to "undo" the negative outcome. People who are stuck in the bargaining stage can benefit from taking part in grief support groups and seeking advice, diagnosis, and treatment with a licensed therapist or another medical provider. A licensed therapist or medical provider can provide medical advice and therapeutic advice for how to deal with the grief, loss, and confusion that often accompanies a terminal illness.

Can grief make your heart hurt?

Grief is very personal can cause physical and mental symptoms that can make you feel anxious. When people experience anxiety and panic attacks, they often confuse these symptoms with those of a heart attack. In some cases, unhealed grief can result in more severe symptoms like a heart attack or broken heart syndrome. When you seek additional information or help -- a medical or mental health provider may ask you to take a grief quiz to determine your level of grief.

What does grief do to your brain?

Grief, loss, and anger can have lasting and traumatic effects on the brain. Unhealed grief, loss, and misplaced anger can cause symptoms of mental health disorders over time as weeks and months go by. People who already experience schizophrenia symptoms, seasonal affective disorder, bipolar disorder, or other mental health disorders can be severely affected when confronted with the news of a dying loved one. (The same is true in the case of the loss of any other close personal relationships.) Contact a mental health professional if you or someone you love is suffering from the effects of grief or bipolar disorder.

What is the cause of grief?

The cause of grief, loss, and sorrow is related to the abrupt change that goes with losing important people or situations in your life. Grief, loss, and sorrow can trigger mental trauma that many of us are unaware of until we see the effects begin to show up in our everyday lives. For example, in the case of postpartum depression, a mother may simultaneously experience joy and grief as her life begins to change in new ways. People who are experiencing symptoms of grief can reach out to a local support group to get help, including resources and referrals.

What are the two parts of the grief reaction?

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information -- grieving is a personal process that involves several stages to integrate. Two parts of the grief reaction are psychological and somatic symptoms that can show up in our lives. Psychological symptoms of grief, loss, and sorrow affect mental health and can aggravate or trigger mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, binge-eating, or being stuck in the grieving process. When people are unable to move on the acceptance -- the final stage in the grieving process, somatic symptoms like heart-attacks and "broken heart syndrome" can be a result.

What is exaggerated grief?

Exaggerated grief happens when a person is unable to complete the stages of the grieving process. People who become overwhelmed with grief, loss, and sorrow may become stagnant in their lives and fail to thrive without the intervention of medical professionals, mental health professionals, and grief support groups. When people aren't able to successfully navigate the grief, loss, and sorrow stages that flow from denial through acceptance, negative effects can present themselves as the person suffering fails to realize that grief is grief and that the symptoms will pass (or diminish) with time -- if we allow it.

How Does Bipolar Disorder Affect The Grieving Process?

The grieving process is not a single straight line, especially if you're someone with bipolar disorder. Your depression can make it difficult to cope with what's going on. On the other hand, your mania can make the denial stage worse. You may also feel angrier. To cope, you may make risky choices while you're manic.

Those with bipolar disorder should seek help from a therapist when they're experiencing grief. Getting help to improve your mental health is always important, but when you have bipolar disorder, it's a requirement.

Do You Experience Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance in Order?

The stages of grief are a simplified way of how people experience grief, but it's not universal. Many people experience grief in many ways when they are dealing with the death of a loved one. Not everyone experiences the stages in the same order, and it's not a straight line.

What do we mean by this? We're referring to the fact that when you experience the loss of a loved one, you may experience stages in different orders. You may feel depressed, but then have the denial stage later. You may alternate back and forth between different stages. With grief, it is important that you seek help from a mental health professional if you feel like you're unable to cope, but don't worry if you are experiencing the stages of grief in a different manner. Everyone grieves differently.

What Are Some Coping Strategies for Coping With Loss?

When you are experiencing the death of a loved one, grief takes time. It's not something you want to rush through. However, there are coping strategies that can make the process much easier and allow you to live a better life. Here are a few ways.

  • Create small goals for you to accomplish. Goal-setting apps can keep you productive and accountable, but also can make the goals small and bite-size so you can do it while you're dealing with the death of a loved one.
  • Support groups are always a good solution. Talking with people who have experienced a loss similar to yours can allow you to have some insight and learn some coping strategies. Look for grief support groups, be it in person or online.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. It can help you to accept what you can't control, be in the moment, and to acknowledge how you feel. Be it meditative breathing or a body scan, mindfulness is there for you.

Should I Seek Grief Counseling if Someone Has a Terminal Illness?

Grief counseling doesn't need to happen after the death of a loved one. If someone is terminally ill, it's important to get into grief counseling for the family. Grief counseling can allow someone with the terminal illness to be hopeful, but also come to terms with what they have. It can help the family prepare for life after the death of a loved one. Grief counseling can ultimately make the process easier to go through when the death of a loved one happens due to terminal illness.

Can Grief Cause Eating Disorders?

When you're dealing with the death of a loved one, you may develop some mental disorders including eating disorders. This can happen in a few ways. When you're depressed, your eating habits may change. You may depression eat, or not eat anything at all.

In order to cope with a death of a loved one, you may turn to looking at your body and watching what you eat. Focusing on yourself while you're coping is good, but many people will take it overboard and soon develop an eating disorder.

If you suspect you have one, it's important to speak to a therapist or go to a doctor. They can help provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment options, and connect you with an eating disorder support group.

Who Was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist whose 1969 book On Death and Dying, changed how we view grief. On Death and Dying first introduced the stages of grief, from the first to final stage. She passed away in 2004.

Should I Seek A Higher Power if I'm Grieving?

Everyone copes in their own way, and for many, their faith is a good method. If you're religious, consulting your pastor or praying could help. However, if you aren't religious, there are some secular methods of coping with grief, too.

What Is An Example of a Defense Mechanism in Grief?

One defense mechanism we use while grieving is the first stage of grief: denial. In order to defend from grief, we simply act like it never happened. Someone who is grieving may project their emotions onto someone else, or try to intellectualize their feelings.

What Are Some Related Articles About Grief?

BetterHelp has many articles about grief. One you should look into is our article about grief counseling. We have a selection of articles that can help you cope, so check them out and make sure you read our editorial policy, too.


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