The Five Stages of Grief
While many people have heard of the five stages of grief, their application is frequently misunderstood. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler first wrote about the five stage in 1969, they applied them to the grief of knowing one’s own death is imminent, not the grief of losing someone else.
The five stages of grief are often applied to grief and loss of all types, but it’s important to remember that everyone has different experiences with grief and there is no one set way that people grieve. In I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye, Brook Noel and Pamela Blair write, “Recovery is not like an elevator that takes you to the basement of despair to the penthouse of peace and understanding. It’s more like a maze where you go forward a bit, move back a few steps, cover the same ground again, and find yourself at the beginning. Like a funhouse hall of mirrors, you see yourself over and over again, distorted and misshapen until you come out the other side.”
With that in mind, use the five stages of grief as a point of reference, but don’t be surprised if you jump between stages or go through certain stages over and over again. It's very common to experience different stages all at the same time, to never experience a certain stage, or for you to experience them out of order.
When you first experience a loss or learn about a terminal illness, it’s natural to approach it from an initial state of disbelief. You may find yourself thinking, “This can’t be happening.” Denial is a coping mechanism we subconsciously use to soften the initial blow. That being said, you may find yourself slipping back into a state of denial from time to time, even after the news has had time to settle. Denial can also come in the form of complete denial, where you absolutely refuse to accept that the loss has occurred.
Once you’ve mentally acknowledged the loss, it’s common to experience feelings of anger. This could take the form of anger toward God (or your religious figure / religion), a doctor, a family member, your friends, your community, yourself, or even the person you’ve lost. While feeling anger is completely normal in the grief process, it’s important to find healthy ways to release anger. Consider letting out your emotions in a journal, meditating, working out, or expressing your anger through art. While most of your loved ones will find ways to be compassionate and understanding, anger can lead to you saying incredibly hurtful things to those closest to you, especially if you feel someone close to you is to blame for the loss. Being mindful of your anger, your words, and your actions towards others will benefit you during this stage.
Bargaining can take different forms, depending on whether grief is being experienced pre or post a death. In the case of a terminal illness, it often takes the form of bargaining for time: “I’m okay with dying if I can just make it to one more Christmas.” It could also take the form of bargaining with God or the universe in general: “If she gets better, I promise I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to helping others.” Following a death, a bargaining stage often involves assessing other possible scenarios: “If I’d given him a ride that morning, he’d still be alive.” Bargaining can help you feel in control or feel as though you have power over the inevitable, even if it's an illusion.
Depression is the most well-known stage of grief. It can often manifest itself as a feeling of emptiness, and it’s common to feel as though it’s hard to continue with your regular routine with someone no longer there. Simple tasks--even just getting out of bed--may feel overwhelming. Common symptoms of depression include: loss of interest in things you enjoy, lack of appetite or overeating, irritability, trouble sleeping, weight loss or weight gain, fatigue, isolation, restlessness, and anxiety. To help manage depression, consider joining a grief support group or talking to a professional. It’s also critical to note that this is likely to be a phase of your grief that comes and goes over time; most people find that it’s not a stage that just passes one day. As a result, it’s important to find a way to manage any feelings of depression.
Many people struggle with the nature of the stage, because the word ‘acceptance’ is sometimes considered to be a synonym for ‘approval’ or ‘agreement’ and it seems impossible that you’ll ever approve of the loss. Therefore, you may want to think of it as acknowledgement, instead of acceptance. In this stage, you reach a point where you mentally and emotionally acknowledge that you’ve lost someone and that this is your new normal. However, don’t be surprised if a period of acknowledgement is followed by a move back into an earlier stage of grief. Going through the different stages out of order or repeatedly is completely normal and should not be taken as a sign of "regression".