Grief can be a complex, emotionally draining process that always disrupts our lives and can even make us question who we are and our relationships with those around us. Organising the grieving process into stages helps us make a little more sense of what we’re going through and, in a way, know what to expect.
The five stages of grief were first proposed in 1969 by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying” and they’re as follows:
The first stage of grief often manifests as an instinctive self-defence mechanism: faced with the loss of a loved one, we tend to refuse the facts and believe that this can’t be happening. At this stage, it’s also common for people to isolate themselves, avoid talking about the issue, or think that all life is meaningless. You can also experience a sense of numbness and detachment that carries you through the first wave of pain.
As the reality of the loss starts to set in, we often start feeling angry at the situation and redirect this anger in different ways, depending on the circumstances. For example, if our loved one took their own life, we can feel angry at them for not seeking help sooner, or if they were diagnosed with a terminal illness, we can feel anger towards the doctor for not giving them the best treatment. Deep down, we may know that this anger isn’t logical, but anger is just another manifestation of pain.
Bargaining is a way of trying to regain control. Although we know that we can’t turn back time and prevent our loved one from passing away, we often play scenarios in our head where they could have lived if they had sought medical attention sooner, or took another road to work, or if we had treated them differently.
Losing a loved one is a major life event and it’s normal to feel sadness and regret. Sadness because we feel alone, because we could have experienced so much more together, because we didn’t get to say goodbye, or because funeral arrangements might make us neglect other friends and family members.
The final stage of grief, acceptance, can be understood as a form of closure. Contrary to popular belief, accepting the loss and “moving on” doesn’t mean that we no longer care about the loss. No, that loss remains with us, but through acceptance we come to terms with it, reach a sense of peace, and continue to live normal lives.
If you are grieving, it’s important you understand that these stages are in no way universal. Grief is a deeply personal process and it doesn’t follow templates. You don’t have to experience all five stages of grief, and not in this exact order. Ultimately, the goal is to reach acceptance, but if your loved one passed away in sudden or uncommon circumstances, you may find this harder or experience intense reactions to grief. When that happens, know that you are not alone. Talking to a bereavement therapist can help you better cope with the loss and regain control.