A theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggests that we go through five distinct stages of grief after the loss of a loved one: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.1 The Kubler-Ross model was instrumental in our collective understanding of loss and grief, and can be a good way to examine how we deal with our own pain.
GRIEF IS NOT LINEAR.
Grief is not a textbook diagram. We don’t follow The Stages of Grief from start to finish. There’s no timeline for grief—it continues for as long as we need to process our feelings and adjust ourselves to life without that person.
Grief comes in waves. Some waves repeat, some pass quickly. Not everyone goes through all of the same stages nor do the stages occur in a prescribed order. The grieving process can play out in any order for over a period of months, years, or even indefinitely. Grief is a process, not a destination.
THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF
The Five Stages of Grief are a set of guidelines that can be used to help those that are grieving learn to live with their loss and better understand what they are experiencing. We hope that by learning to use these tools, that we will be able to identify the various emotions while going through a loss.
Denial is the first of the five stages of grief. It helps us to survive the loss. In this stage, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day.
Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible. Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature's way of letting in only as much as we can handle.
As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process.
Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless.The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing.
The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but also to God. Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss.
At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn't attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn't around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died. Suddenly you have a structure – your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto;
The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. We become lost in a maze of "If only..." or "What if.." statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening... if only, if only, if only.
Guilt is often bargaining's companion. The "if onlys" cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we "think" we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
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.
After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever.
It's important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all? Depression is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of.
The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one didn't get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing. If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one
of the many necessary steps along the way.
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being "alright" with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don't ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality.
We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live now in a world where our loved one is missing.
Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. Grief comes in waves. Some waves repeat, some pass quickly. The grieving process can play out over a period of months, even years. It is important to recognize grieving as a process, so you can give yourself time and permission to heal.
If loss is a kind of pain, then grieving is the pathway to its healing.
Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you.
Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.