Even though most people will experience grief at some point in their lives, most are unprepared. Our society does not teach about grief or how to process it in healthy ways.
It also doesn’t teach us how to support those well who are grieving. Without this understanding and skill set, it’s natural that people search outward for explanations.
For many, the big experience of loss, and the magnitude of emotion that comes with it, feels like uncharted territory. As humans, we like process — and we like knowing what to expect.
This is where the famous 5 stages of grief framework came from. You’ve probably heard of these stages if you’ve suffered any type of loss. Today, we’re here to dive deeper into each of the stages, how they can help you cope, and what you can do to get the support you need to move through grief.
Where did the 5 stages of grief come from?
One of the most widely known theories about grief comes from the Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who worked with patients facing terminal illness. The framework she defined was specifically about these patients who were grieving their own deaths.
She first published her findings in 1969 in her book entitled, On Death and Dying. In this book, she describes what she saw the five stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Also known as the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, the 5 stages later became widely accepted as the model for how people deal with all kinds of personal losses: the end of a relationship or divorce, financial stress, losing a job, and more. Kübler herself even expanded her model to include these in another book, co-authored with death and grieving expert David Kessler.
The concept of the stages of grief has been widely debated and expanded since Dr. Kübler-Ross passed away in 2004. For example, Kessler has proposed “meaning” as the sixth stage of grief. More recently, Kessler also said the stages of grief could be applied to how we process the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether or not you agree that the five stages of grief work for everyone, they can be a helpful guide for someone facing an overwhelming loss and no idea where to begin the road to healing.
What are the 5 stages of grief?
As mentioned above, the 5 stages of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Let’s dive into these each a little deeper so you can understand how they might help you or a grieving loved one.
1. Denial stage
The first stage of grief is the denial stage. It’s when grieving or bereaved persons can’t or choose not to admit the loss that has happened.
Anyone who is going through a big change, like a divorce, or a major loss, like the death of a family member, needs time to absorb the news. Denial is a defense mechanism that gives you the time to do that as you slowly process your new reality.
2. Anger stage
Once you can’t avoid the fact that the loss did indeed happen, the anger stage of grief begins. Strong, intense feelings of anger or frustration provide a masking effect for the deep grief you may feel under the surface. Whether it’s rational or irrational, directed at the person you lost or at inanimate objects, anger is just part of the process.
3. Bargaining stage
We’ve all seen the movies where the hero tries desperately to bargain with a higher power. For people dealing with intense grief, seeking control like this is common during the bargaining stage.
Bargaining isn’t just limited to making promises to a higher power though — it can also look like searching for a reason that the loss happened. For example, “maybe if I had worked more weekends, my boss wouldn’t have fired me.”
In reality, though, grief usually stems from causes outside your control. However, that’s hard to recognize when you’re going through it.
4. Depression stage
The depression stage happens when you slow down and fully face your grief. Rather than actively trying to avoid it, you can address your feelings in healthy ways during this stage.
Depression is one stage of grief that can be quite painful. Give yourself time, but if you find yourself stuck here after several months, it may be time to seek support from a mental health professional or participate in grief counseling.
5. Acceptance stage
The final stage of grief is acceptance. That doesn’t mean it’s a happy ending or a finish line though — grief changes you and it changes your life. Acceptance means coming to terms with those changes and realizing that you have started to have more good days than bad ones.
Potential problems with the 5 stages of grief
The 5 stages have helped many people through the grief process. However, getting too attached to these specific stages can cause a grieving person to get stuck on following a certain pattern — rather than being open to experiencing their own, unique healing process.
Let’s review some of the potential flaws of the 5 stages of grief so that you’re aware of what to watch for in yourself or others.
1. Dr. Kübler-Ross’s research was more anecdotal than scientific
Essentially, Dr. Kübler-Ross gathered anecdotes from around 200 terminally ill patients. She then used those conversations to create the five stages of the grief model. In contrast, evidence-based theories or models usually require a scientific method, hypothesis, research, and more.
2. Dr. Kübler-Ross focused on studying a specific kind of grief
The 5 stages of grief model was intended to describe the emotions of terminally ill and dying patients, and Dr. Kübler-Ross’s research was thus based on conversations with those individuals. Yes, grief is a universal experience, but we all experience it differently, so the narrow lens of this research is definitely a limitation for the model.
3. Dr. Kübler-Ross’s model can make people feel inadequate if they don’t follow it exactly
At a time when they need maximum support and confidence, grievers may feel that they are not “doing it right” or that they are “not normal” if they’re experiencing more complicated grief than the stages can cover.
Most people’s experience of grief will differ simply because grief is personal, and we all experience it differently. Ultimately, wrongly applying the 5 stages of grief can lead to disenfranchised grief, which only exacerbates the griever’s symptoms.
The best way to avoid this is to take what works for you from the stages of grief model and leave the rest behind.
How can I better understand my grief?
So how can you go beyond the idea of stages of loss and truly understand your own personal grief? Like we’ve said, grief is a journey, but the steps below can help you start processing your emotions in healthy ways.
1. Recognize how grief shows up in your life
Grief responses arise from many kinds of losses. Sometimes you might not recognize that what you are feeling is grief. Certainly, the death of a loved one is one of the most profound losses people will experience in their life.
But many kinds of losses trigger grief reactions. Some examples of grief-creating events are:
- Loss of a job
- Loss of social connection due to quarantine
- Cancellation or postponement of a significant event
- Empty nest syndrome (when children are grown and moved out of the familial home)
- Life-changing diagnosis for yourself or a loved one
- Death of a cherished pet
2. Recognize the symptoms of grief
Recognizing what grief symptoms you are feeling allows you to invite practices and interventions to support your grief journey.
Our body has many natural responses to the experience of grief. Sometimes, our body will respond before our mind recognizes that we’re grieving. Here are some physical reactions to grief:
Of course, we all also have emotional responses to grief. Here are a few common emotional symptoms of grief:
- Loss of interest in things that used to bring joy
- Numbness, shock, sadness, despair, fear
- Decreased confidence
- Increased or new onset of anxiety
- Sense of loss of control
- Changes in capacity and ability to deal with stress
- Changes in interpersonal relationships
3. Recognize grief works on its own clock — and can vary in impact
We’re all on our own timelines when it comes to healing. Allowing this to be true, instead of rushing to “solve” your grief is essential to coping in healthy ways.
That said, it’s good to know that the American Psychological Association states that most people start to feel relief from their intense reactions to uncomplicated grief between six months and two years.
No matter how long or how intense your grief is, though, work on accepting yourself and your emotional needs first. From there, you can learn to cope and get the help you need to heal.
4 ways to cope with your grief
Understanding grief is a good starting point. However, the daily management of grief can be extremely difficult. Hopefully, the coping mechanisms below can help support you through these tough times.
1. Acknowledge that grief is messy
Grief does not follow a prescribed route, set of stages, or standard progression. By understanding this about your grief, you release yourself from feeling like you need to explain it to yourself or to others. You feel what you feel. Period.
2. Identify and be aware of your feelings of grief
You cannot heal what you don’t feel. Getting in touch with what you are feeling and naming it can be the first step in opening awareness of what you need right now.
Having clarity on what you are feeling can also help you ask for what you need from yourself and from others. Dr. Gloria Willcox published the Feelings Wheel to help put words to emotions — try checking it out.
3. Ask friends and family to be there for you
Your friends and family most likely want to be there for you in your grief. But sometimes, they might not know what kind of support you want or need. Here are some ways to ask for help during times of grief:
- Reach out proactively — your network might not know if you want space or need help, so be the first one to reach out.
- Ask for specific help — ask someone for childcare assistance so you can attend a support group, for example, or to help coordinate out-of-town family members if you’re planning a funeral.
- Be aware of your emotional needs and set expectations — do you want advice, or do you just need someone to listen with compassion?
4. Know when to get professional help
You don’t have to go through grief alone. And no matter what loss you’re suffering, your grief is valid.
BetterUp coaching is one example of a program that can help shift grief from a difficult workplace topic to a source of universal connection by validating and acknowledging grievers’ experiences. BetterUp has recently launched a grief coaching track focused on understanding how your grief might show up at the workplace or at home.
If you’re feelings of grief persist over time, seek professional support. Sometimes, grief can spiral into clinical depression. If you’re struggling or living with depression and grief, seek the advice of a trained mental health care professional.
Start coping with your loss
There are many healthy ways to process your grief that acknowledge your unique feelings and experience of grief.
No matter where you are in your grieving journey, remember, you’re right where you’re supposed to be. There’s no checklist to the grieving process — and your feelings are valid.
Continue to practice self-awareness and self-care as you navigate your loss. If you’re a caregiver or supporting a loved one through a difficult loss, lead with empathy and leave judgment at the door.