Often, grief can be extremely hard-hitting and derailing. Many people aren’t aware that it can be spurred by experiences other than death. This might include the departure of a significant relationship, being fired from a job, developing a terminal illness, or other traumatic events. Grief is a very complicated issue, often presenting itself in many ways, shapes, and forms. Yet, universally, grief also tends to follow a path: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Even though these steps aren’t always experienced in order, nearly everyone in the world goes through them. These are the five stages of grief and what they entail.
Stage 1: Denial
For many people, their first reaction to a loss will be “there’s no way this is happening.” This reaction doesn’t occur because they’re ignoring or rejecting the situation. Instead, it’s a way to numb themselves from the overwhelming pain that comes with any significant loss. Often times, the immediate shock of grief can be too much for our minds to emotionally process. In order to avoid getting too overwhelmed, the brain defends itself against suffering by denying the loss altogether.
However, denial doesn’t last forever. It’s often a way to transition into recognizing the loss without shocking your emotional core. In fact, a bit of denial can be healthy in the period following major losses. Sometimes, it provides space to take a breather from the overwhelming trauma of your losses until you’re ready to face them.
Still, you can’t linger in denial forever. It becomes unhealthy when you refuse to confront your losses in the long term and deny your true emotions. But don’t be afraid of initial denial and the numbness it brings. It’s perfectly normal. For many, it can help soften the most painful losses life has to offer. Along with this, it can ensure that you’re able to prepare to constructively transition into the next stages of grief.
Stage 2: Anger
When you lose someone or something significant, life can suddenly seem extremely unfair and twisted. This can drudge up intense feelings of rage, anger, and fury. You might find yourself wondering: Why did I deserve that loss? How could someone/something dare to leave me? This might lead to outbursts of anger, internalized rage, and frustration towards yourself or the person/thing you lost.
This fury isn’t unprompted. In fact, it can be another buffer stage after denial. Anger similarly helps to deflect the deeper feelings of sorrow you’re not yet ready to face. Still, you’ll likely begin to experience a wider array of emotions and thoughts during this stage. You may feel irritable and angry, but you also might question the purpose of your life, your faith, and your relationships.
However unsettling these thoughts may be, they’re not uncommon. Additionally, they don’t mean you’ll forever remain a furious or hopeless person. Losing someone or something that is important to you is often a massive, traumatic change. It is bound to bring with it a flood of emotions and thoughts, including general frustrations and anger over such a large, painful shift in your life. Yet, anger can sometimes be motivating and energizing to work towards healing…although it’s still necessary to process how you’re feeling with time.
Stage 3: Bargaining
Grief can often induce serious feelings of helplessness. In order to combat this scary feeling of vulnerability, many try to bargain with their losses. This doesn’t necessarily always mean attempting to remove or soften the loss and the pain that comes with it. Often times, this stage brings feelings of guilt, regret, remorse, or wonderment about how things may have played out differently to avoid the loss.
Some people may ruminate on decisions they made that they believe contributed to their loss. An example of this might be a child feeling guilty for acting out because they believed it resulted in their parent’s divorce. Rarely is this the case, yet they may believe that their loss is reversible if they act better. As a result, they may attempt to bargain improved behavior in the present in order for their parents to get back together.
Other people may regret choices they didn’t make that they believe may have prevented their loss. This might present itself as someone who wishes they’d sought different treatment for a loved one who passed from an illness. Even if the one they cared for was already receiving adequate care, they’ll still wish they had done more. They may believe that if they’d altered one decision, they would have been able to prevent the inevitable loss of their loved one.
Unfortunately, major losses aren’t always, or even often, irreversible. Blaming oneself and attempting to bargain for better results/a reversed loss will likely only lead to increased feelings of shame and regret. Still, it’s not unnatural to wish you could take back such a major trauma. Like denial and anger, “what ifs” are a way to guard against the painful truth that someone or something you love had been lost.
Stage 4: Depression
Since grief is so traumatic, it’s not uncommon to experience situational depression. In fact, most people think of depression before any other emotion when it comes to grief, with good reason. Coping with drastic loss can deflect the usual joy you might find in life. Once your defense mechanisms fall and you must confront your feelings, it can lead to heavy feelings of depression and hopelessness.
You may also experience the symptoms that come with clinical depression, such as feeling tired, unmotivated, numb, or having a low appetite. You might have a hard time getting through the day and feel as if you’d rather stay in bed. You also might struggle to deal with situations surrounding the loss, such as planning a funeral or signing divorce paperwork. Your loss may even feel as if it’s sucked all purpose from your life, introducing hopeless and/or suicidal thoughts.
However, much like anger, this consuming situational depression doesn’t last forever. It’s completely normal to experience it after a painful, life-altering loss. Depression is a natural part of grief, and it will help you naturally begin to accept your circumstances. And during your most hopeless days, don’t be afraid to reach out to those who care for you. They may not understand what you’re going through, yet they’ll likely be eager to support you however they can.
Stage 5: Acceptance
Though it can be a long, difficult road to get to this stage, acceptance often rounds off the stages of grief. This stage isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Feelings of sadness and anger often still linger. In addition, not everyone reaches it in their lifetime. However, acceptance means you’ve finally come to terms with your loss. You’re able to reflect on it and recognize it’s significance. You understand what you’ve lost, and hope to be able to move forward in a healthy way.
Acceptance doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. Still, it should provide some calmness and relief from the overwhelming swell of emotions surrounding your loss. When you achieve acceptance, it means you’re done denying, deflecting, bargaining, and living in constant depression. You understand the importance of what you’ve lost but still hope to move forward from the trauma in the future.
It’s a stage which you’ll likely spend most of your life returning to. Anniversaries, memories, and reminders of what you’ve lost can bring up anger, bargaining, and depression again. Additionally, acceptance isn’t always the final stage. Throughout your life, you might experience the same stages of grief again over one loss. This is perfectly typical, as grief isn’t linear. It’s personal, private, and unique for each individual who experiences it.