The recent passing of my grandmother (at the age of 106!) has been a time of reflection for me. I’m very lucky that I’m not overly devastated by the loss, and I’m quickly moving through the stages of grief. However, it got me thinking that an overview of the original five stages of grief (as defined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross), and then an introduction to the sixth stage (as introduced by her academic partner David Kessler), would make for a helpful article.
In this post I'll give an overview of the stages of grief and then talk about some keys to help in the process. And, as always, if you're feeling stuck or in need of any support, please reach out.
Denial, the first stage of grief, is necessary to help you survive a loss. You're in a state of shock because the world as you knew it no longer exists. You might start to deny the news (maybe your loved one was misidentified for example). In this stage, you're clinging to a "preferred" reality, instead of the true reality of the situation.
This type of denial actually serves an important role. It helps you cope with and survive the initial event. It's a natural defense mechanism. It's nature's way of saying there is only so much a person can handle at one time.
The next stage of grief, anger, is a very necessary part of the process.
First, it's a transition from the denial stage. In other words, you're starting to move from the "preferred" reality of denial to the "actual" reality that now exists in your life. Second, anger can give you a temporary structure. Your life has been shattered and it might feel like you have no grounding. The direction of anger, even if it's "unfair" in hindsight, can begin to bind you back to a sense of connection with others. It's something to grasp onto.
Anger might present itself in feelings of "why me" or "life isn't fair". It might present as blame toward others that the loss occurred or as a redirection of perceived slights. People of religious faith will often find they're angry with God for letting this happen to them.
While anger is generally frowned upon in our society, it's very important to allow the anger in. Even though it may seem endless, it's important to feel it. The more anger you allow yourself to feel, the quicker it will dissipate. Of course, there are many emotions under the surface of anger, and there is a lot of pain, but there will be time to deal with those underlying emotions down the road a bit.
Bargaining is a form of false hope. It's a form of "negotiation" with yourself or with a higher power that serves as a way to try to avoid the grief. It's a willingness to make a major change in your life to bring things back to the way they used to be. For example, prior to a death you might bargain that "if you'll just cure this disease, I'll dedicate my life to helping others." Or "if you heal my child, I promise I'll be a better mom and never complain about them again."
After death, bargaining often takes the form of guilt, or "what if" statements. What if you had found the disease sooner? What if you had just delayed your loved one by 30 seconds?
Depression follows bargaining. It's the phase where you accept that your attempts at avoidance and bargaining are futile. Reality begins to set in, and grief tends to enter your reality in a major way. The grief is often much deeper and persistent than you could have imagined and often feels like it's never-ending. It could manifest in feelings of wanting to withdraw from life, feelings like nobody could possibly understand what you're going through or help you feel better, and feelings of pure sadness.
It's important to know that this depression is normal and appropriate for a major loss. It's at this stage that you realize the true magnitude of your loss and that it's not something you should try to "will" yourself out of. Of course, you want to learn to "live again", but that's only possible after giving grief it's time.
Acceptance should not be confused with everything suddenly being "all right." In fact, most people never again feel "all right" after a major loss. The acceptance stage is simply about coming to terms with the fact that your loved one is no longer physically with you and realizing that it's a permanent reality.
It's not about learning to like the new reality. It's about learning to live with this new norm. It's about learning to readjust to life by taking on new roles or assigning them to others. It's not about replacing the loved one, but instead about making new connections and relationships. It's about beginning the process of learning, exploring, and evolving into a new day-to-day reality.
As mentioned above, David Kessler has recently documented a sixth stage, which is finding meaning. Many people talk about finding "closure" after a loss, but Kessler talks about learning to remember those who have died with more love than pain and learning to move forward in a way that honors our loved ones.
During times of grief, in order to get to the 6th stage, it’s important to surround yourself with your loved ones, faith, take time off from regular responsibilities, and have good self-care. If you are already moving towards acceptance and finding meaning, it can be a good time to reevaluate your values and priorities as well.
If you’re feeling stuck, please reach out for professional help. We would be honored to help you.