What are the Stages of Grief?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
The stages of grief may help people understand their emotional responses to the death of a loved one.
The stages of grief may help people understand their emotional responses to the death of a loved one.

The five stages of grief were terms first identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. While the book was fundamental in helping to explain many of the feelings people had resulting from a loss, it is frequently misinterpreted by the layperson as a set of staged emotions one will feel in order. At the termination of the stages, some assume, grief will simply dissipate.

Anger is the second stage of grief, according to the Kubler-Ross model.
Anger is the second stage of grief, according to the Kubler-Ross model.

Psychological evidence bears out that these assumptions are clearly wrong. Grief may be something with which one always lives. Even the final stage, acceptance, means that part of the acceptance is not of a person’s death, but of the fact that one will live with grief in some form forever.

Thus, though these stages of grief are very clearly experienced by many, not all stages may be experienced, and they don’t necessarily come in a particular order. One may experience several stages at the same time; and when one has progressed through all the stages, there is still loss felt.

Acceptance is the last stage of grief.
Acceptance is the last stage of grief.

Kubler-Ross may have done a disservice in some respects, but when the stages are taken loosely, they can be helpful in understanding the emotional response to loss, or to anticipating the loss of a loved one. Further, grief is not only connected to death and dying, but as well to traumatic events: a rape, the illness of a child, an abusive childhood, a divorce, or even moving across the country or losing one’s job.

Denial is a stage of grief.
Denial is a stage of grief.

The five stages of grief as Kubler-Ross described them are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the most traditional model, denial tends to be the first emotion felt by those in grief. Denial might also be called incredulity. Even if a death was anticipated, it is hard to believe it has happened. People “know” the death has occurred, but a part of their minds resists letting this knowledge sink in.

Depression is a stage of grief.
Depression is a stage of grief.

Denial is, in a way, an avoidance of later grief. If one can only pretend then one can still function. When denial gives way, the person may be flooded with strong emotions of depression and sadness and find participating in normal life very difficult.

People may follow denial with anger, or with bargaining. Bargaining is an attempt to come to terms with a spiritual understanding of what has happened. If a person has specific spiritual beliefs they may question how a God could have allowed their loss. For those anticipating a death, bargaining may be the first stage, to avoid an impending loss.

Grief may be something with which one always lives.
Grief may be something with which one always lives.

Anger may involve anger with one’s self, the person who has died, the people who should have prevented it, the world in general. Anger may be directed at one’s spiritual beliefs when bargaining clearly didn’t work. Some people cannot get past anger for a long time, especially those with past long-term trauma.

Anger is also a defense toward actually feeling our feelings, according to many therapists. Often angry people progress to weeping, because at the bottom of anger is generally depression of a deep and significant kind. It is an outward expression of inward pain.

In some cases, grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.
In some cases, grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.

It’s hard to anticipate how long depression will last. For some, depression might signal an underlying condition like major depressive disorder. Depression may be expressed as a disinterest in the world. People may find they can no longer “function” in jobs. They may want to crawl into bed and stay there. Depression due to grief may also come in waves. One might jump back to denial or anger, before being overwhelmed again.

Grief counselors recognize that grief is a process that cannot be rushed.
Grief counselors recognize that grief is a process that cannot be rushed.

Acceptance means several different things according to Kubler-Ross. A person dying may find he or she is “ready” at some point. Those watching a beloved one die may come to accept that the person needs to move on. Acceptance may also be the point at which living with grief becomes bearable. People may resume their lives again knowing full well that their grief is now a part of them, but does not have to consume them.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

RocketLanch8

@Inaventu- I'm very sorry for your loss. When I lost my first wife, I stayed in denial for a long time. I thought she was just on a very long vacation and would be coming back any day. I finally agreed to grief counseling when I was in the anger stage. The counselor explained the grief stages and how I shouldn't treat them like a checklist.

If anyone reading this is in a state of grief after a loss, I urge you to seek out a grief support group or a professional grief counselor so you can start the healing process.

Inaventu

I lost one of my best friends just before Christmas years ago. She was on her way to visit a friend, but called me before she left and said she really didn't want to go. Later that night, I turned on the local evening news and one of the lead stories was about a woman killed in a car/train collision. It was her. I got a call two days later from one of her relatives about the funeral arrangements.

I was definitely in a state of denial at first, since I kept thinking she was going to call to tell me about her accident the next day. My friends weren't supposed to be alive one day and dead the next. We were all supposed to die in our 90s.

The anger stage hit when I learned more about the accident itself. The train had been "highballing", which meant it had permission to run at top speed regardless of traffic conditions. Since it was Christmas, many of the houses around that train crossing had colored lights, making it difficult to notice the official hazard lights on the tracks. She probably didn't see the train until it was too late. I was angry at everyone even marginally involved in the accident, and I wanted everyone to suffer. Her family did try to pursue legal action against the railroad company and the city government.

I think the rest of the stages fell into place once I got over the anger. I wasn't depressed as much as I was sad about the loss of an especially good friend. I finally learned to accept it about a year later, after the next Christmas season was over.

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    • The stages of grief may help people understand their emotional responses to the death of a loved one.
      By: tomas del amo
      The stages of grief may help people understand their emotional responses to the death of a loved one.
    • Anger is the second stage of grief, according to the Kubler-Ross model.
      By: Scott Griessel
      Anger is the second stage of grief, according to the Kubler-Ross model.
    • Acceptance is the last stage of grief.
      By: Andrew Lever
      Acceptance is the last stage of grief.
    • Denial is a stage of grief.
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      Denial is a stage of grief.
    • Depression is a stage of grief.
      By: ArenaCreative
      Depression is a stage of grief.
    • Grief may be something with which one always lives.
      By: Antonio Gravante
      Grief may be something with which one always lives.
    • In some cases, grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.
      By: WavebreakmediaMicro
      In some cases, grief therapy is part of a broader treatment plan.
    • Grief counselors recognize that grief is a process that cannot be rushed.
      By: auremar
      Grief counselors recognize that grief is a process that cannot be rushed.
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