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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.