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5 Stages Of Grief: What Will You Be Feeling And How Best To Cope

It is natural for people to seek to understand the range of emotions they are experiencing when grieving a loss.

The death of a loved one or a close friend though distressing should be an expected life tragedy that most people will experience during their lives. The scope of feelings people encounter when grieving is different for everybody, as is the intensity and length of time it lasts.

Grief is like being on an emotional roller coaster that is frightening, unpredictable, distressing, difficult to come to terms with and varies in its timeline whilst being unique to you.  

Grief after death is inescapable

Have you ever heard well-meaning people or even you utter some if not all of the following statements? These are based on the entrenched misconception of what people believe a grieving person should exhibit such as:

  • “Why isn’t the wife more upset with the death of her partner?”
  • “How can the daughter just go back to work after the death of her father?”
  • “I would have thought that the family would have been more upset at the passing of their mother!”
  • “They don’t appear to be grieving normally?”

The good news is that the way you grieve is the right way for you. Also, do not compare yourself with other people!

white headstone stone cross in cemetery
Grief and Death are Inescapable

The 5 Stages of Grief – the start of trying to better understand and deal with grief

Everyone during their lives will experience grief after the death of a loved one. Many people are familiar of the concept of the 5 stages of grief that individuals ‘go through’ when grieving the loss of a loved one, whether they are a wife, husband child or a dear friend or relative.

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist published a book called Death and Dying in 1969 she also wrote about how end-of-life care could be improved. Kübler-Ross’s writings are best remembered for the concept that when a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, people experience a range of emotional stages. These were classified as:

  • denial, 
  • anger, 
  • bargaining,
  • depression,
  • acceptance.

The 5 stages of grief were intended to be an example of the range of emotions and responses to feelings people experienced whilst grieving. They have become a popular model of how people can better understand their feelings and a guide to help them to better understand their reactions during periods of extreme stress or crisis. Kübler-Ross described them as “defence mechanisms… or coping mechanisms to deal with extremely difficult situations”.(2)

The global pandemic that is COVID-19 has forced many people to think about death besides the normal daily events in their lives including;

  • knowing people that have died or are dying
  • the constant news streams of local and world news about various tragedies that have taken people’s lives,
  • attending the funerals of friends and family, or
  • experiencing a life-threatening health scare or medical condition yourself.

All these events focus people’s attention on death and force many of them to feel anxious, unprepared, and concerned.

Graph of 5 Stages of grief model Kübler-Ross

Death is an inevitable part of life, though many people avoid discussing the issue as they relegate any thoughts on the matter to the back of their minds. When forced to confront death individuals seek solace by comparing their feelings of loss or what stage in the grieving process they are into what they believe is a community accepted model of Kübler-Ross’s 5-stages of grieving.

This is neither the best nor only model to deal with the subject.

People must remember there is no predictable path to cope as everybody’s journey after the death of a loved one is individual. It is often an unpredictable array of messy confusing emotions and feelings unique to them, as was their relationship with the deceased.

The intensity of the grief that a person feels is determined by both the circumstances of a person’s death and the closeness of the relationship they had with the person.  

“REMEMBER, GRIEF IS A NATURAL RESPONSE – NO TWO PEOPLE GRIEVE THE SAME WAY”.

What Are Kübler-Ross’s 5 Stages of Grief?

Kübler-Ross produced a simple to understand 5 stage model which provided a detailed description of the range of emotions that people were likely to experience when grieving. This empowers individuals to compare to a specific stage and the struggles they have after a death or during a crisis. These emotional stages being:

  • denial – “No, it can’t be true”
  • anger – “Why me?”
  • bargaining – “What if ……”
  • depression – the emotional reaction to preparing for death or to the finality of the situation
  • acceptance – “The coming to terms with the actual situation”
close up of woman crying thinking about her 5 stages of grief
Grief affects everyone at some time

Below is a summary of the 5 stages of grief people experience after the death of a loved one or close friend. It is the process whereby their mind attempts to readjust to the changed circumstances in which they find themselves.

Denial a Stage of Grieving

Disbelief – This stage of grief is described as a state of shock. People can encounter a feeling of isolation, numbed disbelief, and incredulity. People are not in denial that a loss has occurred, but they are denying the reality of the situation.

It can benefit people in minimising the overwhelming pain of loss they are suffering as they try to adjust to the new reality of life without their loved ones. Whilst they reflect on the times, they shared with them.

People often ask, “Is this actually happening”.

Denial and Anger are two emotions commonly experienced during the grieving process by a lot of people.

People Experience Anger In Grief

Anger can be a complicated emotion to deal with, as they direct it at the cause of the loss. The grieving person might experience anger aimed at the loved one that has died. Others may blame the cause itself or anyone who they feel has contributed to their loss.

Some individuals may also blame God or a higher power for taking their loved one’s away. Anger allows people to express their emotions about the loss that they have suffered.

Bargaining Is Another Stage Of the Grieving Process

After suffering a loss, people can move through a stage termed bargaining. Where they wish they could have things back to the way they used to be.

It is a time when individuals ask themselves the “What If” questions. These questions usually include something like:

  • “What if the disease was diagnosed earlier?
  • “What if he didn’t drive that day”,
  • “What if she had gone to the doctor earlier?”
  • “I promise I won’t get angry again or I will be a better person if you can let them live”

Was everything done to save my loved one and even trying to “bargain” with a divine power.

It is a very natural emotion when grappling with the death of a partner as people desperately seek ways to lessen the pain. It confronts people with the emotion of hopelessness through the realisation of the lack of control they have over the events leading up to the death of their loved ones.

Older woman hands over face crying over her loss

Depression part of grief and loss

The feeling of depression can be experienced and is a normal emotional response to the loss of a loved one.

Depression is one stage of the grieving process. As people gradually start to confront the reality of the ‘new normal’ and the impact that the death of their loved one has upon them in every aspect of their lives.

The feeling of being depressed is another natural emotional response to the loss of a loved one when:

  • confronted with the reality that your loved one has gone
  • wondering how you will continue to go on without them in your life and
  • you will often find it’s difficult to look forward to the future.

People may begin to feel increasingly sad and retreat inwardly by being less social, avoiding reaching out to others and physically isolating themselves.

Acceptance Of Loss A Part Of Grieving Process

Acceptance is when the person experiencing the grief has come to terms with the fact that their loved one has died and won’t be coming back. The process of picking up the pieces and moving forward with life will begin. During this process, there will be many challenges.

There will be good and bad days though over time the good days will outnumber the bad days. You will realise that your loved one can never be replaced but they will start to rebuild and move onto the next stage of their life.

A Road Map To Your Feelings About Grief and Loss

The 5 stages of grief are supposed to provide people with a rough road map that assists them to answer the usual questions when they are confronted with a situation that they are unfamiliar with or feeling lost.

When people are heartbroken, they want answers to a range of questions that they have about the feelings that they are flooded with that make them feel overwhelmed. People often express this sentiment with expressions such as:

  • “Why do I feel like this?”
  • “How long will I feel like this?”
  • “What will I do now”
  • “Is what I’m feeling normal?”
  • “I feel so angry”
  • “Is there something wrong with me as one minute I feel so sad and the next so angry?”

Timeline of each grieving stage

Older man sitting crying looking a picture of dead wife
There is no set timeline for grieving

The 5 stages of the grief model do not mention any specific timing of what the duration of each of these stages would be. Although, research indicates that individuals often complete each of the stages within 6 months following the loss of a loved one. The time associated with the normal grieving process can be up to 24 months.

Another variable that generally affects a person’s ability to deal with the grief of the death of a spouse is the manner of their death. Such as whether it was sudden and traumatic or was there any forewarning as in the diagnosis of a terminal illness appears to have a significant impact on a person’s ability to process their grief.

Studies (4) have revealed that the 5 stages of grief were displayed in different combinations, and they have found a range of other emotions also are experienced. So does this matter?

It also appears that some people are much more resilient and may experience little or no depression whilst some will experience chronic grief that may last for a long time.

The 5 stages of grief that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross provided should not be viewed as an exhaustive and fixed list like that of a range of medical symptoms exhibited by a person in grief.

You should view the 5 stages of grief simply as a guide to assist you to gain a better understanding of the range of emotions that a grieving person may feel during their period of loss, which is normal.

Is Kübler-Ross’s 5 Stage Grieving Model The Best?

Kübler-Ross’s 5 stage model provides a basic outline of a limited range of emotions that a person experiencing grief may experience. Some people may relate to a specific stage which may reinforce their own belief that what they are experiencing is normal.

However, many people can become increasingly confused when they presume, they ought to be feeling a particular way after the loss of a loved one and they don’t. Especially when they base their feelings on any of the specific stages.

It is also not uncommon for relatives and friends to judge a grieving spouse based on what they perceive as the normal or natural emotional response to death which is not correct.

The sequence of emotional responses experienced by a person grieving often is presumed to follow the 5 stages in order but this is often not the reality.

It is time to consider if Kübler-Ross’s 30-year-old popular grieving model “does more harm than good”. IT is important to remember that people can “perceive that they are grieving incorrectly” if they only rely on the 5 stages of the grief model. As claimed by Professor George Bonanno.(1)

Some of the other shortfalls of Kübler-Ross’s 5 stage model are:

  • people do not experience all the 5 stages of grief as listed in the Kübler-Ross grief model, 
  • the order and intensity that people experience these 5 stages, and which can be distinct,
  • people experience various emotional stages such as anger over and over during the courses of their grief, or
  • it is too simplified to account for this range of mixed emotions individuals encounter when grieving

Other Grief Models

There are several other theories on how best to deal with grief. Although none as well known and written about as the Kübler-Ross 5 stages particularly on the internet.

All the different models have the common goal of describing the process of grief and people’s reaction to it better.

As David Kessler,(3) a grief expert and author suggest people find control in acceptance. He views “acceptance … is where the power lies”. Acceptance would then become the sixth stage of the Kübler-Ross grief model.

Another model is by Colin Parkes a British psychiatrist(6)  who developed a grief model. He views the grief process as a combination of four phases or tasks. These 4 phases people experience when grieving include:

  1. Shock and Numbness – The loss of their loved which seems impossible to accept.
  2. Yearning and Searching – When a person becomes all consumed with reliving memories of their departed loved one. Whilst often seeking comfort or solace from their grief.
  3. Despair and Disorganization – The persons become increasingly angry and questions why their loved one died. Reality of the situation is understood, and a sense of hopelessness overcomes them. They try to remove themselves from everyday life as they process their anguish.
  4. Reorganization and Recovery – A period of acceptance of the reality of the circumstances. People begin to return to daily life with a new sense of normality.

It is accepted that people who are grieving many need to revisit certain phases over time. Also, there is no particular order or timeline for people who are grieving. They will move through or complete the various stages as they are ready. Although there is some natural order of completion that people will experience.

What all these models have the common goal of describing the process of grief and people’s reaction to it better.

Access Grief Support Services

male sitting talking to grief therapist

Anybody experiencing these stages of grief should access a support system. This support system can be your:

  • direct family members,
  • friends 
  • a range of professional grief or bereavement therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, or
  • organizations set up to help you through your grieving process.

The most common method used for the treatment of grief should be counselling. Although the medication may be prescribed by some doctors and can include:

  • Sedatives or sleeping pills
  • Antidepressants, or
  • Anti-anxiety medication.

to assist you through specific issues or help you to function through the day.

Grieving is Natural

During your grieving process, there may be no set order in which you experience the stages of grief. Some people go through the stages in order, but others only experience a few stages.

Others may experience a stage several times before moving on. What is crucial to remember is – No two people experience grief in the same way?

Grief is not as simple as espoused by the Kübler-Ross grief model should not be viewed as an exhaustive and fixed list like that of medical symptoms exhibited by a person in grief. Based on various research her 5 stages of grief has largely been debunked.

It is important to remember that grief is different for everyone, even if there are occasionally some similarities between emotions and intensity. Everyone will have to make their unique path through their range’s emotions.

YOUR GRIEF IS UNIQUE TO YOU AND SO IS THE PERIOD AND INTENSITY IT WILL LAST FOR.

What is important to remember is to live your life as fully as possible, knowing that your time on earth with your loved ones has an unknown expiry date?

You don’t move on from grief you learn to accept, cope and with time the impact of the emotions you initially experienced lessen. You live life with cherished memories but you don’t forget your loved ones.

Because of this reality, it is important to make sure you undertake your End of Life planning. Have your affairs in order and explore the reality of your own mortality and live your life fully. When the time comes you will be comfortable in the knowledge you are prepared and can die without regrets.

Remember, to think about writing a Legacy Letter (also known as an Ethical Will) which is a method of documenting your life experiences, values, and opinions to share with family and others after your death.

By understanding the impact grief has on your surviving loved ones consider making their life easier and less stressful for them after your death. By preparing and organising what they need to know after your death. Such as essential documents that they will require to access including financial documents, Wills, Birth Certificates, estate planning documents and where they are located.

References

  1. Bonanno, G. A. (2009). The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. Basic Books
  2. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. “On Death and Dying” Scribner 1st Ed 1997, Simon and Schuster (2003)
  3. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon and Schuster USA (2005)
  4. Maciejewski PK, Zhang B, Block SD, Prigerson HG. An Empirical Examination of the Stage Theory of Grief. JAMA. 2007;297(7):716–723. doi:10.1001/Jama.297.7.716
  5. J. William Worden PhD ABPP Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner Hardcover – Fourth Edition August 11, 2008
  6. Parkes CM. Bereavement in adult lifeBMJ. 1998;316(7134):856–859. doi:10.1136 / bmj.316. 7134.856

Frequently Ask Questions

What will you be feeling in the 5 stages of grief?

Your range of emotions you will experience through the Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief are:
1. Denial – feelings of fear, shock, confusion avoidance
2. Anger – including anxiety, irritation and frustration
3. Bargaining – you will be struggling for meaning and want to reach out
4. Depression – experience feelings of hostility, helplessness and overwhelmed
5. Acceptance – feeling ready to move on, establish a new normal and explore options.

What is the alternative to the 5 Stages of Grieving?

An alternative to the Kubler-Ross 5 stages is the 4 Phases of Grief, proposed by British psychiatrists Colin Parkes and John Bowlby which is:
1. Shock and Numbness: Immediately follows a loss with the initial shock of the loss, the grieving person feels numb and shuts down. 
2. Yearning and Searching: This phase is characterized by a variety of feelings, including sadness, anger, anxiety, and confusion. The grieving person is experiencing a longing for the deceased person and wanting them to return to fill the emptiness they feel.
3. Disorganization and Despair: This is marked by initial acceptance of the reality of the loss. The grieving person may experience feelings of apathy, anger, despair, and hopelessness. Often will withdraw and disengage from others and activities.
4. Reorganization and Recovery: The grieving person begins to return to a new state of “normal.” Intense feelings such as sadness, anger, and despair begin to diminish as more positive memories of the deceased person increase.

What type of questions do Grieving People ask?

People that are grieving want answers and the questions they ask are:
1. “Why do I feel this way?”
2. “How long will I feel like this?”
3. “What will I do now?”
4. “Is what I’m feeling normal?”
5. “Why do I feel so angry?”
6. “Is there something wrong with me as one minute I feel so sad and the next so angry?”

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