The 5 Stages of Grief and Bereavement: Overcoming Loss

Grief and Bereavement
The 5 Stages of Grief and Bereavement: Overcoming Loss

“Grief is itself a medicine.” -William Cowper

Grief, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is:

(a) deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement

(b) a cause of such suffering.

But the truth is, it is so much more than this. Grief and bereavement have been studied throughout the years, with several different conclusions drawn about the stages and forms that it takes on.

Many things can lead to this distress. While most people associate this immense sadness with death, many other things can bring these feelings on.

Reasons for Sorrow

  • Death
  • Trauma
  • Disaster (natural or other)
  • Change in Relationship Status
  • Change in Daily Routine
  • Divorce / Separation
  • Loss of Pet
  • Changes in health
  • Loss of Job / Financial Loss
  • Life Changes – Moving & Retirement
  • Begin/End of School
  • Begin/End of Job
  • Kids Leaving Home
  • Loss of Trust in a Relationship
  • Loss of Safety
  • Change in Job Description
  • Pregnancy
  • Imprisonment
  • Business Readjustment

senior woman with tea looking out window

Defining Grief and Bereavement

Let’s begin by destigmatizing and defining these terms.

Just because you haven’t experienced the physical loss of a loved one doesn’t mean you cannot feel this way. All of the experiences above can manifest themselves into emotions of loss and sadness.

There are a few terms that are usually put into the mix when discussing loss. Sometimes they are used interchangeably, but they do not all mean the same thing.

Grief is the internal emotional response to experiencing loss.

Mourning is the ongoing adaptation to life after a loss that is affected and guided by a person’s society, lifestyle, traditions, and faith. This can be more of an external or public way of showing sorrow, such as a funeral.

Bereavement is the state of experiencing a loss and is more about the period spent dealing with the associated emotions.

Physical and Emotional Concerns

There are many forms that immense sorrow can take on. Some experts believe that by not dealing with the emotional side of loss, physical concerns may evolve.

Tremendous emotional suffering can trigger medical conditions, including heart disease, cancer, the common cold, insomnia, fatigue, lack of energy, crying spells, poor appetite, and weight loss. Additional symptoms can include sadness, loneliness, yearning for the deceased, insomnia, crying, relief, anger, and social withdrawal.

Tan Tissue box on white table

The Five Stages

The five stages of grieving were adopted from the stages of dying as studied by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

As written in On Grief and Grieving, Kubler-Ross & Kessler wrote that “The stages have evolved since their introductions, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

The book goes on to say that the five stages are simply a framework for learning to live with the loss. “They are tools to help us frame and identify what we might be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.”

These five stages are:

Denial

This stage is more symbolic than anything.

Yes, you know that your loved one has passed, but it is almost as if you do not WANT to believe it. You can imagine them walking back through the front door or expect to see them pull into the driveway.

It is a way of denying your feelings of loss and pain. This is also a period of trying to comprehend and understand what is happening.

Essentially this allows you more time to slowly take in the event to then be able to start processing it.

Some words that may describe what you are feeling through this denial period are listed below.

Feelings:

  • Abandoned
  • Blame
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Feeling out of control
  • Frustration
  • Helplessness
  • Impatience
  • Rage
  • Resentment
  • Vulnerability

Once you experience denial of the event, anger is commonly the next stage as you may find yourself resentful of the situation.

Anger

Anger is a natural human response to a perceived threat.

A release in adrenaline, the tightening of muscles, increased heart rate, and blood pressure are all effects anger can have on your body. Expression, suppression, and calming down are all ways someone might deal with this emotion. A constructive expression is always the best way to handle this, but it may be harder to control within this context.

Anger can be directed towards the person whom you are grieving or towards any number of people. Sometimes people will lash out towards others that are still in their lives, a total stranger, or even inanimate objects.

It’s a natural response, don’t suppress it, feel it. Experiencing anger can be grounding and a way to bring you back to reality.

It is said that the more you truly feel the anger rather than suppressing it, the sooner it will dissolve, and you will begin to heal.

The resolution of loss and sorrow relies heavily on the ability to identify, accept, and sort out the feelings of anger, according to a study done by Mary Cerney Ph.D. & James Buskirk MD.

Feelings:

  • Abandoned
  • Blame
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear
  • Feeling out of control
  • Frustration
  • Helplessness
  • Impatience
  • Rage
  • Resentment
  • Vulnerability

Helplessness and vulnerability are the feelings that might bring you out of the anger stage as nothing has changed no matter how angry you have become. By realizing this, you may begin to bargain and think of what could have been or what could be.

Bargaining

Bargaining is another line of defense by putting off the reality of the situation. A combination of disparity and anxiety is how this might feel in trying to regain a sense of control that you are struggling to get back after a loss.

“What if” or “if only” statements might be going through your mind. “If only we would have gone to the doctor sooner” “What if I would have called/gone/not gone/etc.”

Trying to bargain or make a deal with a higher power is another very common thing religious people might do. “Let my loved one live, and we will eat better and exercise more.” This is considered almost like a line of defense to put off the feeling of loss, confusion, sadness, and hurt.

In the bargaining process, you may feel like you are somewhat to blame. As though if you had done something different, the outcome would have been different as well.

Feelings:

  • Anxiety
  • Blame
  • Despair
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Helpless
  • Insecure
  • Shame
  • Vulnerable

After the bargaining stage, when you again realize that nothing has been done or can be done in terms of bargaining away the loss, you may face feelings of defeat that lead to depression.

Depression

Depression is a natural stage after experiencing a significant loss.

While it may seem like it will go on forever, depression after a tragic loss is not usually permanent and may come in waves.  By many mental health experts, it is not thought of as a mental illness, unlike depression under other circumstances.

With these overwhelming feelings of emptiness, you may have thoughts about if it’s worth it to go on alone or even go on at all. These are emotions that you will need to work through. Seeking help from a medical professional could help.

Family members and friends may do their best to get you on track, but to not experience some depression would be unusual after a considerable loss.

Withdrawing from life might seem like the only possible thing to do when you are overcome by sadness. You may no longer have the energy to deal with emotions.

Feelings:

  • Anxious
  • Despair
  • Disappointment
  • Empty
  • Helpless
  • Hopeless
  • Isolated
  • Lonely
  • Loss
  • Overwhelmed
  • Sadness
  • Self-pity

With time most people will move through the depression stage. Being mindful with a non-judgmental attitude towards yourself can be of enormous help. However, if you are experiencing a prolonged period of depression, you should speak with your doctor or get counseling.

If you have suicidal thoughts and need to speak with someone now, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit SAMHSA’s Nation Helpline

Acceptance

While this is often listed as the 5th and final step, it can be far from it as all of these “steps” are different for everyone.

In the acceptance step, your emotions may begin to stabilize. This stage is not about being okay with what happened but about accepting your current circumstances and your new reality.

You can now begin to come to terms with your new day-to-day routines, create a new plan for your life, and begin to move on. Not that you are healed from the loss, but you can see beyond the pain and evolve into your next chapter. There will still be sadness as you recall fond memories.

You will soon create new routines to replace what used to be. This is all a part of the healing process, but it is primarily time to heal the wounds of this anguish.

After all, this is not a five-step plan where you are magically cured once you go through the process. It is ongoing.

The acceptance stage can bring feelings of peace, more so than the other stages. The emotional roller coaster softens a bit, and you can begin to understand and cope with your new reality better. The loss will always be a part of you, but it will get easier and easier every day, with some days being more manageable than others. It is not linear.

Feelings:

  • Adapting
  • Courageous
  • Good enough
  • Pride
  • Self-compassion
  • Strength
  • Validation
  • Wisdom

Again, while these are the five stages that have been around for decades, they are not chronological, nor are they a one-time stop and done. These “steps” are bound to repeat and go out of order. You may encounter each step numerous times, some more than others, or some not at all.

The real question is, how do you get through these stages and keep your stability? There are several things you can do that may assist you through this transition time and stages.

grief counselor notebook close-up in session

How To Overcome

There are several recommended activities and steps to overcome suffering. You may not know if they will work for you until you try them. Depending on the type of loss and the magnitude of it could affect how you choose to cope.

Remember, we all deal with things a little differently. The list below are just suggestions. They are not meant to “cure” the pain, as only time can do that. These simply are ideas to assist you through this difficult time.

Talk to family or friends – Find a confidant. This could be someone who has experienced a similar loss or just someone you feel good and comforted with when you’re around them.

Seek counseling – Maybe you lost the confidante in your life, and no one else seems to help. Seeking out a counselor that specializes in personal loss can help guide you through your emotions.

Read poetry or books – This can help to temporarily take your mind off of the sadness you are facing.

Engage in social activities – Once you are ready, or even before you think you are, get back out there. Get coffee with friends or volunteer with an organization to take your mind off feelings of sorrow.

Exercise – This will help your body produce endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. These endorphins can help you create an energetic and positive outlook on life.

Eat healthily – It can be demotivating when you consume unhealthy foods, so eating healthy will make you feel better. Eating healthy will not heal your heartbreak, but it’s an excellent place to start.

Seek spiritual support – Depending on your religious or spiritual beliefs, seeking guidance and support from a member of your congregation or religious leader can often help.

Take time to relax – Being mindful, taking deep breaths, and allowing yourself time to unwind can help you dig into your feelings, rather than staying busy to keep your mind off the loss.

Join a support group – Peer support can help heal in profound ways. Surrounding yourself with people who are going through similar losses can help you find others to lean on.

Listen to music – It has been scientifically proven that listening to instrumental music can increase happiness, reduce depression, improve sleep, and decrease stress while increasing overall health.

Be patient with yourself – Understand that this process takes TIME. Moving through the stages in rapid succession just isn’t possible. Allow yourself some grace throughout the process.

Let yourself feel heartache – The proven method of letting yourself feel all of the emotions that come with loss will help you move through to the other side of heartache. While this is by no means a quick process, you will be able to come to grips with your new reality as soon as possible by letting yourself actually feel the emotions.

Return to hobbies – Did you used to enjoy a specific activity? Maybe one that you shared with the person who is gone? Try painting, sewing, hiking, photography, etc. Find something that you genuinely receive joy from.

Talk about the death of your loved one – In talking about your experience, you can help yourself understand what happened. Whether your loss was sudden or expected, discussing what happened can be healing and could have the potential of helping the person you are speaking with.

Accept your feelings – It’s okay to be hurt, betrayed, angry, sad, mad, relieved, etc. No sensation is off-limits. By accepting what you are feeling, it will help you to bring awareness to each emotion.

Take care of yourself and your family – Remember, you are not the only one experiencing loss. While you might be the one most impacted by the loss, you are probably not the only one who cared for the deceased. Make sure to take care of yourself and your family if you have other people counting on you. You can each be a shoulder to cry on.

Reach out and help others dealing with the loss – By assisting others to deal with the loss, it could help you come to grips with it yourself. Everyone processes differently, but there is strength in commonality and numbers.

Remember and celebrate the lives of your loved ones – Would your late loved one want you to be miserable without them? Honor the life they lived by reminiscing on the good times you had together and the unique qualities that person brought to the people around them.

Do not let the below-listed behaviors get in the way of your healing during the time of grief and bereavement.

  • Avoiding emotions
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Minimizing feelings
  • Overworking on the job
  • Misusing drugs, alcohol, or other substances as a way to deal with emotional discomfort

“Mourning never really ends, only as time goes on, as we do its work, it may erupt less frequently.” ~ Alan Wolfelt

Additional Resources

Book Recommendations 

  • Real Life: Preparing for the 7 Most Challenging Days of Your Life –  Dr. Phil McGraw
  • On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler
  • Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief – David Kessler
  • The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss – George A. Bonanno

Sources

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