Posted on December 01, 2020
Feelings of grief can be overwhelming. Learn about the traditional stages of grief, and what to expect during the process.
Unfortunately, everyone will experience some form of loss during their life. It’s never easy to lose a friend or family member, but loss is not always synonymous with death. It’s possible to grieve many experiences and relationships throughout your lifetime. Children may grieve a divorce, a wife may grieve the death of her husband, a teenager might grieve the ending of a relationship, or you might have received news that upends your world and are grieving your old life.
When we talk about grief, it’s really a state that one enters as a reaction to that loss. Bereavement is a specific type of grief involving the death of a loved one. Bereavement and grief encompass a range of feelings from deep sadness to anger. This grief process of adapting to a significant loss can vary dramatically from one person to another, often depending on a person’s background, beliefs, and relationship to the loss.
Grief is often reduced to feelings of sadness but, for most, it’s more complex. It can include feelings of guilt, yearning, anger, and even regret. Emotions are also not usually felt at the same level of intensity for every person or experience. Grief is always confusing because of this range of emotion. One person may find themselves grieving a painful end to an important relationship. Another may mourn a loved one who died from a long-term illness and, yet, simultaneously feel relief that the person is no longer suffering.
People in a state of grief can bounce between different thoughts as they work through their loss. Thoughts can range from soothing (“She had a good life.”) to troubling (“It wasn’t her time.”) throughout the process. People may assign themselves varying levels of responsibility, from “There was nothing I could have done,” to “It’s all my fault.” Behavior during grief can also have an equally wide range. Some people find comfort in sharing their feelings among company, while others may prefer to be alone with their feelings, engaging in activities like exercising or writing.
Most people express grief in both instrumental and intuitive ways. Instrumental grieving has a focus primarily on problem-solving tasks which can, on the outside, appear as controlling or minimizing emotional expression. It’s often tactical in nature. On the other side of the expression spectrum, intuitive grieving is based on a heightened emotional experience and can outwardly be displayed as sharing feelings, exploring the lost relationship, and considering mortality.
No one way of grieving is better than any other. Some people are naturally emotional and can more easily express what they are feeling in the moment. Others with less access to their emotional well may seek distraction from dwelling on an unchangeable fact of living. Every individual has unique needs when coping with loss.
Many people want to know one simple question: How long does grief last? Throughout the grief process, it’s typical to spend varying lengths of time working through each step, and expressing each stage with different levels of intensity. Contrary to popular belief, the five stages of loss do not necessarily occur in any specific order for everyone. Though it is common to move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of loss.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described five popular stages of grief, popularly referred to as DABDA. They include:
A Swiss psychiatrist, Kübler-Ross first introduced her five stage grief model in her book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross’ model was based on her work with terminally ill patients and has received criticism in the years since through mistaken interpretations that the stages were meant to be experienced in a particular order. Kübler-Ross now notes that these stages are not linear and some people may not experience any of them at all. Yet, others might only undergo two stages rather than all five, one stage, three stages, etc. It is now more readily known that these five stages of grief are the most commonly observed experiences during the grieving process or grieving cycle.
Often felt at the onset of the grieving period, denial can initially help someone survive the loss. It’s characterized by feelings of overwhelm, numbness, and denial in reality. For instance, if one were diagnosed with a deadly disease, they might believe the news is incorrect – a mistake must have occurred somewhere in the lab – their blood work was confused with someone else’s. If a person receives news on the death of a loved one, perhaps they cling to a false hope that authorities identified the wrong person.
In the denial stage, a grieving person is not living in “actual reality;” rather, they are living in a ‘preferable’ reality. Interestingly, it is denial and shock that help a person cope and survive the grief event. Denial aids in pacing the feelings of grief, which helps stagger its full impact at one time. Think of it as the body’s natural defense mechanism saying, “Hey, there’s only so much I can handle at once.” Once denial and shock of the event starts to fade, the healing process can begin. At this point, those suppressed feelings will surface.
Once a person starts to accept and live in “actual” reality again, and not in “preferable’ reality,” anger might start to set in. This is a common anger stage to think, “Why me?” and “Life’s not fair!” A person might look to blame others for the cause of their grief, unfairly redirectly anger to close friends and family.
Researchers and mental health professionals agree that anger is a necessary stage of grief and encourage healthy expressions. Though the anger stage may feel like an endless cycle, it will dissipate. In everyday life, we are normally told to control our anger but, after a grief event, it is a natural step in healing, as long as the emotions are released in a healthy, productive way that does not endanger the person grieving or anyone around them.
Bargaining, in a way, is a stage that creates false hope when a griever believes they can avoid feeling pain through negotiation. In a desperation to return to normalcy and end the suffering, a person may feel that they are willing to make a major life change in an attempt toward normality. Guilt is a common wingman of bargaining. This is when “what if” statements become prevalent. “What if I had left the house 5 minutes sooner – the accident would have never happened.” “What if I encouraged him to go to the doctor six months ago – he could have been saved.”
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.