Grief is an inevitable part of the human experience. You will likely experience the profound sorrow accompanying a significant loss at some point. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, losing your job, or any other traumatic change – grief will visit you.
When grief comes knocking, you may feel like you’ve been plunged into unfamiliar territory. Sudden waves of anger, bargaining, and depression crash over you when you least expect it. You find yourself in a dense fog of denial and shock, struggling to accept this new reality.
During this painful time, it can be helpful to understand the stages of grief – the emotional phases that many people go through when processing a significant loss. While everyone’s grief journey is unique, identifying common stages can:
- Help you name the confusing jumble of emotions you’re experiencing
- Reassure you that your feelings are normal and shared by others
- Allow you to anticipate changes in your grief response over time
- Prevent you from getting stuck in any particular stage
This comprehensive guide will unpack the well-known 5 stages and 7 stages models of grief. You’ll gain insight into how people typically move through these stages and tips for coping with each phase.
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The 5 Original Stages of Grief
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a groundbreaking book titled On Death and Dying. In her work with terminally ill patients, she identified 5 common emotional stages that people tend to experience when grieving a significant loss.
These stages do not always occur linearly, but many find it helpful to anticipate them as part of the natural grieving process. Let’s explore Kübler-Ross’s original 5 stages of grief:
Stage 1: Denial
Denial acts as a buffer after a traumatic loss, allowing you to absorb the impact slowly. You may consciously or unconsciously block out the reality of what happened. Some common thoughts:
- “This can’t be real.”
- “There must be some mistake.”
- “They’ll come back tomorrow.”
Denial helps numb overwhelming emotions temporarily. But staying stuck here too long prevents you from grieving healthily.
Stage 2: Anger
As denial fades, anger often rises to mask the pain. You may resent loved ones, doctors, or even the deceased. Anger can manifest as:
- Irritability towards people or objects unrelated to the loss
- Outbursts of rage
- Bitterness and resentment
Constructively releasing pent-up anger allows more profound heartache to surface. Suppressing it prolongs your grief.
Stage 3: Bargaining
In bargaining, you appeal to a higher power or the universe to regain control. Common thoughts:
- “If they recover, I’ll ______.”
- “What if I had done things differently?”
By imagining alternate scenarios, you express powerlessness and stall accepting reality. In time, you’ll see bargaining doesn’t change what happened.
Stage 4: Depression
As anger diminishes, overwhelming sadness arises. You may:
- Withdraw socially
- Lose concentration and motivation
- Experience physical effects like lethargy, changes in appetite, and insomnia
If these symptoms persist or worsen, seek professional support.
Stage 5: Acceptance
With acceptance, you internalize the loss. Although sadness remains, anxiety decreases as you adjust to a new reality. You start to contemplate how to move forward.
Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages paved the way for our modern understanding of grief. But for some, more stages are needed to mirror their mourning process accurately. This led to an expanded 7-stage model…
The 7 Stages of Grief: New Model
While Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages captured the grief experience for many, some felt these steps didn’t fully reflect their emotional mourning process. Over time, grief experts expanded the model to 7 stages:
- Shock & Denial
- Pain & Guilt
- Anger & Bargaining
- The Upward Turn
- Reconstruction & Working Through
- Acceptance & Hope
These additional stages illuminate some of the overlooked psychological effects of bereavement. Let’s explore what each entails.
Stage 1: Shock & Denial
Despite anticipating loss, shock still ensues. You may feel:
- Numb or dissociated
- Emotionally detached
- Unable to comprehend the loss
To cushion the blow, your mind blocks out the jarring new reality. You instinctively deny what occurred.
Shock and denial enable you to cope momentarily until you are prepared for the ordeal ahead. Don’t admonish yourself for these natural reflexes.
Stage 2: Pain & Guilt
With shock fading, intense sorrow emerges. You may dwell on:
- Regret over not preventing the loss
- Remorse about the relationship with the deceased
- Perceived mistakes
Feelings of helplessness and self-reproach often accompany pain after loss. Guilt can torment you even if objectively undeserved.
Vocalize these feelings to help release them. Forgive yourself for hindsight bias about what you “should” have done.
Stage 3: Anger & Bargaining
Two responses commonly overlap at this point:
Anger often surfaces as grief evolves. You may be mad at:
- Doctors who couldn’t prevent a death
- Family who don’t understand your grief
- God or the universe for allowing this tragedy
- Yourself for not being “strong enough”
Bargaining involves appealing to reverse the loss. You may propose hypothetical trades:
- “If they recover, I’ll be a better partner.”
- “I’d give anything to hug them one last time.”
Bargaining and anger demonstrate helplessness against the reality you still resist deep down. Both will fade as you confront the truth head-on.
Stage 4: Depression
As anguish settles in, sadness swells. Depression symptoms arising from grief may include:
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Lack of motivation
- Loss of interest in activities
- Social withdrawal and isolation
If depressive feelings persist beyond a few months or seem unmanageable, seek professional support. Counselling helps prevent complicated grief.
Stage 5: The Upward Turn
Finally, a light appears. You start having moments where:
- The emotional intensity diminishes
- You feel occasional happiness
- You look to the future
Rebirth seems on the horizon. Your outlook improves as you realize you can survive this trauma.
Stage 6: Reconstruction & Working Through
Now, you’re ready to structure life without the deceased’s presence actively. You may:
- Revisit old activities
- Forge new social connections
- Determine what brings joy and purpose
By finding meaning amid loss, your days feel fuller. You’ll always have some grief but feel hope, too.
Stage 7: Acceptance & Hope
In acceptance, you make peace with the agony you still bear while being ready to build a new existence. You may feel:
- Sadness about the loss, yet less acute mourning
- Able to commemorate the deceased through rituals like holidays honouring them
- Hopeful to discover meaning and purpose again
With optimism and grace, you transition into a life forever changed – not over, just different.
When Grief Becomes Complicated
For most, grief starts to lift within 6-12 months after a loss. But for some, acute mourning persists, becoming “complicated grief.” Symptoms include:
- Inability to accept the loss after a year or more
- Intense sorrow and emotional pain continue without relief
- Extreme focus on the loss interfering with daily function
- Severe detachment from others
- Loss of joy and purpose in life
Several factors increase complicated grief risk:
- Unexpected or traumatic loss
- Lack of social support
- Childhood history of anxiety, depression, or trauma
- Loss of a child or spouse
If you’re struggling with complicated grief, don’t suffer alone. Seek a professional therapist near you to:
- Address thought patterns stuck on the loss
- Resolve guilt, anger, and bargaining fixations
- Rebuild your identity and discover new meaning
- Prevent associated issues like depression or PTSD
With compassionate guidance, you can work through crippling grief symptoms. Support groups also help by normalizing your experience and reducing isolation.
Remember, grief is not a linear journey. Be patient with ups and downs. But if you’re emotionally stuck for over a year, get help moving towards acceptance. With time and care, you can find hope again.
Experiencing the Stages
Now that we’ve mapped out the 5 and 7-stage grief models, how do people tend to experience them in real life?
Everyone’s bereavement process is unique, but here are some commonalities:
Grief is not linear
The stages are not sequential steps but fluid phases that blend and oscillate. You may jump between emotions like:
- Rage about your loss
- Despair from loneliness
- Warm memories bring temporary comfort
There’s no “right” order. You might enter denial, anger, and then return to denial.
People skip or repeat stages
Most people don’t experience every single stage. You may never bargain or experience a distinct upward turn.
Or you could get stuck cycling between two stages: anger and depression. Repetition is normal, too. You might relapse into painful mourning after hitting acceptance.
There's no timeline for grief
Every grief journey unfolds at its own pace. Some may feel better within weeks, while others suffer loss for years. Avoid comparing yourself to mourning “timelines.”
Here are the general duration guidelines:
- Initial acute grief – Around 6-12 months
- Persistent complex grief – Ongoing intense symptoms exceeding a year
There’s no “wrong” length of time to grieve.
Getting stuck in a stage
Prolonged entrapment at any stage can impede healing. Telltale signs of being stuck include:
- Excessive denial and emotional numbness
- Constant anger prevents forward movement
- Severe self-blame and guilt
- Ongoing despair and suicidality
- Complete inability to reengage in life after a year or more
If you feel trapped, confide in loved ones, join a grief support group, or pursue counselling. With help, you can break free of toxic stagnation.
Remember that grief waxes and wanes. On difficult days, recall you’ve survived 100% of past bad days.
Coping with Grief
Navigating grief is an intensely personal process. But specific strategies may help you find your footing during this disorienting time:
Tending to your physical and emotional needs boosts resilience. Be sure to:
- Eat a nutritious diet
- Stay hydrated
- Get adequate sleep
- Reduce alcohol and drugs
- Exercise to boost endorphins
- Try relaxing activities like yoga, walks in nature, or meditation
Ask for support
Don’t isolate yourself. Death and loss are universally shared experiences. Confide in trusted friends and family who will listen without judgment.
Seeking counselling is wise, too. A grief counsellor helps you:
- Process and validate complex emotions
- Gain coping skills and perspective
- Prevent getting stuck in denial or depression
Consider a support group
In a group, you can connect with others experiencing similar grief. This reduces isolation and creates a space to share openly.
Writing about loss can help you untangle complicated feelings, process grief, and find meaning.
Explore therapy options
If grief becomes overwhelming, individual or group therapy can help. Types of support include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy to change thought patterns
- Complicated grief therapy to resolve stuck points
- Art therapy to express emotions through creativity
- Pet therapy to ease loneliness
- Music or talk therapy for comfort
Take things one day at a time
Don’t think about having to endure grief for weeks or years. Just focus on coping today. Each day forward is progress.
With compassion for yourself and utilizing support, you can navigate grief’s turbulent waters through to calmer seas. There is hope.
Finding Meaning After Loss
The most unbearable losses leave a permanent void. Although grief diminishes, the pain of absence still lurks in quiet moments.
But while life may never be the same, you can rediscover meaning and purpose over time. Here are some ways to move forward after tragedy:
Honour deceased loved ones
Cherish their memory through activities like:
- Sharing fond stories and laughing together
- Establishing traditions on birthdays or holidays
- Creating memorials like memory books and photo albums
Embrace life changes
Your identity, priorities and interests may shift after loss. Instead of resisting change, ask:
- How has grief shaped me as a person?
- What new passions or people might enter my life now?
- What goals would honour values my loved one admired?
Discover personal growth
The bereavement journey, while deeply painful, often sparks:
- Greater compassion, wisdom, and resilience
- Renewed appreciation for everyday
- Increased value of relationships
Find meaning in how you grew in response to the suffering – that is your loved one’s eternal gift.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
There's no set timeline - each stage lasts different lengths for each person. Total grieving may take anywhere from months to years.
The depression stage is often considered the hardest, but it depends on the individual. Acceptance can also be very difficult.
It helps you process emotions and recognize your reactions as normal. Knowing the stages provides a framework to gauge your own grief journey.
No, most people oscillate between stages or skip some entirely. Grief is not a linear process.
Yes, most people do not experience every single stage of grief.
It's very common to revisit and recycle through different stages as part of healing.
Each stage's core emotions and experiences provide clues about which phase you may be in. But stages often overlap.
There's no set timeline, but acute grief usually lasts 6-12 months. However, everyone's journey through loss is unique.