Over the years the grief stages have become not only famous, but also misunderstood. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who developed the stages of grief model, never intended for grief to fit neatly into categories, for the stages to be sequential, or for grief to be a step-by step process. It is a general framework to help normalize the grieving process and to help us better understand grief. Not everyone will experience all five stages of grief while others will cycle in and out of the various stages multiple times. Grief is unique to each person, and yet there are common themes which the stages of grief model attempts to explain.
Denial – When we experience a major change or loss, often our first thought is, “this isn’t happening” or “this can’t be real.” Part of us knows that something terrible has happened, but another part of us is struggling to believe it’s true. Perhaps we allow ourselves to believe the person is just away on a trip and that they will walk through the door at any moment. These thoughts help us cope so that we can get through the day.
Anger – At some point most of us become angry about our loss even if that anger isn’t logical. This anger can be pointed in many directions – the medical establishment, ourselves, God, or even the person who died. Anger is an important emotion because it reminds us of how strong we are. Often that strength is needed while we are grieving because we are feeling so powerless. You can externalize your anger by screaming into a pillow, taking a kickboxing class, or smashing something – safely, of course!
“Anger is an important emotion because it reminds us of how strong we are."
Bargaining – We may think to ourselves, “If this just wouldn’t be true then I’ll start my spiritual practices again, I’ll volunteer with a non-profit, or I’ll be a better person.” The pain is so great, that we are trying to bargain it away. We are also trying to regain control after an event that left us feeling utterly powerless. So find things that you can control and take comfort in those things, even if they are small.
Depression – Eventually deep sorrow sets in. It can be a struggle even to get out of bed. Depression can have many faces – indecisiveness, excessive worry, irritability, difficulty sleeping despite feeling exhausted, overeating or not eating enough, having crying spells or the inability to cry, and difficulty finding pleasure in anything. Depression is one way that the body goes into protective mode and forces us to slow down. Try to think of your depression as a visitor – it may come and go or stay a while, but it won't be around forever. Instead of pushing your depression visitor away, try to allow it to stay until it has served its purpose: to help you slow down.
“The grieving process is an opportunity to evaluate our life, actions and values. ”
Acceptance – Eventually we begin to accept our loss. This does not happen overnight, and some days we may be more accepting of our loss than others. As we begin to accept that our loss did occur, we also learn how to live in our new reality.
Meaning – The sixth stage of grief was a later addition to the grieving model by David Kessler, a colleague of Kübler-Ross'. This stage is not about finding meaning in the loss, but finding meaning in the grieving process. The grieving process is an opportunity to evaluate our life, actions and values. Perhaps after a major loss you decide to slow down to notice more beauty in the world, tell people you love them more often, or spend more time with friends and family. This stage not only allows us to find meaning, but to also find peace as we remember our loss not with pain, but with love.
If you’re struggling with any of the 5 stages of grief, let’s set up a time to talk about how grief counseling could help.