Are There Really 5 Stages Of Grief? Why Everyone Grieves Differently
This was a difficult summer for me – 4 deaths in 12 weeks. The ages of the deceased ranged from 26 to 72, and I noticed I felt differently about each passing. That’s the crazy thing about grief; it is as individual and unique as the loved one or friend who passed away. I found myself holding back sobs at the funeral of a 26-year-old, young man. I couldn’t rationalize his death or process through it like I could for my older friend and family members who had passed. His death left me unbalanced, anxious, and distracted. I felt like I’d been sucker punched, and I was left with a needy urge to clutch onto my own two, young adult children with the desperate grasp of a mother crossing a busy street with toddlers. More than anything, however, I wanted to find meaning in this young man’s death.
Suggested Read: 4 Comparisons To Explain Your Grief And Loss
Grief /ɡrēf/ noun
1. “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.”
I believe, after suffering through the mental and physical pain that accompany loss, most people want to find meaning in their grief. If we don’t reconcile the loss, it haunts us down every path we take. We “what if” ourselves ad nauseam, and every breath we consume is contaminated with regret.
According to Psychology Today, those who find meaning in their loss are more likely to integrate a universe of emotions in ways that permit the survivor to discover hard-won happiness in living. I liken this to the paradox that we cannot know great joy until we experience great sorrow.
If we allow grief to transform us versus destroy us, it shows us how to love more deeply, to love unconditionally, and to love universally. That’s the interesting aspect of grief; it binds us together even as it isolates us. None of us can get through a fully-lived life without grieving. Knowing that we are not alone in our grief–that it is a universal experience–helps us reconcile loss.
Grief Isn’t Linear
To find meaning in grief requires us to process through it.
The psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, wrote her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying (1969) outlining the five stages of grief experienced by terminally ill patients:
Today, these defined stages have become well-known; however, because grief can be unpredictable and particular to each individual, we understand that grief is not a linear process. In fact, each of these five stages may or may not be experienced in any certain order and can even be revisited.
“Grief is not linear. People kept telling me that once this happened or that passed, everything would be better. Some people gave me one year to grieve. They saw grief as a straight line, with a beginning, middle, and end. But it is not linear. It is disjointed. One day you are acting almost like a normal person. You maybe even manage to take a shower. Your clothes match. You think the autumn leaves look pretty, or enjoy the sound of snow crunching under your feet. Then a song, a glimpse of something, or maybe even nothing sends you back into the hole of grief. It is not one step forward, two steps back. It is a jumble. It is hours that are all right, and weeks that aren’t. Or it is good days and bad days. Or it is the weight of sadness making you look different to others and nothing helps.”
~ Ann Hood, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief
An Interpretation of the 5 Stages Of Grief – When Everyone Grieves Differently
We may skip stages, revisit stages, linger in a stage, or experience multiple stages at one time.
1. Denial Stage of Grief
Denial is considered the first stage of grief. Even if the death is expected, our world is turned upside down as we wrestle with the reality that we will never see our loved one again.
Thoughts of disbelief consume us.
“I just saw him last week. He looked fine.”
“I can’t believe she didn’t survive the accident.”
“I don’t understand… How could he be here one moment and gone forever the next?”
“I can’t believe it.”
We feel numb and disconnected as our minds struggle to accept the news. The first few days seem surreal. Our bodies shift into autopilot, and we blindly navigate through the dark haze of deep grief. We are in survival mode. During denial, our insentient nature permits us to complete the necessary tasks that accompany loss. We plan the funeral, file necessary paperwork, and greet visitors.
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2. Anger Stage of Grief
Anger often replaces denial. We feel cheated out of time with our loved one. We question “Why?” or “What if?” We want to blame someone, something, or even God. We may even curse our deceased loved one for not taking care of themselves or making a foolish decision. We’ve been abandoned, and it feels right and just to be angry. Sometimes feeling anger is easier than carrying the burden of sadness and depression.
It’s okay to be angry–that is, it’s okay to embrace the emotion fully–to scream, to punch a pillow, or to vent to a trusted friend.
How to Control Anger – 3 Ways to Work With Your Anger After a Loss
Aggressively taking out anger on others is not okay, and losing a loved one should not be an excuse to do so. However, we are imperfect beings, so if we lose our cool with a friend, family member, or even a stranger, we need to own our behavior and apologize. To process through anger constructively, try releasing the energy through exercise, sports, or physical labor. Some people prefer to be left alone and process their emotions through music, art, meditation, or journaling. Most importantly, don’t take on guilt or shame for feeling angry. This is a time for patience and self-compassion.
If you find yourself in this stage of grief, remember the following:
Losing someone is not a free pass for poor behavior. Once you’ve lashed out, acknowledge it. It’s important that we own our poor behavior. People will likely be forgiving when you explain to them what triggered your anger. You may not even know why you took your anger out on another, and that’s okay as long as you communicate it. Tell them, “I’m so sorry. I’ve been really angry lately. I know it has to do with the death of __________, and I’m working through it. Please forgive me.”
2. Forgive Yourself
It’s normal to “not be normal”. You’ve lost someone important, and your life has been forever changed. It takes time to adjust to a new way of being in the world. Forgive yourself for your transgressions. It is the most compassionate act you can do for yourself.
3. Express Anger Constructively
State that you’re angry to those whom you’re closest to. Transform your anger through a physical act: punch a boxing bag, beat a pillow, scream, chop wood, lift weights, play a sport, run or dance. Write the reasons why you are angry in a journal. Use a guided meditation specifically for releasing anger or practice deep breathing exercises. Anger is simply energy that needs to be released.
3. Bargaining Stage of Grief
The bargaining stage of grief is born out of helplessness. We want to be in control of outcomes, so we make deals with God.
“I promise I will be a better person if you make this suffering go away.”
“If you bring him back to me, I will devote my life to philanthropic causes.”
The notion that we have control over situations is an illusion. The only thing we can control is our own reaction to events, and even this seems impossibly difficult at times.
Accepting a lack of control in our lives requires vulnerability which can create fear, so we try to rationalize why things played out the way they did– “If only I had gotten him into rehab, he wouldn’t have overdosed; if only I had noticed her symptoms, she would have seen the doctor earlier; if only I hadn’t been late, he wouldn’t have left and been in the accident.” We take on guilt and remorse for a death we couldn’t control, and then try to negotiate our way out of it. It can be difficult to watch a loved one process through this stage, but it is often a necessary part of letting go and accepting a loss.
4. Depression Stage of Grief
Depression and Grief
Grief and depression often stroll together side-by-side. We may have denied, bargained, and been moved to anger, and now we feel depleted and overcome with emptiness. We can become so engulfed in our suffering that functioning in the world seems too overwhelming, and we retreat into our pain. We isolate ourselves, struggle to get out of bed, sob relentlessly, lose our appetite, experience physical and mental exhaustion, and struggle to see the point in living without our loved one. It is difficult to carry on conversations, and we’d prefer to be left alone.
Suggested Read: It’s Okay For Everyone To Cry
Coping With Depression
Depression following the death of a loved one is normal and without a timetable. It may last longer if you shared a close relationship with the deceased or the death was unexpected or especially tragic. Coping with depression requires time and patience. You should not only give yourself permission to be sad, but also grant yourself permission to take care of yourself by exercising, eating healthy foods, or indulging in self-care behaviors like massage. Distract your mind by going to the movies, listening to music, or playing sports. Surround yourself with people who support and encourage you, and consider connecting with a therapist or grief counselor who can help you work through more complicated emotions. Seeking help from professionals or bereavement support groups can help us feel understood and less alone in our grief.
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5. Acceptance Stage of Grief
Acceptance is the final stage of grief. It is a feeling of resignation, of putting down the boxing gloves, of raising the white flag, or of honoring the forfeit. Even though acceptance may not give us prolonged feelings of joy, we may suddenly find joy in a moment. It provides us with a sense of peace as our emotions level out, and our lives regain structure and a new normality. When I think about the final state of grief, the Serenity Prayer often comes to mind:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
We cannot change the fact that our loved one is gone; however, there are lessons to be learned from death. Just maybe, when the time is right, we use our loss to transform ourselves to be a little bit better human. Perhaps we let go of small annoyances, look at a flower with more appreciation, or love our friends and family a little more unconditionally because we have a clearer understanding of life’s fragility and impermanence. Acceptance allows us to move forward while giving us the choice of how we’d like to proceed.
Suggested Read: Moving Forward After A Passing
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” – Earl Grollman
Grief is by far life’s greatest challenge. It changes our lives and puts them on a different trajectory–one we may not have ever contemplated. It draws lower emotions to the surface and demands that we feel pain. If we refuse to process through the pain, to bury it, to disassociate from it, we risk harming ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. To recover from grief requires the courage to be vulnerable, patient, and self-compassionate.
Grief is not a one-size-fits-all process; we all wear grief a little differently.
Grief does not end in one year or two. It can be triggered years later by a holiday or anniversary, an errant memory, a scent, a sight, or a song. If we keep in mind the pain felt from loss is really a representation of our love for another human being, then maybe this makes grief a little easier to bear.
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