A New Look at the Stages of Grief

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. These are the five stages of grief, defined by renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s to mark the emotional journey that follows the death of a loved one. Over time, people have applied the stages to any kind of loss – everything from broken relationships and divorce to tangible losses of property, money, and employment.

If you’ve ever experienced grief, or if you are grieving now, you may recognize yourself in one or more of the stages:

  • Denial is a psychological term for a powerful defense mechanism that allows one to detach from painful feelings. Statements like “I just can’t believe she’s gone” or “This can’t be happening to me” may be indications that the speaker is in denial.
  • Anger is a common emotion and a natural part of grief. Survivors may feel anger toward God for allowing their loved one to die. Families may be angry with health care professionals who failed to diagnose a problem early or treat it properly. A widow may be angry with her deceased loved one for not taking better care of himself, and thus leaving her to mourn.
  • Bargaining usually occurs when the pain of grief makes life seem unbearable. A bereaved individual may try to bargain with God by promising to be a better person or stop some problem behavior, like smoking or gambling, if only life will return to normal.
  • Depression is a serious problem that affects an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional health. Symptoms of depression – sadness, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness or emptiness, for example – are part of the normal grieving process, but depression that interferes with daily living or doesn’t subside with a few weeks should be evaluated by a doctor.
  • Acceptance is the realistic acknowledgement that nothing will bring your loved one back, but that you are going to be okay. Acceptance is marked by a feeling of comfort and peace.

Stages or Signs?

We humans like our lives to be orderly, and we like to be in control. When we’re in pain, we want to do something to stop it, and we want to know when life will get better. Unfortunately, grief just isn’t that predictable, and that’s why some experts today are questioning the concept of the “stages” of grief.

You see, the stages aren’t steps you take, one at a time, like a to-do list. You can’t rush grief by marching through the stages in record time. The stages of grief may or may not occur in order; you may experience one or more at a time. In fact, even the number of stages is up for debate, as various grief experts proclaim “7 stages” or “10 stages” as an alternative to Kübler-Ross’s 5 stages.

So, rather than numbered steps on the path to recovery, the stages of grief are more like signs along the way. These signs describe the various states of mind and heart that one experiences following a major loss. The signs are there to assure you that although you may, at times, feel like you’re going “crazy” or like you’ll never feel “normal” again, other travelers have indeed passed this way before. You are not the first, you won’t be the last, and above all, you are not alone.

Healing Comes with Acceptance

One thing most experts agree on, however, is that acceptance is the sign that heralds hope and healing – the last “stage,” if you will, on the journey through grief.

But while acceptance may be the last stage, it doesn’t mean your grief is over. Most people find that grief comes back in waves over the course of a lifetime. Even years after your loved one is gone, you may feel a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye when you hear her favorite song. You may continue to miss him on anniversaries and special days. Still, once you’ve truly accepted your loss, you can rest in the knowledge that life does go on and embrace hope for the future.

Your Thoughts

How have you experienced the stages of grief? In your own grief experience, do you recall when you knew you would be okay? Please consider sharing your thoughts here to help others.

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