First introduced in 1969 by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying, the five stages of grief — denial and isolation; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance — are universal and experienced by people from all walks of life, across many cultures. Grief and mourning can occur in response to an individual’s own terminal illness, the loss of a close relationship or the death of a beloved being (human or animal).
- Denial and isolation: Often, the first reaction to learning about a terminal illness, loss, or death of a loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. “This is not true. This can’t be happening.” It is a normal reaction to rationalize our overwhelming reaction, and this denial is often succeeded by temporary isolation from social interactions. Denial is a common defense mechanism and helps us buffer the immediate shock of the loss, numbing our emotions.
- Anger: As denial and isolation begin to wear off, anger sets in: “why me?” is a common question in this stage, during which an individual projects his or her resentment and envy onto others and often directs the anger at the loved deceased or dying one, a supreme being, medical caregivers, family members and friends.
- Bargaining: In order to deal with overwhelming feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, and to regain control and protect ourselves from the painful reality, bargaining–in the form of a “deal” with a supreme being in exchange to postpone the inevitable–is a common line of defense.
- Depression: A frequent reaction to grief and loss is withdrawal from loved ones. Sadness and regret predominate this stage, often accompanied by worry about financial aspects.
- Acceptance: Not everyone reaches this stage, the phase of accepting a loss, accepting that the end is near and the struggle is over. This stage is marked by withdrawal and calmness, as a sense of feeling that “it’s okay” to let go sets in.
We spend different lengths of time working through these steps and stages of loss, and experience them with different intensity. Given time, most individuals experience all five stages, although not necessarily in the order identified by Kübler-Ross. People often shift back and forth between the reactions rather than experience them in a linear way; they can get stuck in a stage, or skip over others.
Remember, grieving is a personal process that has no time limit and there is no one “right way” to do it.
Here are some suggestions on how to manage:
- Make sure to make time for feeling the emotions that arise, whether they are anger, sadness or pain. There is no need to judge these emotions as good or bad; it’s okay to feel them, and they will not last forever.
- Create a little ritual where you spend time with the picture or object connected to the person who has passed.
- Take care of yourself during this time and treat yourself with love and kindness: eat healthy, go for a walk, read a book or watch a movie.
- Try and open your eyes to the good things around you. Smell a flower or taste your favorite food!
- Take a break from feeling when it becomes too overwhelming, and set a time to revisit it, otherwise it will occupy you all day long.
- Join a grief or support group, either online or in person.
- Be altruistic: volunteer at a homeless shelter or make some things for people you care about.
If you need someone to help you through a difficult time, CrossWinds is here for you! Request an appointment today!
Sonja R. Fay, L.M.S.W.
Emergency Services Clinician
CrossWinds Counseling and Wellness