Understanding the Stages of Grief

November 8, 2018
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Grief is like a punch in the gut you never see coming.  The wind gets knocked out of you without any warning or time to prepare.  Even if the loss is somewhat expected, it is nothing like you ever imagined.  Perhaps you have engaged in some mental preparation beforehand, or perhaps you were caught completely off guard.  Either way, your mind desperately tries to comprehend something that is incomprehensible.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, presented the five stages of grief, also known as the Kubler-Ross model, in her novel, On Death and Dying.  The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  The book hypothesized that individuals pass through a series of emotional stages in response to a terminal diagnosis.   Through her novels and activism, Kubler-Ross managed to forever alter the way that death was viewed, reducing stigma, and making it acceptable to seek help and support.

The first stage, denial, is what initially assists one in enduring a loss.  Denial is characterized by shock, numbness, and refusal to believe that a diagnosis or loss is accurate.  Instead, individuals will desperately adhere to a fictitious reality.  Denial and shock help individuals initially cope with loss, as denial prevents one from getting wholly overwhelmed.  Once denial diminishes, the healing process can begin.

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The anger stage is asserted to be an essential stage of grief and is categorized by feelings of agitation and rage.  Anger is often displaced onto loved ones and unfairness and disbelief are paramount.  It is commonly believed that anger will diminish more rapidly the more that it is felt.

The bargaining stage is typified with optimism and artificial hope that one can circumvent a loss via negotiating and compromising.  In this stage, individuals desperately want to revert back to the way that things were and offer major life changes in exchange for healing and extended existence.  Typically, individuals will attempt to bargain with God by offering a new, transformed way of living.

The depression stage is a generally accepted form of grief and illustrates dejection and anguish.  Individuals in this stage tend to isolate and become introspective, hopeless, and sorrowful.  It is representative of the desolation one feels when they realize that the person or condition has truly departed.

The final stage is acceptance and is distinguished by more emotional stability.  In this stage, individuals realize that they are ultimately going to be all right.  People acquiesce to mortality or realize that the person or situation lost will never return.  Individuals start to re-engage with life, enter new relationships, and begin to develop a new reality.

Kubler-Ross later co-authored another book with David Kessler that elaborated on her original model.  Kubler-Ross stated that the stages of grief were not only applicable to individuals receiving news of a terminal illness, but rather could include many types of personal losses.  These losses included death of a loved one, loss of employment, conclusion to a relationship, or divorce.  Moreover, substance abuse, imprisonment, disease onset, and infertility were also designated as applicable losses.

Additionally, Kubler Ross originally claimed that individuals pass through the stages in a chronological, linear fashion, but later retracted and affirmed that the stages are not sequential.  Kubler Ross also acknowledged that individuals do not necessarily have to pass through each and every stage and instead, can skip or bypass stages.

Although universal, grief is an individual and personal process.  It is unpredictable, powerful, and all encompassing.  It has the ability to knock the wind out of you for quite some time, similar to a painful punch in the gut.  However, the stages of grief can provide some guidance and explanation for the roller coaster of emotions unleashed within you.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.