Grief is universal. At some point in everyone’s life, there will be at least one encounter with grief. It may be from the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, or any other change that alters life as you know it.
Grief is also very personal. It’s not very neat or linear. It doesn’t follow any timelines or schedules. You may cry, become angry, withdraw, feel empty. None of these things are unusual or wrong. Everyone grieves differently, but there are some commonalities in the stages and the order of feelings experienced during grief.
In 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in her book “On Death and Dying” that grief could be divided into five stages. Her observations came from years of working with terminally ill individuals.
Her theory of grief became known as the Kübler-Ross model. While it was originally devised for people who were ill, these stages of grief have been adapted for other experiences with loss, too.
The five stages of grief may be the most widely known, but it’s far from the only popular stages of grief theory. Several others exist as well, including ones with seven stages and ones with just two.
The five stages of grief are:
Not everyone will experience all five stages, and you may not go through them in this order.
Grief is different for every person, so you may begin coping with loss in the bargaining stage and find yourself in anger or denial next. You may remain for months in one of the five stages but skip others entirely.
Grief is an overwhelming emotion. It’s not unusual to respond to the intense and often sudden feelings by pretending the loss or change isn’t happening. Denying it gives you time to more gradually absorb the news and begin to process it. This is a common defense mechanism and helps numb you to the intensity of the situation.
As you move out of the denial stage, however, the emotions you’ve been hiding will begin to rise. You’ll be confronted with a lot of sorrow you’ve denied. That is also part of the journey of grief, but it can be difficult.
Examples of the denial stage
- Breakup or divorce: “They’re just upset. This will be over tomorrow.”
- Job loss: “They were mistaken. They’ll call tomorrow to say they need me.”
- Death of a loved one: “She’s not gone. She’ll come around the corner any second.”
- Terminal illness diagnosis: “This isn’t happening to me. The results are wrong.”
Where denial may be considered a coping mechanism, anger is a masking effect. Anger is hiding many of the emotions and pain that you carry. This anger may be redirected at other people, such as the person who died, your ex, or your old boss. You may even aim your anger at inanimate objects.
While your rational brain knows the object of your anger isn’t to blame, your feelings in that moment are too intense to feel that.
Anger may mask itself in feelings like bitterness or resentment. It may not be clear-cut fury or rage. Not everyone will experience this stage, and some may linger here. As the anger subsides, however, you may begin to think more rationally about what’s happening and feel the emotions you’ve been pushing aside.
Examples of the anger stage
- Breakup or divorce: “I hate him! He’ll regret leaving me!”
- Job loss: “They’re terrible bosses. I hope they fail.”
- Death of a loved one: “If she cared for herself more, this wouldn’t have happened.”
- Terminal illness diagnosis: “Where is God in this? How dare God let this happen!”
During grief, you may feel vulnerable and helpless. In those moments of intense emotions, it’s not uncommon to look for ways to regain control or to want to feel like you can affect the outcome of an event. In the bargaining stage of grief, you may find yourself creating a lot of “what if” and “if only” statements.
It’s also not uncommon for religious individuals to try to make a deal or promise to God or a higher power in return for healing or relief from the grief and pain. Bargaining is a line of defense against the emotions of grief. It helps you postpone the sadness, confusion, or hurt.
Examples of the bargaining stage
- Breakup or divorce: “If only I had spent more time with her, she would have stayed.”
- Job loss: “If only I worked more weekends, they would have seen how valuable I am.”
- Death of a loved one: “If only I had called her that night, she wouldn’t be gone.”
- Terminal illness diagnosis: “If only we had gone to the doctor sooner, we could have stopped this.”
Whereas anger and bargaining can feel very “active,” depression may feel like a “quiet” stage of grief.
In the early stages of loss, you may be running from the emotions, trying to stay a step ahead of them. By this point, however, you may be able to embrace and work through them in a more healthful manner. You may also choose to isolate yourself from others in order to fully cope with the loss.
That doesn’t mean, however, that depression is easy or well defined. Like the other stages of grief, depression can be difficult and messy. It can feel overwhelming. You may feel foggy, heavy, and confused.
Depression may feel like the inevitable landing point of any loss. However, if you feel stuck here or can’t seem to move past this stage of grief, talk with a mental health expert. A therapist can help you work through this period of coping.
Examples of the depression stage
- Breakup or divorce: “Why go on at all?”
- Job loss: “I don’t know how to go…