The five stages of grief were an idea proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. Since the printing of the book, the five stages of grief have made their way into popular culture and people have gravitated towards the intuitive nature of the stages. I want to give a clear overview of the stages and what each stage is representative of.
The Five Stages of Grief
Christina Gregory, Ph.D., an expert on Ross and the stages she has created, an outline below illustrates her definition based on each of the five stages of grief and what one could expect to experience and/or see with someone experiencing grief.
Denial is the stage that can initially help you survive the loss. You might think life makes no sense, has no meaning, and is too overwhelming. You start to deny the news and, in effect, go numb. It’s common in this stage to wonder how life will go on in this different state – you are in a state of shock because life as you once knew it, has changed in an instant.
If you were diagnosed with a deadly disease, you might believe the news is incorrect – maybe a mistake must have occurred somewhere in the lab – they mixed up your blood work with someone else. If you receive news on the death of a loved one, perhaps you cling to a false hope that they identified the wrong person.
In the denial stage, you are not living in “actual reality,” rather, you are living in a ‘preferable’ reality. Interestingly, it is denial and shock that help you cope and survive the grief event. Denial aids in pacing your feelings of grief. Instead of becoming completely overwhelmed with grief, we deny it, do not accept it, and stagger its full impact on us at one time.
Think of it as your body’s natural defense mechanism saying “hey, there’s only so much I can handle at once.” Once the denial and shock start to fade, the start of the healing process begins. At this point, those feelings that you were once suppressing are coming to the surface.
Once you start to live in reality again and not in a fantasy, anger might start to set in. This is a common time to think “why me?” and “life’s not fair!” You might want to blame others for the cause of your grief and also may redirect your anger to close friends and family.
You find it incomprehensible that something like this could happen to you. If you are strong in faith, you might start to question your belief in God. “Where is God? Why didn’t he protect me?” Researchers and mental health professionals agree that this anger is a necessary stage of grief.
Encourage the anger. It’s important to truly feel the anger. It’s thought that even though you might seem like you are in an endless cycle of anger, it will dissipate – and the more you truly feel the anger, the more quickly it will dissipate, and the more quickly you will heal.It is not healthy to suppress your feelings of anger. It is a natural response and arguably, a necessary one. In everyday life, we are normally told to control our anger toward people and situations. When you experience a grief event, you might feel disconnected from reality, as if you have no grounding anymore.
Your life has shattered and there’s nothing solid to hold onto. Think of anger as a strength to bind you to reality. You might feel deserted or abandoned during a grief event. That no one is there. You are alone in this world. The direction of anger toward something or somebody is what might bridge you back to reality and connect you to people again. It is a “thing.” It’s something to grasp onto – a natural step in healing.
When something bad happens, have you ever caught yourself making a deal with God? “Please God, if you heal my husband, I will strive to be the best wife I can ever be – and never complain again.” This is bargaining. In a way, this stage is false hope.You might fool yourself into believing that you can avoid the grief through a type of negotiation with God. If you change this, I’ll change that. You are so desperate to get your life back to how it was before the grief event, you are willing to make a major life change in an attempt toward normality.
Guilt is a common wingman of bargaining. This is when you endure the endless “what if” statements. If I had left the house five minutes sooner the accident would have never happened. If I had encouraged him to go to the doctor six months ago like I first thought, the cancer could have been found sooner and he could have been saved.
Depression is a commonly accepted form of grief. Most people associate depression immediately with grief – as it is a “present” emotion. It represents the emptiness we feel when we are living in reality and realize that the person or situation is gone or over. In this stage, you might withdraw from life, feel numb, live in a fog, and not want to get out of bed.
The world might seem too much and too overwhelming for you to face. You don’t want to be around others, don’t feel like talking, and experience feelings of hopelessness. You might even experience suicidal thoughts – thinking “what’s the point of going on?”
The last stage of grief identified by Kübler-Ross is acceptance. Not in the sense that “it’s okay my husband died” rather, “my husband died, but I’m going to be okay.” In this stage, your emotions may begin to stabilize. You re-enter reality. You come to terms with the fact that the “new” reality is that your partner is never coming back or that you are going to succumb to your illness and die soon – and you’re okay with that.
It’s not a “good” thing – but it’s something with which you can live. It is a time of adjustment and readjustment. There are good days, there are bad days, and then there are good days again. In this stage, it does not mean you’ll never have another bad day where you are uncontrollably sad.
But the good days tend to outnumber the bad days. In this stage, you may lift from your fog, you start to engage with friends again, and might even make new relationships as time goes on. You understand your loved one can never be replaced, but you move, grow, and evolve into your new reality.
Grief is a complex experience that is independently walked through with each person that finds themselves on this path. The five stages of grief created by Ross are a representation of the most common emotions and experiences faced and traversed by people Ross encountered while working with terminally ill patients.
The stages have been widely criticized because of the linear progression as of one stage leading into the next. We now know that the stages are fluid and that people experience many of the stages at different times or simultaneously. The order in which people move in and out of stages is based on the individual and is not mapped out with precise certainty.
Instead, the stages give an umbrella understanding of the different emotions and behaviors that we can expect when encountering a life-changing event. Grief is commonly misunderstood or misplaced by the person experiencing it as depression.
I often find people in my office explaining their depressive symptoms when they are currently in a state of grieving. This is by no fault of the person. We often associate grief with death. Grief is experienced and manifested in everyone’s life.
Simply put, we just have a difficult time recognizing that a planned future is cut short – whether it be a job opportunity, the ability to get pregnant, or a romantic breakup. All of these things can cause a future we have been fostering to evaporate. The grief experienced from these events can be just as monumental as death and in some cases more severe.
Christian Grief Counseling
If you find yourself struggling with a future you don’t recognize because of events out of your control I would strongly recommend that you speak to someone, whether it is a friend, pastor, or counselor. Give your pain a voice and begin that journey towards restoration and healing.
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