Loss is a hard but unavoidable part of life.
And unfortunately, knowing that loss is a natural occurrence doesn’t make it any easier. Sadness over the loss of a loved one can feel like a pain that may never end.
The grieving process is complicated and different for anyone. However, there are stages of loss everyone experiences, and knowing that the 5 stages of grief are a natural response to loss can help ease the process.
What Causes Someone to Experience Grief?
Grief is most commonly associated with the death of a loved one.
However, any type of loss can cause someone to go through this process, even approaching the end of life due to aging or a terminal illness can cause it. The loss of a job or relationship, such as a divorce, a break-up, or a fall-out with a friend or family member, can cause someone to experience grief. Even something celebratory like a graduation from high school can cause someone to grieve.
Emotions are an incredibly personal experience, and while some may not despair over graduating from school, others can feel it intensely. It’s important to recognize that both of these emotions and reactions are valid.
What Are the 5 Stages of Grief?
The 5 stages of grief were developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who worked with terminally ill individuals. The Kübler-Ross model was introduced in her book on grief called On Death and Dying.
The five stages in the Kübler-Ross model of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Many make the mistake of thinking that these emotions are experienced in order, but that is not the case. People’s experiences of grief are very personal and very different. Those going through the 5 stage model for the grief process may feel these emotions in any order or even miss some altogether.
In this stage, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross explained that the grieving person may refuse to believe that the loss has occurred. The bereaved person feels shocked and numb. As a defense mechanism, the mind tries to convince itself that nothing has changed.
Recently diagnosed terminally ill patients may believe that the diagnosis is a mistake. Those who were just told about the death of a family member or loved one may respond with a firm, “That can’t be possible.” Someone going through a divorce may insist that their spouse will return after some time.
Often, this is the first stage of the grieving process where the person resists the new reality following the loss (or is simply numb to the grief).
Loss comes with pain, and pain often expresses itself through anger. During the grieving process, it’s common for the bereaved person to feel anger towards the situation or even the person they lost.
This anger may also spill over to other people and areas of the grieving person’s life. They may even feel anger at a higher power for allowing the loss to happen. This is a natural response and defense mechanism associated with loss.
During this time, the grieving person should practice self-care and be treated with patience and understanding by friends and family members. But, the anger stage is not an excuse for the bereaved to threaten or harm others’ emotional or physical well-being.
In this stage, the bereaved person may attempt to undo or lessen the loss through negotiations.
For those going through a divorce or break-up, this may involve trying to bargain with their former partner with promises of changed behavior. Or, in the case of a terminally ill patient, they may attempt to bargain with a higher power about changes in behavior or lifestyle if they’re cured.
Some bargaining may be less rational – those who have lost a loved one can even bargain for the return of a loved one who has passed away.
In this stage of grief, the bereaved person feels symptoms of depression, such as sadness, fatigue, and hopelessness. This stage involves intense waves of emotional pain, and the grieving person may often break down crying or try to isolate themselves from friends and loved ones.
Gradually, pain eases. The grieving person begins to accept the loss and move forward in life again. This does not mean that they are truly “over” the loss, but they are ready to find a new life and reality.
Discussion on a Sixth Stage of Grief
In recent years, David Kessler, who co-authored Kübler-Ross’s On Grief and Dying (where the five stages were first presented), introduced a sixth stage – meaning. In his own book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, Kessler discusses how “closure” transforms sadness into a peaceful, hopeful experience.
When Do the Stages of Grief Pass?
As mentioned before, many bereaved people experience the stages of grief in a different order than listed above. Some may even return to previous stages after they thought they had “moved on.” Healing isn’t linear, and there’s no clear schedule. Symptoms of grief can easily be present a year or longer after the loss.
However, complicated grief may need additional grief support to overcome. Knowing when to reach out can be important since the healing process is so personal. Mental health professionals have even added “prolonged grief” to the DSM-5, which is the guide mental health professionals use when diagnosing a patient.
Prolonged grief is defined as a bereaved person suffering from intense, potentially incapacitating symptoms of grief for an entire year after a loss, ultimately affecting their daily life. Additionally, if the depression stage develops into clinical depression and lasts a prolonged time, it is important to seek support.
There is still debate in the field of psychiatry about the inclusion of grief in the DSM-5, as there’s no wrong way to grieve, and grief is a natural response to loss. If, however, the grieving process has become too painful, then seeking help is always a good idea.
Additionally, if the loss was especially sudden, unexpected, or traumatic, there is a risk of developing PTSD which can complicate the grieving process and require the assistance of a mental health care professional.
Seeking Help for Your Mental Health
If you or a loved one are grieving, there’s no shame in seeking support groups or grief counseling, no matter how long it’s been or what stage of grief you are experiencing. There’s no wrong way to grieve, but while isolation and reflection are natural responses to loss, seeking out others – whether through in-person or online therapy – can also be an important part of the healing process.
Mental health care professionals can help you work through the stages of grief at your own pace and keep your grief from evolving into prolonged or complicated grief and clinical depression.
There Is Hope After Loss
If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you don’t have to go through the healing process alone.
Meridian HealthCare can help you understand the stages of grief and how to work through them in a healthy way. Our mental health caregivers are here to support you as you find new hope and new life in the new reality following your loss. Reach out today to begin healing.