What You Need to Know About the Five Stages of Grief and Loss

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How comforting it would be in the emotional upheaval following a traumatic loss if there were a prescription for how things should go, an “if-this-then-that” progression. When you can’t think beyond this agonizing moment, surely there’s a flow chart that will make it all easier.

Unfortunately, the truth is that grief is messy. It defies management, demands all of your attention, lasts just as long as it needs to, and returns with ferocity just when you think you’ve moved on.

None of this necessarily means that psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was misguided. Kubler-Ross’ 1969 ground-breaking book, On Death and Dying, introduced the concept of the five stages of grief and served the great benefit of getting us talking about the process of loss and all of the ways we react to it. These stages apply to any kind of loss, and not only to the death of someone important in your life. You will follow this process after a divorce/separation, loss of a certain ability after an accident or health problem, or a big disappointment.

Kubler-Ross spoke with thousands of people who were dying or had suffered a loss and organized what they told her about that experience into five categories that she called stages. The information was intended to help people going through loss and those who care about them, including their doctors and therapists, better understand the complexity of how we grieve. Theses stages of grief and loss describe some common emotional reactions people experience when confronted by death or loss. Grief is one of those emotions, but not the only one.

What Kubler-Ross described, the widely accepted view of facing loss, goes like this:

Denial

After a traumatic loss, we try to protect ourselves from what seems to be an unbearable experience. We may convince ourselves that it hasn’t happened at all, that there has been some terrible mistake, or that we are caught in a terrible dream and need only to wake up. We cannot grasp reality at this point. It hurts too much and is overwhelming. We are still not ready to face what happened. And that’s ok. It’s part of the process.

Anger

Eventually hope fades. This unimaginable thing really did happen. It can’t be undone. We must endure. That knowledge can bring on anger at the unfairness of our loss. Why did this happen to me? We may resent our loved one for leaving us or try to find someone to blame for what happened. And that “someone” could even be ourselves.

Bargaining

Magical thinking convinces us if we give up something else precious, if we behave differently, if we pay a penance, maybe the loss can be reversed after all. We’ll do it — whatever it takes — and the reward will be an end to the pain.

Sadness

There is no magic, no bargains to be struck. There’s no point in denying what has happened. The loss happened, no matter how unfair. We are powerless against this event and that leaves us frightened and sad. We cry, wake in the night, eat too much, or starve ourselves. We withdraw from friends and family as we sink into darkness. At this stage we are starting to realize that nothing can be done to change things as they are.

Acceptance

It has gotten as bad as it can get and we are still here. The loss is permanent, a part of life that we will never escape, but we begin to think there is some point in going on with life. It’s even possible we will find something to be happy about and we ease into a new phase of life. We are finally able to drop our ideas about how life should be and feel ready to go on.

Please note that these reactions are as individual as the people living through the episode. True, most of us go through some form of these five stages, but the intensity, the order, and the expression of the feelings are our own. We may experience more than the five stages identified. Some of us may skip some stages. If the loss is not very traumatic, for instance, we may not feel denial and jump into anger straight away. With most of our daily disappointments (which are also losses as we have to give up our expectations) we may just feel sadness and then, eventually, acceptance.

What we get when death and loss enter our lives is an opportunity to travel through the emotions surrounding loss in our own way. It’s an opportunity to accept life as it is and to learn that getting stuck on our own ideas is what produces our suffering, as hard as it may sound. Life is constant movement and change, and it doesn’t care if we are happy and comfortable with our current situation. And those changes don’t have to agree with what we had planned…

 

 

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