Understanding The 5 Stages Of Grief After Facing A Loss

Instead of decoding grief as a single emotion, let's understand this state of loss as a process.
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When we lose someone we love, the grief we face can feel excruciating, absolutely unbearable. As if someone is reaching inside of you and twisting something so deep, you’re stuck in an almost paralysed state of suffering. Often times we ask ourselves, “Will this pain ever end?”, the end seeming like a fantasy almost, a relief that you can’t even imagine for yourself.  

Understandably, grief is a complex emotion, an experience rather than a single feeling. It’s personal to everyone, it doesn’t follow a timeline or a schedule, it doesn’t come with a manual and it surely cannot be felt in any kind of right or wrong way. Everyone grieves differently but we face a few commonalities in the stages of grief that make the process a universally shared experience.  

But where did these stages come from?  

Conceptualised by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, the stages of grief were initially mentioned in her book “On Death and Dying”. After spending years working with terminally ill patients, Kübler-Ross observed the five stages of grief that is today known as the Kübler-Ross model. The five distinct stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Not everyone experiences these five stages and you may not go through them in the mentioned order either. As we said, everyone’s experience is personal and different. You may not find yourself getting angry or you could be angry for months and skip over the other emotions entirely.  

1. Denial  

There’s no denying that grief can be extremely overwhelming. And it’s not unusual to minimise this overwhelming sense of loss by shutting down completely. As the emotional pain mounts, it’s hard to believe that the person we lost was a part of our lives a few days or even a few weeks ago, someone who isn’t here anymore. The reality of the situation shifts our perception in that moment of loss and it can take a significant amount of time to come to terms with this new reality. This can be particularly overwhelming, especially since we have a lot of emotions and information to process. Denial serves as a force to slow this process down, forcing us to take one step at a time rather than being awash with emotion.  

2. Anger  

Anger stems from our incapability of coming to terms with a new reality. And there’s nothing wrong with experiencing these strong feelings of anger and discomfort. It serves as an emotional outlet, a way to let go of the frustration and hurt we feel, the vulnerability that loss brings. Anger masks emotions of fear, judgement, resentment, bitterness or even rejection, your anger could be masking much more for you. But as the anger cools down, the rational part of you brings forth the feelings it was hiding, the ones you need to truly address to move forward.  

Try and release the anger that you feel with mindful practices.

3. Bargaining  

Vulnerability and feelings of helplessness are a part of grief. In these moments of pain, it’s not unnatural to grasp on to any sense of control we find, even if we can’t affect the outcome of the situation. During the bargaining stage of grief, you could be staring in the face of self-destructive questions and statements of “what if” or “if only”. Bargaining is armour against overwhelming emotions, a way for you to postpone the sadness and hurt. For those who are religious or spiritual, this is particularly mighty as they try to make a deal with the higher power in return for the elimination of their pain.  

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We often bargain with ourselves or with a higher power to overcome immediate pain. Image | Unsplash

“God, I’ll turn my life around if you save this person’s life.”  

“I promise to clean my act up if you grant me the promise of saving my person’s life.”  

4. Depression  

During these five stages of grief, there comes a point where the storm quietens and there’s silence. A time for you to look at the reality of the present moment. Bargaining doesn’t seem like it’s working for you and you’re faced with what’s actually happening, the unavoidable truth of the situation comes forth. The emotional impact of this stage could seem like a heavy weight on your chest and you might find yourself retrieving into yourself, but remember that it’s a natural phenomenon. The loss of a loved one can feel isolated as you’re the only one who understands the weight of your grief but going through depression and letting yourself feel these emotions builds resilience and self-awareness. It makes you understand that loss is a truly inevitable part of life.  

5. Acceptance  

Acceptance doesn’t mean that the pain is gone. In fact, most of the time, people who’ve reached the stage of acceptance are still hurting just as much. But in this stage, there is a significant shift, there is no resistance to reality, no struggle, no fear, no bitterness. Sadness and regret can still be present but you’re mentally more resilient to the present moment. You may feel different and that’s perfectly fine, you’ve gone through a major life change but this new phase can make you understand that you’re okay, or you will be, with time and patience.  

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Acceptance doesn’t always mean the pain is gone, rather it proves you’re stronger facing reality. Image | Unsplash

The key to understanding grief is starting with showing compassion to yourself. No one experience is the same, what could take someone months to process through could take you years and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you decide you need help coping with these feelings of overwhelm, don’t shy away from reaching out to a mental health professional.  

Read more: Setting Healthy Social Boundaries Online

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