Stages of Grief

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The stages of grief 7 is a journey that we must undertake following a significant loss. 

Grief is a journey that we must undertake following a significant loss. We are bound to go through various losses throughout our lives but that doesn’t change the fact that losing something or someone worthwhile leaves a profound emptiness in our lives. Even though we are consciously aware of the inescapability of death and loss, each loss cuts deep. Most people go through a grieving period after a loved one’s death, the end of a meaningful relationship, the loss of health, miscarriage or infertility, the loss of a profession, relocation, or the loss of safety.

However, you may feel stuck in your grief, not knowing how to move forward, fearing that you will forget the deceased, or struggling with guilt and shame for wanting to continue with your life. You might lack the energy and interest to engage in social interactions, have trouble concentrating, or feel guilty about taking time off your parenting duties or work to grieve. You might struggle to communicate your feelings about the loss to others openly.

Returning to your regular roles and activities quickly after the loss can be overwhelming, and that is expected. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. At the same time, the core experience of suffering is universal – every individual mourns in their own unique way

How can grief affect you?

Grief is a complex experience that can make it challenging to go about daily life. Your health, productivity at work, relationships, and overall well-being may suffer.

Emotional impact

It is expected to experience a roller coaster of emotions following the loss. After the death of a loved one, you might find yourself trapped in a circle of hopelessness, loneliness, and sadness. You may experience bouts of crying or feelings of numbness and emptiness. You may find it difficult to share other people’s joy and feel happy for them. You might feel angry, guilty, and desolate and believe you will never be happy again. These feelings may intensify during anniversaries and holidays, resulting in severe emotional distress.

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Cognitive challenges

After a significant loss, you might feel confused and struggle with concentration and decision-making. You might have difficulty focusing and remembering things, affecting your performance and success at school or work.

Physical symptoms

You may experience a variety of physical symptoms in the weeks and months following your loss, including lack of appetite, aches and pains, low energy, insomnia, and fatigue. You may also have a compromised immune system and often feel unwell. Regardless of how much sleep you get, you may always feel exhausted.

Social and behavioral changes

You may withdraw from your friends and family and neglect your hobbies and exercise routine. You may find no pleasure in meeting friends, spending time with family, or engaging in social events and activities you used to enjoy.

While mourning is normal, if it interferes with your life and well-being, you should consider seeking professional help. Grief counseling may assist you in understanding the stages of grief, normalizing the experience, and providing you with skills to process your emotions and begin healing.

The 7 stages of grief

mourning stages

stages of grief 7

stages of grief

7 grieving steps

The concept of the seven stages of grieving is an adaptation of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, introduced in the late 1960s. Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist and pioneer in near-death research developed the five stages of grief model to understand the experiences of terminally ill patients.

The stages of grief Kübler-Ross developed did not initially relate to a person who is grieving a loved one. The author developed these stages of the mourning process based on her studies of persons nearing the end of their lives. These phases, however, have now been expanded to include the process of grieving any significant loss. The seven steps are as follows:

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1. Shock and denial

You could experience shock and denial shortly after the loss, feeling startled or numb. You might refuse to accept the reality, holding onto a false one. You may, for example, request that people speak about a deceased loved one in the present tense. Or you might act as if nothing has happened. You may lack emotion about the loss or significant change in your life.

This initial stage of grief essentially serves as a coping mechanism. It is your mind’s response to the rush of overpowering emotions. The primary goal of the shock and denial stage is to protect us from the full effect of the loss until our brain is ready to process what has happened without causing extreme emotional anguish.

2. Pain and guilt

As the first shock wears off after your brain has accepted the reality of the loss, excruciating pain takes its place. Many people experience profound guilt at the same time, triggered by the endless “what ifs” and thoughts of what could have been done differently to avoid the tragic outcome: “What if I did … x,” “What if there was more time,” “What if we chose to stay home instead of going to…x,” “What if I had pressed him to go to a doctor earlier,” and so on.

You may also experience a range of physical discomforts such as aches and pains, disturbed sleep (insomnia or excessive sleeping), a loss of appetite or overeating, increased heart rate, and fatigue. These physical symptoms are actually somatization of acute emotional distress.

Even though emotional pain might be overpowering and nearly intolerable, it is critical to allow yourself to be open to it and completely experience it without judgment or suppression.

3. Anger and bargaining

Pain and guilt find their outlet in anger, so you release your bottled-up emotions. You might lash out and attempt to find someone to blame for your loss. Anger is a natural reaction to a significant loss that we often unconsciously use to mask and cope with other hurtful feelings such as sorrow, guilt, or shame. However, aim for healthy expression of anger in grief, such as engaging in physical activity or allowing yourself to feel angry without engaging in harmful behavior. Unhealthy anger expressions, such as lashing out at others or engaging in self-destructive behaviors, can harm ourselves and others.

During this stage of grief, you may bargain, telling God, the Universe, or the higher power that you will do anything to reverse the situation or find relief from your situation or emotions. Bargaining is another coping mechanism our mind uses to regain control and find meaning amidst pain and suffering.

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4. Depression

During this stage, you come to fully understand the magnitude of your loss, so you may sink into intense sadness and despair and withdraw from friends and family. You may reflect on your loss and what it means in your life, focusing on memories of the past and feeling lonely and isolated.

Although others may have good intentions, suggesting that it is time for you to move on and stop mourning, it is important to trust and listen to your own inner guidance. Give yourself permission to profoundly experience sorrow. Cry as much as you need, as crying is the most natural way to relieve emotional tension. 

Crying means acknowledging the loss as a fact. As long as you refuse to accept the truth of your loss, there will be no tears. In order to transition to the upward turn stage and process your feelings, you have to accept the loss and experience the grief in all its power.

5. The upward turn

During this stage, the intense emotional pain of the earlier stages may lessen. You may start feeling calmer and more composed. You might think more optimistically about the future, accept your new reality, and adapt to life without a loved one.

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6. Reconstruction and working through

As you become more practical, you will begin putting pieces of your life together. You may start working on rebuilding your life without a loved one. You may gradually return to normalcy by focusing on practical and financial issues and integrating the loss into your life experience.

7. Acceptance and hope

You may accept the reality of your loss during this last stage of grieving. However, acceptance does not mean sudden happiness but the strength to find a way forward. You might experience a renewed sense of hope and start looking forward to the future while honoring the memory of your loved one.

The stages of grief is not a step-by-step linear process

The stages of grief, often described as shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and reflection, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and finally acceptance and hope, aren’t a rigid roadmap that everyone follows in a linear fashion.

Every person’s experience of loss is deeply unique and personal. We grieve in our own way, influenced by factors like our life experiences, cultural background, type of loss and relationship to what’s been lost. The intensity and duration of grieving also varies dramatically person to person.

While it would be tidy if grief could be so predictive, the reality is often messier, less predictable and non-linear. You may cycle back and forth between stages, or skip some completely. Powerful memories, anniversaries or milestone dates may unexpectedly trigger grieving months or years later. There really is no universal “normal” or fixed “right” way to grieve. Forgiveness, self-care and trust in your own personal process is key.

The stages of grief is not a step-by-step linear process. stages of grief, mourning stages, stages of grief 7, 7 grieving steps, 6 stages of grieving, 6 stages of grief

Rather than using the stages of grief as a prescriptive path that should be rigorously followed, it’s more useful to broadly understand what phases of emotion and experience may emerge. This can validate what you encounter personally and reassure that many emotions and reactions in grief tend to ebb and flow naturally over time. It offers a sense of normalcy and validation that the range of feelings – whether shock, anger, guilt, or eventual acceptance – is part of the grieving journey. Simply listen to what you need moment-by-moment without judgement. There is no “right” way to grieve.

Ultimately, the stages of grief serve as a guide rather than a strict rulebook. They offer insight into the common emotional experiences that many individuals might encounter while navigating the complex terrain of loss. Embracing this variability can lead to a more compassionate and understanding approach towards oneself and others who are going through the grieving process.

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What is complicated grief?

Complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder, is a profound and enduring form of grieving that extends beyond what’s considered a typical mourning period. When someone experiences a significant loss, it’s natural to feel intense emotions and go through a grieving process. However, in cases of complicated grief, this process becomes prolonged, intense, and disruptive to daily life.

One of the defining characteristics of complicated grief is the persistence of intense emotions associated with the loss over an extended period. Rather than gradually diminishing, the feelings of sadness, longing, and despair remain overwhelming and may even intensify as time goes on. Individuals experiencing complicated grief often find it challenging to accept the reality of the loss and may have intrusive thoughts or memories associated with the deceased.

Another aspect of complicated grief is the interference it causes in daily functioning. It can impact various areas of life, including work, relationships, and personal well-being. Individuals might withdraw from social interactions, experience difficulty maintaining routines, or struggle with a sense of purpose. Sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, and a sense of detachment from life are also common manifestations.

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Complicated grief doesn’t have a specific timeline; it varies greatly from person to person. Factors such as the nature of the relationship with the deceased, the circumstances of the loss, and existing mental health conditions can contribute to its development. Experiencing complicated grief doesn’t imply weakness or an inability to cope; rather, it reflects the profound impact of the loss on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being.

Seeking support is crucial for individuals grappling with complicated grief. Therapy can provide tools and guidance to navigate the complex emotions and thoughts associated with this form of grieving. Additionally, joining support groups or seeking community and social connections can offer valuable understanding and solidarity during this difficult time.

Understanding and acknowledging the existence of complicated grief is essential for individuals and their support networks. It’s a recognition that grieving is a highly individual process and that some may require additional assistance and time to navigate the intricate emotions and adjustments that come with such a significant loss.

The grieving response to life's losses outside of death

The grieving response to life's losses outside of death. stages of grief, mourning stages, stages of grief 7, 7 grieving steps, 6 stages of grieving, 6 stages of grief

We tend to associate grief most commonly with the death of a loved one. Images of black-clad mourners crying at funerals inevitably come to mind when we think of grief.

However, the profound sadness, distress, and longing characterized by the grieving process is not exclusive to only bereavement over death. Any major life loss or unwelcome change that disrupts our existing sense of security, identity and community can also cause the feeling of grief. For example, divorce represents the death of dreams about a lasting future together as much as the loss of the partner themselves. Each envisioned milestone and goal now negated is grieved for. The sudden onset of a disabling illness or serious accident causes grief over the loss of prior abilities and independence, invoking deep fears about identity and uncertainty ahead. Workers losing jobs they held for decades grieve the lost self-image as well as financial stability or social connections made there.

Even happy transitions like kids leaving home for college or a family moving can elicit grief over nostalgia for the way things were in the now abandoned home that held years of memories. In so many situations and life changes beyond only death, there is a profound sense of what is being left behind, missing or irrevocably altered.

When we realize grief is the emotional consequence of this loss rather than solely about mortality itself, we can extend more sensitivity and support to those working through various life changes and recognize grief’s inherent role in each adjustment or new beginning taking shape.

4 Common Misconceptions About Grief

Myth: Grief is mostly an emotional experience.

Fact: While grief does involve powerful emotions like sadness and anger, it also causes significant physical (fatigue, pain), cognitive (confusion, distraction) and behavioral (changes in activity, isolation) effects. It is a complex biopsychosocial response.

The truth is that grieving elicits responses across multiple domains – emotional, physical, cognitive, spiritual, and behavioral. For example, grieving frequently causes dramatic physical impacts including fatigue/exhaustion, pain, nausea, changes in appetite, and insomnia from the tremendous stress response happening internally.

Cognitively, deep grief impairs concentration and memory with a feeling of disorientation as people struggle to absorb the loss. Common cognitive signs are distraction, withdrawal, silence, confusion, lack of motivation and difficulty making decisions.

Behaviorally many mourners abandon socialization, previous plans or roles while some engulf themselves in constant frenzied activity to avoid their feelings. Spiritually questions about “why” arise frequently with deep anger towards a higher power being common.

The multidimensional nature of grief can not be overlooked. Expecting grieving people to function normally risks ignoring their lived experience. Completely neglecting the physical, mental, spiritual and behavioral expressions of grief prevents recognizing the true depths it permeates internally after loss. Grief is truly a biopsychosocial experience impacting our whole being.

4 Common Misconceptions About Grief. stages of grief, mourning stages, stages of grief 7, 7 grieving steps, 6 stages of grieving, 6 stages of grief

Myth: The pain of early grief decrease steadily over time.

Fact: Grief often comes in waves with periods of relative calm punctuated by intense resurgences of grieving. Healing is nonlinear.

A common misconception is that grieving is a linear journey – each day or week that passes should bring a noticeable decrease in acute emotional anguish. This mythic timeline assumes acute pining and despair will lift slowly but surely as we adjust to loss.

Grieving individuals buy into this hoping their yearning and sadness means they are progressing through orderly grief “stages” right on schedule. The reality is much more erratic with grief often emerging in unpredictable waves and fluctuations.

Time does not neatly mitigate grief’s potency. Mourners report extended periods of feeling functional accompanied by a false sense they are “over it”…until a painful memory or meaningful date suddenly triggers intense grieving again. Hollidays, birthdays, anniversaries often spark surges of “grief attacks” even years later catching mourners off guard.

Supporting those grieving means rejecting false assumptions about linear progress and predictable stability. We must understand hearts and minds zigzag erratically between emotional extremes as individuals slowly rebuild meaning amid loss. Each person’s grief journey follows its own messy, nonlinear trajectory. Forward movement happens gently, then intensely when we least expect.

Myth: It’s important to be “strong" and hold in emotions.

Fact: Bottling up grief can impair healing. Open expression through tears, commemoration etc is vital. There is no strength in stoicism. Moving through all emotional currents keeps you out of denial.

Strength means something very different in the context of grieving compared to other distressing situations. There is a common misconception that showing emotions openly or frequently crying means you are “weak” while being stoic and restrained in grief displays admirable strength.

But resisting grief’s natural outward flow often backfires by enabling denial or suppression. Allowing some constructive release through tears, talking openly to empathetic ears or commemorating loss through ritual gives emotions a healthy outlet so we keep moving forward. Pushing pain aside risks getting emotionally “stuck” which delays adapting to change.

Likewise, celebrating positive memories or re-engaging interests need not mean “moving on” from grief quickly. It simply reflects emotional capacity expanding bit by bit in tandem with the challenge of loss. Grief is not a finite well of tears to cry or fixed period of pain to endure before “being strong” again.

Rather our resilience and strength rebuild slowly as we learn integrating loss into life’s ongoing beauty and meaning without our loved one physically present. Be patient and compassionate with your emotions, trusting that waves of grief come and go naturally. Let strength redefine itself as flowing gently through each stage, not stoically bottling big feelings up.

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Myth: Time heals all wounds.

Fact: While time can lessen the intensity of emotions, grief doesn’t simply disappear with time.

The adage “time heals all wounds” suggests that grief is like a cut or bruise that will automatically fade over time without any effort or intervention. This assumption overlooks the complex emotional and psychological terrain grieving individuals must actively navigate after a major loss. Simply waiting as days and months pass fails to appreciate that bereavement has no predetermined end point or predictable linear path.

While the initial rawness of early grief may lessen in intensity for some, grieving remains an underlying condition. It waxes and wanes rather than completely disappearing. Distressing feelings can emerge intensely even years later after being dormant or manageable. Milestone dates often act as grief triggers that catch mourners off guard as they are thrust back into acute sorrow once more. Saying time intrinsically heals grief’s wounds ignores this persistent, pesky potential for setbacks.

Rather than passively heal, integrating loss into life meaningfully depends on turning inward. Confronting pain, finding rituals for remembrance, allowing creativity outlets for both joy and sadness – these require emotional muscles not just patience. Supportive counsel and communities who allow safe space to express both light and darkness matter deeply too.

Healing from profound loss means learning to actively carry grief with us, not eliminate it entirely. With resilience and vulnerability, we discover renewed purpose and capacity for happiness, though it may resemble something different than before. Time alone does not determine grief’s nonlinear trajectory – only deliberate movement through its waves and gifts of presence surrounding us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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