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The Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross originally developed the five stages of grief model after she published her book On Death and Dying in 1969. She used her model to describe the experience of people with terminal illness facing their own death. Since then it has been adapted as a way of thinking about grief and change in general. In the later stages of her life she worked together with David Kessler, who, in 2016, wrote about a sixth stage of grief, finding meaning.

The stages of grief are often depicted as a curve and this may give the impression that the stages of grief happen in a particular order. You may hear people say, "Oh, I've moved on from denial and I'm waiting for the angry stage" but that is often not how it happens.

In fact Kübler-Ross was clear herself that the stages are not linear. The stages describe aspects of how a person may experience grief at different times and they do not happen in a particular order. You may not experience all of the stages, and you may find feelings are quite different with different losses or bereavements.

What might these stages feel like?

Stage 1 - Denial

At first we may carry on as if nothing happened after a bereavement or loss. Even if in our mind we know what happened, it can be hard to believe that someone important is not coming back. Feeling numb is a common experience in the early days and it is also very common to hear the voice or feel the presence of someone who has died. The first stage of grief may feel like being lost at sea without a connection to anyone or anything.

Stage 2 - Anger

Whether a person has died unexpectedly or after years of suffering from a long-term illness, death can seem unfair and cruel. We may feel angry because after the loss it feels as if our world or sense of self have been shattered. Anger is a completely natural emotion and part of the journey through grief.

Stage 3 - Bargaining

Sometimes it can feel hard to accept that we don't, or didn't, have control over things. Bargaining is when we start to make deals with ourselves because we want to believe that if we act in certain ways, we will feel better. We may also find ourselves going over things that happened in the past again and again and asking ourselves what-if-questions. Or, we may wish that we could go back and do things differently in the hope that it could have turned out differently.

Stage 4 - Depression

When we think about grief, we most commonly think of sadness and longing. This pain can be very intense and feel almost physical. It may come in waves over weeks, months are even years. It may feel like life is not worth living anymore which can be very scary.

Stage 5 - Acceptance

People around us may talk about "getting over" the loss and that may never feel possible. Gradually most people find that over time the pain lessens, and it becomes possible to accept what has happened. We can learn to live again while keeping memories close to us.

Stage 6 - Meaning

After a death or a significant loss, our life may feel as if it has lost all meaning. Finding meaning in life again is a personal journey and may take months or even years. Finding meaning at this stage is not about finding meaning in the death of the person or loss, but about finding meaning in the rest of our life.

How might these stages be helpful for you?

People have found the stages of grief helpful because they describe some of the different reactions and feelings they may be experiencing. They might help you make sense of your experience but they are not a prescription or definitive path through grief.

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