How to Know What Stage of Grief You Are In
Encountering grief can be an overwhelming and mysterious journey. Each loss is unchartered territory. Whether you’ve experienced grief several times or for the first time, very little can prepare you for the feelings that will arise. The bond you share with the departed is as unique and special as the vibrant life they led. It’s impossible to compare losses. To do so would be an insult to the memory of the departed. How people respond to losing a loved one can come down to their ability to face their feelings head-on. People can get a sense of where they are in their grief process by identifying which stage they are experiencing.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
Even though grief is a nonlinear journey, the stages of grief can offer a guiding light for self-discovery. In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the internationally best-selling book On Death and Dying, which outlined her theory of the five stages of grief. The book was inspired by Kubler-Ross’s experience working with terminally ill patients. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It can be common for the stages to be experienced in that order; however, everyone is different. There is no right or wrong way regarding the five stages of grief. Some may experience all five, while others may experience just a few. Whichever stage a person encounters, it’s important that they honor their grief process and acknowledge their feelings.
The first of the five stages, denial is our brain’s immediate response to the news of loss. It’s a defense mechanism the brain deploys to slow down and quiet the overwhelming amount of stimulation the nervous system is experiencing. Losing a loved one can produce quite a shock to the system. It can defy logic that a loved one is no longer here. For some people, denial can feel like a safe place to stay. It allows them to forego dealing with the unimaginable loss. All the thoughts and emotions are kept at bay. While denial can protect us, it can also cause us harm if we continue to linger there too long. Eventually, those buried feelings will need to be addressed if there is any hope of finding peace and moving forward with a healthy and fulfilling life.
While denial may be a way to cope with loss, anger is a powerful emotion often used to deflect from other big feelings hiding beneath the surface. With so many emotions simmering inside, the brain is still trying to manage the shock of the loss. Rational thought is still a challenge at this stage. Feelings are far too intense. People experiencing anger may direct it to others, such as the deceased, friends, or co-workers. It also may express itself as resentment, bitterness, or general moodiness. At some point, the feelings beneath will have to be addressed.
The third stage of grief is bargaining. Losing a loved one can leave grief-stricken individuals feeling powerless. No force on earth can return the departed back to life. So, many people try appealing to a higher authority, such as God. To gain control over the loss, the bereaved begin to bargain for the return of their loved one. Negotiating feels like a way to regain control and restore life to how things were.
- “Please, God, I’ll do anything to have my wife back.”
- “I promise I’ll never take my Grandfather for granted again.”
- “I’ll volunteer at church every Sunday to see my brother again.”
Feelings of guilt are also heavily associated with the bargaining stage. In their minds, the bereaved take a trip back in time, scrutinizing actions that brought them to this point.
- “If only I went to the doctor sooner…”
- “If only I had listened to my father’s advice…”
- “If only I left a few minutes earlier….”
Often, after bargaining comes the depression stage. The bereaved realize that no amount of negotiating will change the past. The departed can’t be raised from the dead. Guilt and self-criticism won’t restore life; they only keep grief-stricken individuals in a cycle of pain and suffering. As the bereaved move out of the past and into the present, depression can begin. Life has been irrevocably changed, and this realization can bring about overwhelming sadness in the form of depression. It’s a perfectly natural reaction. Losing a loved one can understandably make people feel empty inside without relief.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. Bereaved individuals begin to accept and acknowledge the new reality of their lives. They learn to adjust and move forward. While the pain of losing a loved one never fully disappears, the ability to engage in life returns—activities they used to enjoy before the loss can once again bring a sense of joy. With acceptance, the good days begin to outweigh the bad.
How to Know What Stage of Grief You're In?
Identifying the stage of grief you are encountering can help normalize the grief process.
If you simply can’t comprehend that a loved one is truly gone, you are experiencing denial. You may find yourself saying, “I can’t believe it. There’s no way.”
In the Anger stage, you may lash out at family, friends, co-workers, or strangers. Your tolerance for everyday chores or routines may feel much shorter than normal. Holding a simple thought or carrying on a conversation may be difficult. The brain is experiencing an overwhelming amount of emotions, making it difficult to act rationally.
You may find that creating games or “deals” with yourself or a perceived higher power gives you control over the loss. Anytime you try to manipulate a moment in your daily life to bring about change in the past, it is a sign you are in the bargaining stage.
If you’re feeling a sense of overwhelming sadness, like you may never be cheerful again, you are most likely experiencing depression. Life, as you know it, may fail to bring peace or joy. Connecting with family or friends may be difficult. Disappearing from the world and hiding from social interactions are indicators of depression.
If you have acknowledged the loss, understand that life is forever changed, and have begun to move forward with life, then you are in the acceptance stage of grief. You will still experience sadness on certain levels, but your days have begun to experience more joy than sorrow.
How to Cope with Grief in Every Stage
Expressing your thoughts and feelings is a good way to start healing. Whether it's a family member, friend, or counselor, telling someone how you feel can open up a world of relief. Writing can also be a wonderful way to get your feelings out if you aren't ready to discuss your loss. It doesn’t have to make rational sense. Several feelings may come up all at once. Face your feelings and allow them to come out.
With anger, your emotions are desperate to get out. Accommodate them by having a good scream. You can go out into the woods and let it all out, or you can simply scream into a pillow if you’re concerned about drawing too much attention. Moving your body will help get the festering emotions out of your system. Try taking a walk or doing a favorite physical activity to provide a healthy outlet for your anger. Exercise releases endorphins, which can make us feel good. When writing words simply won’t do, try other forms of artistic expression to release the anger, such as listening to music that captures your mood or painting your feelings.
Try to re-engage with a favorite hobby or activity. Refocusing the mind on something other than the loss can give you a small break from the endless cycle of pain, shame, or guilt that typically comes with bargaining. If you aren’t up for it, consider volunteering your time. In serving others, we also serve ourselves. It can feel good to help others, which is another way to increase the “feel good” endorphins.
If you’re feeling depressed, self-care can become a real challenge. Try to make it a point to do one or two small things to look after yourself. It could be as simple as showering, having tea, or changing your clothes. Each task can offer a small step back to normalcy. Even if you don’t think you can do it, fake it ‘till you make it.
Consider creating a moving tribute to your loved one. Cremation jewelry and keepsakes can strengthen the eternal bond you share with the departed. It also offers an opportunity to share the story of your loved one’s vibrant life and how they impacted you. When we tell stories of those we’ve lost, we honor their spirit and find strength and comfort in the grief process.
When experiencing grief, it’s important to honor the process and allow it to unfold naturally. Grief can’t be rushed. It never goes away fully; acknowledge your feelings and refrain from judgment. Whichever order you experience the stages is just fine. You may touch on all five, only a few, or go back and forth between them. The most important thing is facing your grief and being gentle with yourself. Life can once again be fulfilling!
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