What are the Stages of Grief After a Death?

If you’ve recently lost a loved one, you are most likely moving through different stages of grief. This can look like making a beautiful online memorial with Ecorial or curling up in bed. Famed Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages to the grieving process in her groundbreaking book, “On Death and Dying” (1969). In it, she outlined the classic five stages of grief that you are likely familiar with; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

Since its initial conception, two additional stages have been found; shock and processing grief. It’s important to note that grief is not a linear process; it’s a winding, switchback road. Please know that however you are grieving is the right way for you, even if it doesn’t precisely match the progression below, where we explore “What are the 7 stages of grief after a death?”. 

The First Stage of Grief: Shock

Shock is your body and mind’s way of protecting you from the deep trauma of a loss. It can last for hours or months. When you’re in shock, you might experience physical symptoms of grief like:

  1. Fatigue or low energy; daily tasks may feel impossible.
  2. Pain like headaches or sore muscles. (Epsom salt baths are helpful for this.)
  3. Disrupted sleep, like oversleeping or sleeping too little.
  4. Greater susceptibility to colds and viruses. (Try ginger and probiotics.)
  5. Poor short-term memory and general brain fog. Consider having people drive you around until you feel more steady. 

The Second Stage of Grief: Denial

Denial is closely related to shock since shock is a protective action from the body. In the second stage, denial is more actively cultivated. All stages of grief and death have a purpose; denial is a way to protect ourselves from breaking under the tragedy of a loss. Denial may look or feel like:

  1. Shock or numbness.
  2. Feeling confused.
  3. Completely shutting down.
  4. Procrastination and avoidance.
  5. Being forgetful and having a hard time focusing.
  6. Needing to stay busy.
  7. Saying or thinking you’re fine. 

The Third Stage of Grief: Anger

Anger is a normal response to loss. Experiencing anger is a sign that you’re coming back into touch with yourself and that you’re safe enough to start processing more of your grief. Take care during this stage; expressing your anger safely can be very productive, but anger can also burn yourself or others. This stage may look or feel like this:

  1. Becoming cynical or pessimistic.
  2. Communicating with sarcasm.
  3. Feeling irritable and frustrated.
  4. Passive aggressive or aggressive communication.
  5. Physical altercations.
  6. Using more alcohol or drugs.
  7. Having less patience.
  8. Being resentful.
  9. Feeling embarrassed or full of rage.
  10. Feeling out of control

The Fourth Stage of Grief: Bargaining

In the stages of grief after a death, bargaining can be a complex experience. Bargaining can encompass many emotions, including shame, guilt, blame, fear, anxiety, and insecurity. Bargaining may look like this:

  1. Cyclical thoughts of the future or past.
  2. Feeling worried and overthinking.
  3. Self-comparisons: e.g., Jane got through her grief faster than me.
  4. Thinking the worst will happen.
  5. Feeling like you need to be perfect.
  6. Using many “I should have” or “If only I’d” phrases in your thoughts or speech.
  7. Feeling judgment of yourself or others.

The Fifth Stage of Grief: Depression

Depression is a sensible part of grief. It may not be easy to get through, so please reach out for help in any way you can. Talking things out or simply having company can be helpful. It’s also normal for depression to have physical as well as emotional symptoms like:

  1. Changes to your body rhythms, like how much you eat or sleep.
  2. Lower energy.
  3. Less interest in social activities.
  4. Low motivation.
  5. Crying or weeping.
  6. More drinking or drug use.
  7. Intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, hopelessness, disappointment, and overwhelm.

The Sixth Stage of Grief: Acceptance and Hope

As we reach the end of the 7 stages of grief, we come to the 6th step, acceptance and hope. It’s ok if you touch this stage and then move back into an “earlier” stage. Grief isn’t a straight line; expect to ebb and flow in these stages for a while. Acceptance and hope might look like this:

  1. More self-care and mindful behaviors.
  2. Ability to be present.
  3. Feeling like you accept your reality.
  4. Capacity to vulnerably share and feel your emotions.
  5. Healthy communication with others.
  6. Able to adapt, cope and respond vs. reacting. 
  7. Feeling good enough or validated.
  8. Having emotions like courage, self-compassion, wisdom, and confidence. 

The Seventh Stage of Grief: Processing Grief

In the stages of grief death, the 7th stage offers both relief and opportunity. This stage contains many practices that may be helpful during other stages of grief. As you process your grief, you take conscious control of your emotional healing. While we can’t control how we feel, we can choose how to respond to deep emotions at this stage. Here are a few tips and practices to help you process your grief.

  1. Tell yourself you have permission to feel. 
  2. Use letters to your lost loved one to process your feelings and thoughts.
  3. Write down all your thoughts stream of consciousness style for 20 minutes in the morning.
  4. Use your words; talk to a friend or therapist.
  5. Know that grief is an individual process.
  6. Accept that grief comes in waves.
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