What are the 7 stages of grief?
Sadly, every one of us will experience the pain of grief at some point in our lives. Losing a loved one or saying goodbye to a pet can be exquisitely painful, changing our world forever and throwing us into a tailspin.
You’ve probably heard of the different stages of grief, but you might not know how they work, or which one you’re experiencing at any given time. Everyone grieves in their own way. However, knowing this and actually experiencing it are two very different things. It’s very natural to feel alone in your grief or worry that you’re not grieving ‘normally.’
The ‘Seven Stages of Grief’ model is based on the ‘Five Stages of Grief’, initially theorised in 1969 by Swiss psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. She attempted to classify the different emotions and thoughts that people experience after losing someone they love. Her original stages are those listed as two through six, with one and seven added in recent years to strengthen the model.
It’s not always perfect, and you might go through some phases or emotions that aren’t listed. After all, grief is non-linear and often messy. It’s common to move up and down the ladder, progressing to the higher steps only to come crashing down, especially on anniversaries or other meaningful dates.
If this model doesn’t work for you, or if you’re not finding it useful or helpful, it’s OK to kick it to the kerb and seek resources that work for you. But please don’t try to avoid your grief. While pushing your despair to the back of your mind and ignoring it may seem like it’s helping, this often prolongs the pain. Instead, allow yourself to grieve, heal, and work your way through the process.
It’s not easy. In fact, it may be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. But it will get easier.
The 7 stages of grief
Shock and disbelief
When you first find out about the death of a loved one, your initial reaction might be shock or complete disbelief. You’re not quite in denial, you just can’t even parse what has just happened. This is a defence mechanism that is designed to protect from pain.
This stage can explain why we can plan a funeral or make other arrangements immediately after a death – you’re in a state of suspension until you are able to grieve.
While denial shares similarities to disbelief, it is its own coping mechanism and also helps you to deal with grief and pain. You might simply deny that your loved one is gone, or push the thoughts out of your head. Some people can get stuck in a pathological and chronic state of denial and refuse to admit that anything bad has happened, but this is rare.
This phase takes form in different ways. Some people will deny they are grieving or affected by the loss whilst others will deny their loved one has gone.
Guilt can feel like a punch to the gut. It’s completely normal to wonder what you could have done to prevent the loss from happening. While most of us will feel some sort of guilt when a loved one dies (thoughts such as, “I should have done more,” “I should have called the doctor with my concerns” are common), around 7% of people will experience “complicated grief.”
Complicated grief is often centred around guilt and causes the sufferer to ruminate endlessly about the details around the death and what they could have done differently. They also struggle to accept the finality of death, and/or surround themselves with photos and mementoes (such as a piece of memorial jewellery) that help them to believe the deceased is still with them.
Anger and bargaining
This stage usually occurs after the ceremonies and funerals. The comforting family and friends have left you, and you’re trying to go about your life as usual. That’s often when the anger comes in, and often bargaining as well.
You might start to feel angry at the doctors, or another party, and perhaps even at the deceased themselves. This anger can often cause a person to feel even more guilt, but know that it is entirely normal, and provides a necessary emotional release.
In some cases, people begin to ‘bargain’ mentally, even though they know it is in vain. For example, “I would do X to have them back.”
Depression, loneliness and reflection
Now that you have fully acknowledged the loss, it is common to experience depression and/or deep sadness. You may also feel lonely and isolated from other loved ones. This can be an especially poignant time to seek the help and guidance of a grief counsellor who can help you through the pain.
These sessions can be an opportunity for reflection about what your loved one meant to you, the true nature of your relationship, and how you can move on in the future.
Reconstruction, or ‘working through’
By this time, you may still find yourself moving up and down the ladder, but are building a new life without your deceased loved one and living a ‘new normal.’ The hurt may feel raw and painful, you now know that you cannot change the situation. Though you may not be fully ready to accept the death, you know that life has to go on.
The final stage of this model is acceptance. You have worked through the most painful and difficult work of grieving, and you accept that your loved one is gone and that you need to continue living your life.
You may begin to find joy again and smile rather than wince or cry when you think of your loved one. You may join new clubs, start a new hobby, take a trip, or clear out their possessions, keeping only the most important mementoes.
Grief is never easy
As time passes, you may find that you occasionally regress to one of the early stages, especially around holidays or anniversaries. However, over time it does become easier, and your pain will subside. It never goes away completely, but you can live with your loss.
Grieving in the time of the coronavirus has made things perhaps even more difficult than they usually are. With limitations and restrictions on hospital and care home visits, the rule of six and restricted numbers for funerals, our usual steps in saying goodbye to loved ones have changed.
It’s not easy, but keep talking to those around you and share your feelings. Help is available and while it can feel incredibly lonely, you don’t need to go through this alone.
Read, The challenges of bereavement in isolation and How to find new ways to unite in grief and celebrate a loved one’s life, for help in navigating bereavement during the pandemic.
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