What is grief?
A former colleague of mine used to compare the process of dealing with grief to trying and failing, to navigate a labyrinth. Dealing with any type of loss – the passing or absence of a loved one, a home, a career, one’s health, one’s childhood–can feel like being caught in a complicated and never ending maze of painful realizations and overwhelming emotions. In my work as a therapist and from my own experiences with grief, I can strongly say that my former coworker’s analogy was far closer to reality than what many of us have been told is the right or only way to grieve; by sequentially moving through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
In this post, I will review the five stages and attempt to fill in some of the gaps left in this traditional model of thinking about loss. Then, I’ll propose an alternative way of thinking about loss processing to discuss a deeper truth: that grief is not linear.
The Traditional View
The five stages of grief model, also known as the Kübler-Ross model, was introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross developed this model based on her extensive work with terminally ill patients and their families. The model proposes a sequence of emotional stages that individuals may go through when facing their own impending death or dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Despite how well-known this framework of loss processing is, critiques have been raised by various experts in the field of grief and bereavement for decades. One common criticism is that the model oversimplifies the complex and individual nature of the grieving process. Critics argue that grief does not follow a sequential progression through distinct stages, and individuals may experience a range of emotions and reactions that do not neatly fit into the five stages. Later in life, Kübler-Ross herself explained that the theory was never meant to be linear nor applied to all persons, and people move through the stages in their own unique ways.
Let’s go over some descriptions of each of the traditional five stages and see where they may fall short.
Stage One – Denial
Loss, whether sudden or anticipated, can be hard to accept. Life requires us to invest time in and effort in ourselves and others to live happily and with fulfillment. Our dedication enhances how meaningful these relationships are, making the loss of one almost too much to bear. When traumatic events happen, our brains may try and go into self-protection mode, suppressing or compartmentalizing the loss in order to survive. That’s what your brain may be doing when you have a hard time accepting a loss and can only exist in denial.
What may help? – The traditional model only describes the supposed sequence of emotions we may feel after a loss. In this box, I’ll provide additional details drawn from my own experiences as a person and therapist.
Compassionate individuals who acknowledge our pain and suffering can provide invaluable support during times of grief. Simply saying, “I can see how much pain you are in” or “It must be very difficult for you” can make a world of difference. Having someone who genuinely sees and validates our experiences without trying to fix everything is incredibly helpful.
Acknowledging the reality of our loss and recognizing the greatness of the person we lost can be comforting and healing. Being present in the moment, expressing support, and offering genuine empathy are powerful ways to provide solace.
By surrounding ourselves with understanding individuals and openly acknowledging our emotions and experiences, we find comfort and support on the challenging journey of grief.
Stage Two – Anger
The traditional model implies we must move beyond denial and acceptance before arriving at the next stage, Anger (though we know in reality, that grief is not linear). A complex emotion we encounter again and again in the labyrinth of loss processing, anger can take various forms and be aimed in a number of directions. It may be pointed at the person we’ve lost or the circumstances that led to their absence. We might also find ourselves angry at our own perceived shortcomings or at life itself, questioning why things unfolded the way they did. This type of thinking is natural and can lead to feelings of guilt. We may wonder why we feel resentful of someone who is no longer there to explain themselves. Anger and its constant companion, Guilt, are normal parts of the grieving process, and the traditional model states that they must be felt in order to move onto the next stage of healing.
What might help? – It’s important to note that feeling angry doesn’t imply assigning blame. Try and remember that what has happened is not our fault or that of the person/place/opportunity we’ve lost. Emotions serve as a means to understand our experiences. Like acknowledging the reality of loss, accepting the full range of emotions, including rage, frustration, and anger, is crucial.
In times of trauma, it’s essential we embrace Anger and seek support from understanding individuals who won’t judge us. Remember, experiencing anger doesn’t necessitate harmful actions or hurting others. All emotions, including anger, are valid and acceptable.
Stage Three – Bargaining
Supposedly, once we’ve mastered Denial and Anger, we arrive next at the Bargaining stage of grief. When we deal with a difficult loss, we may try to alter it in some way in our heads to make it easier to deal with and less painful. We find ourselves in this stage when we attempt to negotiate or make deals (oftentimes with a higher power) in an effort to cope with our loss. It’s important to recognize during the Bargaining stage, our brains are driven into defensive mode by a desire to regain control or change the outcome of the situation. We may find ourselves making promises, seeking ways to undo what has happened, or attempting to find meaning in the loss. Bargaining can be a way to alleviate feelings of helplessness and sadness temporarily, but the traditional model dictates that we must get through it to move forward in the five stages.
What might help? – Getting lost in the “coulds,” “shoulds,” and “woulds” of life is a normal way for our minds to process our grief, but it can also cause us to backpedal a bit into the Denial corner of the emotional labyrinth. We may find ourselves grappling with the reality of the loss while simultaneously yearning for the impossible, driven by a profound desire to avoid confronting the pain. This dual reality, where we partly acknowledge the loss while also entertaining thoughts of somehow bringing the person back, can be especially prevalent for parents who have lost their children. The unimaginable nature of losing a child, whether through death or the inability to have one, intensifies these emotions.
In the midst of such complex emotions, it is essential to give ourselves grace. It is crucial to create space within ourselves to experience and recognize these emotions as a normal part of the grieving process. This mindset allows us to navigate the intricate maze of grief with more compassion.
Stage Four – Depression
The Depression stage of grief hits hard, plunging us into a deep pit of sadness and emptiness. It’s like everything in life loses its appeal, and the things we once enjoyed no longer bring any satisfaction. We might find ourselves withdrawing from social interactions, feeling utterly hopeless, and lacking energy. Lying in bed all day may seem like lazy behavior to those on the outside, but to someone in mourning, it may be all they’re capable of at the moment. The Depression stage is not just about grieving the loss itself; it’s also about mourning the significant changes it brings to life. During this stage, reaching out to loved ones or seeking professional support can make a world of difference in finding comfort and navigating the challenges ahead. Depression can feel a lot like sadness, but it’s important to recognize the difference and seek help if you get caught up in this stage and can’t move forward to accept the new reality of your life.
What might help? – Depression can feel like an overwhelming weight, burdening us to the point where it may become life-threatening. These depressive feelings can lead to a spiral of negative outcomes, causing us to make poor decisions, stop taking care of ourselves, and feel truly hopeless about the future, regardless of the actual circumstances.
No matter who you are or what your journey of grief looks like, you deserve support and assistance. It is important to know that help is available and that you have every right to take good care of yourself. The weight of grief can be eased by reaching out for professional guidance and surrounding yourself with a supportive network. Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness; it is an act of self-compassion and strength.
Stage Five – Acceptance
Traditionally, Acceptance is defined as the fifth and final stage of grief and a significant milestone for us as we navigate the healing process. Acceptance does not mean forgetting or moving on from our losses but rather acknowledging the reality of our situations and adapting to a new normal. We embrace the pain of our losses while also recognizing that life must continue. Moving into this final stage signifies a shift towards healing, where we discover a renewed sense of purpose and the ability to create meaningful lives despite the absence of our loved ones.
What might help? – Acceptance is considered the culmination of the five phases when one has come to terms with the loss. However, in reality, we know there is no true ending to some grief. Accepting that the loss is real and moving forward does not take away all of the pain of losing a person. But it does allow us room to try new things and to create a life that has positive, enjoyable, and meaningful experiences. Acceptance is a complicated, perpetual, and necessary part of grieving, so it’s important to remember that it looks different for everyone and to not compare our timelines or progress with anyone else’s.
A real life perspective
It’s true that grief is an unavoidable part of the human experience, and it’s critical we have ways to deal with it, organize it, and understand it. While the traditional model of the five stages of grief does provide people with a practical way of looking at their experience and trying to make sense of it, it was developed over fifty years ago, and a lot has changed since then.
In the past, many experts in the field sought to parse out and define the complexities of the human experience in order to arrive at general conclusions they felt mental health practitioners could apply in their work with patients. The five stages model is an example of this practice. But in their attempts to demystify grief and provide people with tools to get through it, these experts also managed to reduce the complex, unique emotions we feel after a loss to an arbitrary (why five?) and overly simplified step-by-step path that was designed by and for a world we no longer live in.
Actually, it’s not just scientists and academics who do this. It can feel near impossible to resist the urge to “compress the complexities of life into neat and tidy stages.” Humans crave answers to the unanswerable questions and situations we find ourselves in every day and can sometimes assign meaning or see patterns in the world in order to make sense of them. In my experience, grief cannot be understood as a linear process or, even as my colleague put it, as a labyrinth. What if, instead, we step off these beaten paths and rethink the journey of loss processing as one without a destination?
Picture yourself on a frozen pond, ice skating in a continuous figure-8 motion, the symbol for infinity. On one end of the symbol lives the action of Recognition, and on the other, Adjustment. You skate in and around them, passing through each space and experiencing each action over and over. This is what living after loss can really feel like.
Grief can be an incredibly painful and sudden experience. Sometimes, we see it coming, but often it catches us off guard. The hardest part is recognizing and accepting that something deeply painful has happened, that our reality has shifted, and there’s no way to go back. Recognition can be exceptionally challenging because, as human beings, we attach our emotions, beliefs, and meaning to the relationships and experiences that surround us. This means that the loss of someone we loved, or even something as simple as a favorite restaurant, can feel like the very foundation of our lives, and our understanding of the world is shaken.
When supporting someone in mourning, they not only require assistance with the basic aspects of life but also may need someone who recognizes the immense difficulty they are going through. Being present for them, asking thoughtful questions, lending a helping hand with meals or practical tasks, and simply checking in on how they’re coping are all ways to provide much-needed support. In these moments, offering compassionate support and understanding is crucial. It may take time for them to find their footing, but by being there, extending empathy, and showing that you genuinely care, you can help them navigate the overwhelming challenge of adapting to a life without the person or thing they’ve lost.
On the other end of the pond you skate on lies Adjustment, an ongoing process of making changes. As we continue to recognize and try to accept our loss, we must also attempt to redefine ourselves, our daily patterns, and our choices, as these all may be intrinsically tied to what we’ve lost. It’s a challenging journey of finding new ways of being without them. One common form of Adjustment is the commemoration of those we’ve lost by visiting their resting place or engaging in activities in their memory. These actions honor their importance while acknowledging our changed life. Creating new experiences and connections helps us move forward and embrace life fully. It may feel difficult, but Adjustment expands our possibilities. And by skating back and forth between Recognition and Adjustment, we’re able to honor the past and embrace the present in ways that help us grieve and heal more fully.
While Recognition and Adjustment require us to act, it’s important to remember that these actions don’t need to be taken alone, and the frozen pond you find yourself on does not have a weight limit. You can and should invite as many people who love and support you onto the ice. As you collectively figure eight through life, you will find ways to continue recognizing and adjusting to your new normal. And with practice, you will become adept at not only skating through life but also helping others find their balance too.
Finding a Grief Therapist Near Me
Grief, like many life experiences, can be difficult to deal with on one’s own. Remember that help is available. Start My Wellness is always happy to help you connect with a therapist, a psychiatric medication prescriber, or both to help you on your journey. If you don’t know what is bothering you or how to start, we can help you obtain testing to get a better sense of what is troubling you and how to get help. Click here to set up an appointment with a therapist today.