Navigating Grief: The Emotional Stages of Coping with Loss
This article was updated on February 2, 2021.
One of the hardest things about being human is experiencing the wrenching pain of loss. Whether you’re a child or an adult, when someone you love or something meaningful to you can no longer be part of your life, the pain is excruciating. For some people, it may feel like this:
You wake-up, and for a moment, everything is calm. Then, in a rush, it all comes flooding back; you remember what you’ve lost. Your throat closes, your stomach heaves. Yesterday, you didn’t think you had any tears left to cry, but now they’re streaming down your cheeks like a waterfall. Your chest is tight and it feels hard to breathe. You don’t know how you will face the day ahead, and you feel alone in your pain.
Grief affects each person uniquely. Any significant loss starts a process known colloquially as “the stages of grief.” But what, exactly, are these stages, and how can knowledge of them help the bereaved?
What Is “Grief?”
“[Grief is] a reaction to any form of loss… [It] encompasses a range of feelings from deep sadness to anger, and the process of adapting to a significant loss can vary dramatically from one person to another.” – (Mastrangelo & Wood, 2016)
Most people know grief to be the complex pain that follows the passing of a loved one. But this anguish isn’t exclusively tied to death. You can experience these intense feelings after a wide range of experiences, such as:
- Breakup or divorce
- Job loss
- Diagnosis of terminal illness
- Relocating to a new city
People sometimes feel that labeling their experience as “grief” is inappropriate unless they’re mourning the death of a person. But grief is a natural human emotion, and the loss of anyone (or anything) a person held dear can trigger a mourning period.
All people have attachments, and when those bonds are severed, it can be traumatic. Any pet owner would feel devastated if they lost their beloved companion, and yet our society is hesitant to honor the genuine pain that accompanies such a loss.
People mistakenly believe that “grief” is a single emotion, but it is actually a complex, multifaceted response to loss. Grief is comprised of many emotions and even physical responses. It is not merely a psychological process – it can create physical symptoms in the body.
Some common physical symptoms of grief include:
- Nausea or digestive problems
- Weight loss or gain
- Aches and pains
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath and lightheadedness
According to Psychology Today, people are likely to experience these symptoms for four to six months after a loss, and men face a higher risk than women.
It’s important to honor your emotions when you are mourning. Attempting to compartmentalize or minimize your pain won’t make it disappear and could exacerbate physical symptoms. Unfortunately, the only way to deal with grief is to experience it.
No one feels grief in the same way. Your life experience is unique, as will be your grieving process. But for the most part, people experience a similar range of emotions when they mourn.
There is no right or wrong way to go through the negative feelings of loss. Nor is there a right pathway to healing for all people. You will find your own way in your own time.
Psychologists have studied grief to understand how people process loss. Several well-known theories attempt to explain the mourning process. By getting to know the stages of the grieving process, you will better understand your own path. It can also be validating to know that others share your experience.
The Five Stages of Grief
This is the most well-known theory of grief. Most people are probably familiar with this model, and it has become a cultural shorthand for mourning.
The five stages of grief come from the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist from Switzerland. In 1969, she published a book entitled, “On Death and Dying.”
Dr. Kübler-Ross originally conceived of the five stages of grief as a way to explain the emotional progression felt by people who have been diagnosed with terminal diseases. These patients are grieving their own lives as they are attempting to live them.
She called the process “the stages of death.” These include denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Before long, people noted how this grief cycle applies to feelings faced after losing a loved one and other experiences of loss.
The grieving process is a set of emotional phases. These feelings are how humans process a traumatic loss. They are both how we cope, and how we heal.
Beyond these processes, Dr. Kübler-Ross explored how people communicate their grief to others, seeking signs of acceptance. We also seek signs of acceptance and healing in ourselves after a major loss; maybe that is why you are reading this article now.
According to Dr. Kübler-Ross, and as endorsed by psychologists all over the world today, the five stages of the grieving process include:
Stage #1: Denial
Denial involves convincing yourself that your traumatic event has not happened, or you deny its permanence. Sometimes denial is an attempt to convince others the event has not occurred, so you can also believe this yourself. But deep inside, you know the truth.
Denial often means denying your own pain or sense of loss. For example, after a loved one’s death, maybe you try to act like that loss meant nothing or does not affect your daily life. If you experience denial when fired from a job, you might show up at work as if nothing happened. If you are in denial during a divorce, you may delay telling your friends and pretend your life has not changed.
Stage #2: Anger
People frequently feel angry when they lose a loved one or suffer other traumatic events. Breakups often result in a significant anger phase. So do divorces, medical diagnoses, amputations, deaths, and job terminations.
In this phase, you take your frustrations out on other people or even yourself. You may feel moody or irritated for weeks, snapping at coworkers, or screaming in traffic.
People are often ashamed of anger; it is one of the most misunderstood emotions. Surprisingly, anger actually pushes you into healing. It is an important stage in recovering from your loss.
Releasing angry feelings also releases tension, and it can give you a sense of control. Losing an important relationship causes one to feel impotent and powerless, and regaining control of a moment can be a good reminder that life goes on.
You should try to release your anger in ways that will not hurt others; screaming into a pillow is a cliché for a very good reason. But if you do fly off the handle at an undeserving party, try not to be too hard on yourself. No one is perfect, and the people in your life are likely to be understanding if they know you are in mourning.
Stage #3: Bargaining
If you pray, have you ever said a prayer to your higher power asking them to change something that happened? Or maybe you offered to improve an area of your life, and in exchange, asked for a specific outcome? This is bargaining.
Bargaining is the hope or belief that you can exchange one set of circumstances for another. You could be wishing to undo something that has already occurred (“I’d call Grandma every single day if only I could have her back”), or to prevent a looming deadline (“If Joel decides not to move, I’ll tell him how I really feel”).
Bargaining brings-up issues you don’t want to confront. But in the process of trying to bargain, you force yourself to acknowledge that the event has occurred. By asking a higher power to bring someone back, you are implicitly stating that they are gone.
Stage #4: Depression
Depression after a loss is not necessarily the same as clinical depression, but these two types of ongoing sadness affect people similarly.
Depression is characterized by sadness, frequent crying, loss of appetite, and/or disrupted sleep. Some people suffer aches and pains. Your immune system also becomes weakened, making you more susceptible to illness. Unlike clinical depression, this type of grief-related depression usually passes after some time.
If you feel like your loss is the end of your life or that you have lost your reason to live you may be experiencing thoughts of death or suicide. Suicidal thoughts are not always the wish to kill oneself; they can also be a wish to “stop existing.” Hoping to go to sleep and not wake-up is a form of suicidal ideation. If you feel you no longer have a reason to live, or are having thoughts of wanting to die or harm yourself, you should immediately contact a mental health professional or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 for free confidential support 24/7.
Stage #5: Acceptance
According to Dr. Kübler-Ross, acceptance is the period when you understand your loss. You see how much the loved one (or thing) meant to you. The reality of your loss is firmly rooted, and you no longer try to bargain it away. You can see a path to move forward in life.
For the most part, you feel peace in your acceptance. But you may still experience sadness and anger. Accepting a loss does not mean you’re no longer sad; it means you understand the permanence of the situation while continuing to live your life. You have not forgotten your loss, but it no longer overtakes your day-to-day life.
In a way, acceptance can be as painful as any other step in this process. Remember that acknowledging the permanence of loss does not mean you will ever forget your loved one. Even if it is no longer the main focus in your world, remembering them will always be important to you.
Grief Is Not One-Size-Fits-All
Not everyone experiences all five of these stages, and they do not necessarily occur in a linear fashion. Some people become trapped in a cycle of anger and depression, continually moving between stages 2 and 4.
Dr. Kübler-Ross’s model is useful, but it isn’t the only theory of grief used by mental health professionals.
Another way to examine the grieving process is J. W. Worden’s “Four Tasks of Mourning.”
Worden posits that grief is less about passively experiencing emotions and more to do with actively processing your sadness.
The four tasks are:
- To accept the reality of the loss
- To work through the pain of grief
- To adjust to life without the deceased
- To maintain a connection to the deceased while moving on with life
This model is not only applicable to death; let’s consider its usefulness in an estrangement:
Jason has decided he can no longer speak with his mother, who financially abused him; he has cut all contact, and functionally, he no longer has a mother.
- He accepts this reality by not reaching out to her for advice or to share good news.
- He works through the pain by speaking with his brother, who confirms that their mother took advantage of them both.
- They adjust to their new reality by spending holidays together instead of visiting with other family members and potentially seeing their mother.
- Jason maintains his connection by periodically looking over childhood photos and remembering the version of his mother who didn’t manipulate her children.
This process still takes time; you cannot expect to complete these activities in a single day, like a checklist. But Worden’s model gives agency to the grieving party. You do not have to wallow in your sadness; instead, you can engage with your emotions and adapt to your new reality.
The Rituals of Remembrance
One way to engage with grief and manage it directly is by creating rituals. A ritual is any purposeful activity that symbolizes something else. They give purpose to actions and engage us with something greater than ourselves.
A ritual can make you feel closer to a higher power, your family, your community, or even your inner self. They can be small, daily reminders, or larger events that occur once a year. You can invite other people into them or do them alone.
In a time of chaos, creating rituals is a way to bring control back into our lives. You may not be able to control the swirling sadness in your head, but you can control when you choose to light a candle, take a bath, or say a prayer.
Dr. Kenneth Doka encourages his clients to connect with deceased loved ones through rituals.
He describes ways to categorize these ceremonies and how they can help the bereaved:
Rituals of Continuity
These rituals establish that the person or thing which is gone is still a part of your life; despite the loss, the connection remains. For someone who had to move to a new city, this could be having a Zoom call with friends from your previous city to keep that bond strong.
Rituals of Transition
Cleaning-out the deceased’s room or donating their belongings is a major milestone. It represents accepting that they will not come home and can be painful for those left behind. You can turn this dour chore into a ritual by including friends and family.
Rituals of Affirmation
Writing a letter or a poem to your missed loved one is a way to ground your feelings and memories. This ritual allows you to connect with their memory and thank them for the good things they brought to your life.
Rituals of Intensification
These rituals connect people in a community. They are a way to reinforce a common identity and grieve together. The AIDS quilt is an example of this, as are annual gatherings of veterans’ groups.
Rituals to Commemorate
Smaller, everyday rituals can be worked into your schedule to acknowledge grief regularly. You can light a candle and say a prayer, look through old photos, or visit your loved one’s gravesite.
How Long Is the Grieving Process?
One of the most common questions a counselor is asked is, “How long is the grieving process?” Unfortunately, no answer fits all people.
Different people will have different reactions to loss.
A person could feel relieved after the death of a grandparent who suffered from Alzheimer’s yet be undone by the death of a peer.
Try not to judge your emotional responses when you are bereaved. Each person has a unique life, and we cannot measure our connections to the people and places we love against another person’s.
Divorce is one of the most traumatic events a person can go through, and yet some people will try to push their friends to “move on” quickly instead of mourning this loss.
Whatever you are grieving – a pet, a friend, a boyfriend, or a beloved job – honor your feelings. You should not feel pressured to “get over” something at someone else’s pace.
As individuals, we experience grief in our own ways and our own time. If you are suffering from grief, let yourself go through the stages in any order.
Understand your feelings as they occur and accept these emotions as you develop coping mechanisms.
How Do I Help Myself Heal After A Loss?
In the immediate aftermath of a loss, you will likely feel directionless. It can feel impossible to get through the day, and your energy will be divided.
If you need specific guidance, keep these tips in mind:
Do Not Grieve Alone
You may want to retreat into your room and cry alone for days on end when you lose a loved one. While it is important to take time for yourself and process your feelings, try not to become disconnected from your community. Your family and friends will want to care for you, and though it is hard to let people in, you should let them. You will likely find that sharing your experience makes you closer to those individuals.
Take Care of Yourself
Self-care is important every day, and especially when you are grieving. Marketing teams have co-opted the term “self-care” and turned it into shorthand for bath bombs and sheet masks, but true self-care is meeting your basic needs for hygiene, nutrition, and sleep.
If you are mourning, you might not have the energy to shower or cook for yourself, but it is vital not to let your own health fail when you are bereaved. Remember that your loved ones would not want you to fall apart without them. Our guide to self-care during the holidays has tips that can be adapted to any time of year.
Seek Professional Counseling
If you need more support than your personal network can provide or struggle with your mental health before grief upended your life, consider seeing a counselor or therapist. Grief counseling will give you the tools to understand and process your emotions.
Family counseling is useful for families who wish to heal and learn together. Whether your loved one died suddenly or after a protracted illness, it can be useful to come together and share your perspectives while an unbiased moderator guides the conversation.
Group therapy is a useful tool for those who feel isolated; if you don’t have a community to lean on, you can find one through this communal experience. There are counseling groups that cater to any number of bereaved individuals.
If you lost someone to addiction, cancer, or drunk driving, there are groups that meet regularly to process these shared experiences.
What If My Grief Is Unbearable?
Sometimes, a loss is simply too much to endure. Be aware that there is a difference between grief and trauma, and the recovery processes for each are different.
Trauma blocks the grieving process, and when you attempt to partake in mourning rituals, you will be retraumatized again and again.
If you are suffering from flashbacks, uncontrollable crying, panic attacks, loss of identity, intrusive thoughts, or feelings of worthlessness, you are likely experiencing trauma. And should immediately contact a professional.
No One Should Go Through Grief Alone
The Becoming Counseling offers outpatient mental health services for families, couples, individuals, and groups. Contact The Becoming Counseling for more information or to schedule a visit.
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