Seven Stages of Grief When You’ve Lost a Loved One
While bereavement is a bit different for everyone, understanding the seven stages of grief reminds us that our feelings are normal and expected.
When we lose someone we love, the pain of loss can be overwhelming. At times, it can also be confusing. While grief is a very personal experience that is different for everyone, understanding the stages of grief can help to remind us that what we are feeling is normal and expected.
What are the Seven Stages of Grief?
Over the years, mental health professionals and researchers have presented various models of the stages of grief. However, the best known and most-cited model is that of Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who, in 1969, wrote a book called On Death and Dying. It was based on her work with terminally ill patients. Though grief is intensely personal, she noted that many people follow a common pattern of grief as they cope with loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. You may be familiar with this model as the “five stages of grief.” Today, most mental health professionals add two more stages: shock and testing.
While many people do experience all seven of these stages – and in the order listed here – it’s important to note that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people will experience the stages in a different order, some will skip one or more stages, and some will revisit the same stage more than once.
Below, we will elaborate on these seven common stages of grief and provide examples of what you can expect when you’re experiencing each one.
Stage 1: Shock
Shock is an automatic coping mechanism that kicks in when we cannot process a difficult emotional situation or understand unexpected news. When you’re in shock, you are often so mentally, emotionally, and physically impacted by your grief that you are unable to do things like planning your loved one’s funeral. This stage can last a few moments or several days.
Stage 2: Denial
This is the initial stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross model, and it often happens concurrently with the shock stage. When you’re experiencing this stage, your feelings may be profound. Though you will logically understand the facts of the situation, it is common to be plagued by a feeling of disbelief. This is especially common if your loved one’s death was unexpected or especially tragic in some way. You may feel that there was a mistake, that you can’t possibly believe the news to be true, or find yourself struggling to grasp the reality of the situation.
From a symptomatic standpoint, many people feel an overall sense of emotional numbness in the denial stage. It is also common to experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, trouble sleeping, nausea, and vomiting.
Stage 3: Anger
Anger is a very normal reaction to loss, usually grounded in feelings of a loss of control. In this stage, you might have feelings of overwhelming frustration. You might also target your anger at a particular source, such as a doctor, the person who shared the news of your loved one’s passing, or even God.
A person in the anger stage may lash out for no apparent reason, and difficulty sleeping is common. Although this stage is normal, it also carries the risk of damage to personal and professional relationships, so it’s important to figure out healthy ways to release anger through exercise or journaling.
Stage 4: Bargaining
If anger happens out of feeling a loss of control, bargaining is a grieving person’s attempt to regain it. If you’re in the bargaining stage, you may be trying to escape your pain. For example, a terminally ill cancer patient might adopt a completely healthy lifestyle in an attempt to buy more time, or parents experiencing the loss of a child may spend many hours praying each day and trying to bargain with a higher power.
Stage 5: Depression
Once a grieving person comes to terms with the fact that their bargaining did not produce the result they hoped for, deep feelings of depression may set in. You may find yourself constantly reflecting on what you have lost in this stage, and your emotions can feel raw. You’re likely to cry often, and it’s not uncommon to be triggered by things that aren’t even connected to your loss.
From a physical standpoint, the depression stage can lead to changes in eating and sleeping and symptoms like headaches and digestive issues. You might even have unexplained muscle or joint pain for no apparent medical reason when you are depressed.
Stage 6: Testing
Though not included in the initial Kübler-Ross model of grief, mental health professionals find this a common stage for bereaved people. You may still feel depressed in the testing stage, but you’ve noticed the ill effects it has on you, so you try to make positive steps to help yourself move forward. For example, you may experiment with meditation as a better way to cope with your loss or join an online grief support group to help you stop a negative coping mechanism such as binge-eating or overreliance on alcohol.
Stage 7: Acceptance
Though acceptance happens as the last stage of your grief journey, it won’t mean you no longer experience sadness, anger, or other negative emotions. However, it does mean that you’re able to integrate the loss into your life and begin to take steps forward in your “new normal.” This can be a very long process, and you may feel that you’re navigating acceptance for years, even decades, after a loss. Still, the beginning of the acceptance stage is when you will feel an upward turn in your overall well-being, and managing your emotional and physical symptoms of grief becomes easier. You are likely to begin feeling a bit hopeful about the future and feel a sense of peace about the loss you experienced.
Concluding Thoughts on the Seven Stages of Grief
Grief is a process – often a tumultuous one. Sometimes, it may follow a linear path, as described above. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you may experience grief in a non-sequential manner, too. You might skip stages, remain in some for a long time, or even feel as though you are moving backward instead of forwards in your grief journey.
Rest assured that each of these examples is a normal way to experience grief. The important thing is to honor how you’re feeling and continue to put energy toward your own physical and mental well-being as you navigate your grief journey.