Grief can be a lot to take, whether you’re prepared for it or not. But what are the six stages of grief? Here’s a guide, plus tips on coping with each one.
Some people find themselves relatively prepared for grief to strike. They’ve watched a friend or family member struggle with a terminal illness over a long period of time. They’ve had some time to prepare, knowing that end of life is inevitable.
Maybe they’ve even started dealing with the process of grief, so by the time the event of their loved one’s death occurs, they’re in some of the later stages. Or maybe they start over anew and go through the stages again.
Some people are taken by surprise. When a totally unforeseen tragic loss has befallen a loved one they find themselves reeling. In the throes of grief completely without warning, suddenly trying to survive with a giant hole in their lives because that person is gone.
In either case, anyone who’s been through it will tell you that grief is way more than just intense emotions. It’s a process – a difficult and painful (but necessary) healing process. It’s the unfortunate part of having deeply loved someone who is now gone.
Sometimes just understanding what you’re going through and being able to put a name to it can help you feel like you’re not losing your mind.
That’s incredibly useful, because grief can often hit in ways that make you feel like you’re going to lose your mind. Like when you run into the grocery store to grab something for dinner and you burst into tears when you see clams are on sale because you know how much he loved it when you made clams…
Even though each person experiences grief a little differently, there are certain predictable stages you will likely go through as you go through the process.
These stages were first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
in her book, On Death and Dying.
Since then, they’ve become integral to our understanding of how people cope with the worst of situations.
Knowing these stages helps you put a name to what you’re feeling, communicate with others what you need, and work through the emotions you face.
Maybe you’ve heard these stages described as the five stages of loss and now you’re thinking, “what are the six stages of grief, then?” Well, there is another stage beyond acceptance that’s important to discuss. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the others.
What are the six stages of the grief process?
I’ve heard it said that the response, “no!” to a loved one’s tragic news is a very basic version of the denial stage.
Whether that’s true or not, denial is not only the first stage of grief, but also an important one. It’s kind of like a natural defensive mechanism for your mind.
The thing is, we as humans can only handle so much at once. Denial is almost like a “pause” button on dealing with the reality of the situation. This reaction of shock can weirdly help you take things at a pace that you can deal with more easily.
Maybe holding on to the hope that your loved one’s cancer was misdiagnosed helps give your brain a pressure-free minute to process the idea that it most likely wasn’t.
In this stage, you may also find yourself feeling numb or frozen. Again, this is part of your mind helping you pace out the grief rather than getting slammed under all its weight at once.
A cancer diagnosis is a lot to deal with, rather than drowning in an overwhelming diagnosis like that, your brain helps you slow things down a bit and move through the information a little at a time.
When you’re in this stage, it can just be helpful to know that what you’re feeling is normal.
As the reality of the situation begins to pierce through the defensive shield of denial, you’ll find yourself feeling angry during your grief journey. Those frozen feelings have thawed, and now they’re ready to strike.
It’s understandable. When reality barbarically chips away at your denial defenses, of course you feel angry.
The difficult thing, however, is that anger is generally frowned upon in society. It’s not polite.
But grief doesn’t have time to be polite.
When you find yourself in the anger stage of grief, you might find yourself short-tempered, lashing out at those around you, even those who least deserve it.
You might find yourself more triggered by mild or even merely perceived slights by others than you would be otherwise.
You might start feeling more self-pity, wondering “why me?” It can catch you extremely off-guard if you’re not ready for it, and that’s why it’s so important to be aware of this stage and prepared for it. Just like anything else you have good days and bad days.
However, if you were hoping for a magic cure to the anger, I’ve got bad news for you. It’s a normal, healthy reaction.
What matters is how you deal with it.
Because even though anger can serve the purpose of protecting your heart from being overly vulnerable at such a hard time, it can also cause you to put on a hard shield.
Obviously, it’s not good for your well-being (or anyone else’s) to become bitter and snap at everyone around you. It will only distance you further from the people you need most right now.
Instead, you have to find an outlet for the emotion.
Maybe for you, this looks like going for an intense walk every day and listening to music. Whether that’s angry music or calming music is up to you and your personality. Either way, exercise has been proven to be a good stress reliever/mood elevator.
Not a walker? Go for a hike, a bike ride, or even a swim.
Consider starting a journal, or devoting more time to writing in it when you feel overwhelmed.
Maybe you start a prayer habit (God wants to hear from you even when you’re mad at Him.)
Whatever you do, make sure you’re finding an outlet and not merely a distraction. Avoiding your feelings will only make them more intense. While accepting them as natural and using them to move forward will help them ease more quickly and with minimal collateral damage.
A great resource on dealing with anger might be an unexpected one: Mister Rogers. He felt one of the most important lessons to teach children was how to deal with emotions in general, but especially the less socially acceptable ones like anger.
And for an adult who’s grieving, sometimes having what you’re feeling broken down into it’s simplest form makes it relevant to you and what you’re going through.
When facing a devastating event like a cancer diagnosis or the sudden death of a loved one, it’s common to feel a major loss of control. You are suddenly face-to-face with how fragile life is and the knowledge that we’re all going to die someday.
The emotional pain hits you like a punch in the face.
The bargaining stage of grief can take different forms. Depending on whether it comes with the anticipation of the loss of a loved one or after.
If you’re reeling from the cancer diagnosis of a loved one, bargaining might take the form of trying to negotiate with a higher power.
“God, if You relieve this cancer, I promise I’ll be a better person.”
It’s not a bad idea, necessarily – it’s just that we don’t really have that kind of power. Each person’s time is their own, and their plan is different. But it’s an understandable (even noble) urge.
After the loss of a loved one, bargaining more often takes the form of guilt.
“Why didn’t I urge them to go to the doctor sooner?”
You find yourself thinking of all the ways the situation might have been different, “if only” something had changed. If only someone – especially you – had made a different choice.
As much as you can, be nice to yourself. Give yourself the grace of knowing you’re only human.
You know that if you could have changed anything, you would. That’s a nice thought, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But try not to beat yourself up too much about things you can’t control.
Once the phases of denial, anger, and bargaining have passed and all your efforts to avoid or change your situation have been proved futile, the reality is bound to hit in a much more real way.
You realize, with full clarity, that your world will never be the same again.
This is when the feelings of intense heartbreak and sadness set in. It’s deep and persistent, often feeling like it will never end.
You might feel like nobody understands what you are going through.
You might feel like you wish the world around you would stop, as you feel your world has.
Overall, you will likely feel like you want to withdraw from life and give yourself time to truly mourn your loss.
My advice? As best you can, allow yourself to.
As unpleasant as the feelings of depression are, they exist. Denying that they exist isn’t going to make them any less real.
While of course, you want to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible, you have to accept that what that used to be is no longer. Until you process all the feelings that go along with that shift, you simply won’t be able to find your new normal.
You can’t will yourself out of depression any more than you could will yourself out of a broken leg. All you can do is cope with the process as it comes and know in your heart even when it doesn’t feel that way, that brighter days are ahead.
In the meantime, try to find activities to help you stay busy and as active as you can handle.
Maybe you continue going for walks, get a dog to accompany you, and leave the house on days you don’t feel like it otherwise.
- Maybe you journal more.
- Maybe you grab a nice bath bomb and cry in a bubble bath for a while.
- Maybe you text or call a trusted friend for a shoulder to cry on.
Whatever you do, try not to allow yourself to stagnate and isolate for a long period of time. Even if all you do in a day is take a shower and eat one good meal, that’s a win.
If you feel your depression becomes unmanageable on your own, though, there are resources that can help.
The changes in the world over the last few years have made it EASY to talk to a therapist from wherever you are.
Talkspace gives you access to a licensed therapist on YOUR schedule and from the comfort of your home. They work with some insurances and offer tools and solutions to help you navigate the challenges and anxiety that will pop up as a result of this situation.
It’s like having just one more weapon in your arsenal to get through this situation.
You might consider adding the crisis helpline phone number/text number, etc for severe crisis situations, if you hadn’t already considered that)
Acceptance doesn’t mean that everything goes back to normal. Things will never go back to normal the way you knew it before.
Acceptance means finding your new reality of the loss, your new rhythm, and slowly thawing the icy ground where grief had you frozen, allowing new flowers to bloom.
Your loved one can never be replaced, of course. That’s not what it means to accept their loss.
Instead, acceptance means finding ways to live in the world without them: making new connections, nurturing new and old relationships in different ways, and adjusting to your new roles. Slowly at first starting with just baby steps and them eventually caring again about a fulfilled life.
Does acceptance mean you’ll never again find yourself having a hard day? No, of course not.
Days, events, and people will come up that remind you of the person you lost, and you might find yourself backtracking into former stages of grief. They’re unfortunately not always sequential.
But acceptance means you have largely learned to live with the new paradigm of your loved one being gone.
Once you have accepted a loved one’s passing, the critical sixth stage of grief that isn’t always talked about is… finding meaning.
This is more than just finding closure for the loss, but in making it mean something personally to you.
It’s about how a grieving person can make such a painful event mean something. To find something worthwhile in all of these hard-earned personal experiences and complicated grief.
It’s the most important part of the grieving process. It’s groundbreaking new work by David Kessler, a grief expert who as a child witnessed a mass shooting and then later endured the death of his son.
You can see this in parents who have lost a child to cancer creating a non-profit organization to help other kids facing similar circumstances, or even to support a cause their children really cared about, like helping homeless animals.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do something so big to find meaning of grief.
Finding meaning in the death of a loved one can be as simple as the belief that they have become a guardian angel to you or your children, or just making the effort to live out something they taught you, like always lending a helping hand to those in need. It can turn grief into a hopeful experience.
You can read more about this phenomenon… Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief Book by David Kessler
As a side note, there is no logical order for the grieving population. It’s important to keep in mind that even though the stages are presented like you just go through them then you’re done, that’s not usually the case.
It’s common to go back a stage or even to start over, especially if you’re one of the ones in the caregiving process. You’ve got a lot on your plate, and processing your grief can look a lot different from others on “the outside.”
Even if you’re not a caregiver, it can happen.
If that’s what you feel is happening to you, take heart knowing you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, and there’s nothing wrong with you.
You’re healing. And however you experience that is okay.
You’ll take things as they come, and you will get through this.
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