The 7 Stages Of Grief: What They Are And How They Affect You
Updated April 27, 2020
Reviewer Karen Devlin, LPC
Grief is an unfortunate experience that everyone encounters at some point in life. It comes in various forms, such as with the death of a loved one, a change in a relationship or life role, or when a serious illness occurs.
Grief is a natural process. That process can sometimes feel overwhelming. Because unresolved grief can lead to unhealthy behaviors, learning to identify the stages of grief and ways to cope through each is a great way to begin the journey to healing after a loss or significant life change.
The Stages of Grief
The 5 Stages of Grief model was first introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The book was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients.
Through the years, Kübler-Ross's model for grief has been used to describe not only the way terminally ill patients deal with grief, but to also educate on any loss or change of circumstance. Today, many sources cite 7 or more stages of grief.
It's important to note that everyone experiences grief in his or her own way and that some people may not experience all of the stages in order. It may be the you experience a few stages and then re-visit a previous stage before moving forward. This is normal. Grief is truly a process. Often it feels like a messy, never-ending process. There is hope, though, and understanding some of the stages can be the beginning to understanding that grief is not the end.
How Grief Can Affect You
The symptoms of grief present differently in each individual. They can manifest emotionally, physically, and/or socially.
Bereaved people may cry often, but not be able to express their feelings. Feelings of depression are not uncommon and they may become worse on days that are significant, such as the anniversary of a death or traumatic event or on a holiday. When emotional symptoms are not resolved, anxiety and depression can become a serious issue. If the source of grief is related to a sudden, unexpected event, the individual may also experience post-traumatic-stress disorder. Without proper education and help, those with severe emotional grief symptoms may turn to alcohol and/or substance abuse as a way to cope.
Physical symptoms may include headache, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or difficulty sleeping. Long term physical symptoms may cause increased health disturbances, such as a compromised immune system or heart disease.
Social symptoms may manifest as a desire to be alone or to seclude oneself from others. Many people find it difficult to focus on day-to-day tasks that were once simple.
Understanding the Seven Stages Of grief
Although most sources list an "order" of grief stages, they may be experienced in different order by different people. Also, some people experience the same stage more than once, depending on individual circumstances. Below is a list of the 7 Stages of Grief and some explanation about what happens during each.
- Shock and denial. This initial stage is when feelings of disbelief are most present. If the loss or change was unexpected, such as a tragic accident or unexpected death, it can leave the bereaved feeling numb by the shock of the event. Some people describe this as feeling emotionally paralyzed, as if they know what has happened, but can't seem to feel the reality of the situation.
- Guilt and pain. As shock begins to subside, those emotions are often replaced with the feeling of suffering, pain and regret. During this time, it is important to allow oneself to experience the pain and not hide it. As difficult as dealing with the pain or remorse is, it is a natural part of healing.
If you know someone who is experiencing this stage of grief, being a present source of comfort and support will be helpful. It is during this time that those who feel unable to handle the guilt and pain often turn to the use of alcohol or other substances to avoid feeling the pain.
- Anger and bargaining. When guilt begins to subside, many people begin to feel angry. During this stage, it is common for the bereaved to lash out at others. For example, if a parent loses a child, she may blame God and question why her child died before she did. Some people even blame the person who died and wonder how he/she could have left them. For the person who lost a job or a home, he may feel anger toward a boss or landlord for not being more considerate or giving him another chance. While this is an expected stage of grief, it's important to remember that poor behavior could result in damage to other relationships (personal and professional). Therefore, learning to release bottled up emotions in a healthy way is crucial.
When unexpected illness or accidents occur that do not immediately end in loss of life, many people try to "bargain" as a way of getting through the event. For instance, if a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, a family member may pray and tell God that they will give something in exchange for healing.
- Depression, Reflection and loneliness. After the anger and desperation of bargaining begin to subside, the bereaved begin to reflect on the loss. It is during this time that the weight of the loss begins to take hold and when loneliness and depression begin to surface. When these emotions begin to be felt, many people withdraw from others (social symptoms of grief) and say that they want to deal with things alone. While some alone time is good for everyone, during the process of grief, it is also important to spend some time with others. If you feel grieved, but don't feel comfortable talking to friends or other loved ones, there are alternate options for healthy support.
- The upward turn. When the feelings of pain, guilt, and anger slowly lift, there seems to be an improvement in well-being. It's often described as the "upward turn" of emotions. During this time, although the loss is still felt, it is not as difficult to manage the symptoms associated with it. Individuals tend to feel more hopeful about life and begin to find some measure of peace related to the loss.
- Reconstruction and Working Through: As emotions begin to settle and thought processes feel less scattered, it becomes easier to work through feelings, seek solutions for managing grief and life and to begin to set realistic goals for the future. Although this stage is still related to grief, it is associated with rebuilding the life of the bereaved. Life begins to feel less tumultuous, and focus on wellness, both physically and emotionally, can begin.
- Acceptance and hope. It's important to note that accepting a loss does not mean pretending as though it never occurred. It also does not mean instant happiness. However, it is an opportunity to deal with the reality of what has happened and to learn ways of moving forward.
During this final stage of grief, thinking about the future and planning life with new goals absent the loss you've suffered is the focus. Although you may still feel pain or sadness, it becomes less crippling than it was at the beginning of the grief journey. This becomes a time to anticipate happiness again and to find joy in the experience of everyday living.
Ways to Cope with Grief
Experiencing grief can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions, at times. Feeling overwhelming despair or loss can make it difficult to deal with day-to-day life. However, there is a hope for healing and a way to regain a sense of normalcy.
While each person deals with grief differently, there are some things you can do to help cope with grief in a healthy way.
- Don't suffer in silence. While grief often causes individuals to feel there is no source for help or that no one understands, that is not true. You don't have to go through this process alone or keep your feelings bottled up. In fact, doing so may result in complicated grief resolution. Seeking a support system of friends or loved ones who are willing to listen to you and support you through grief will help you as you begin to heal and move on with your life.
- Express yourself. Even if you do have people that you know you can talk to, it may be difficult (especially at first) to do so. If talking to personal friends is uncomfortable, you may find a source of encouragement by joining a grief support group. These groups offer an opportunity to share what you are feeling with others and gives you the chance to encourage others who are experiencing loss with you. Also, journaling is a great way of expressing your feelings, while still maintaining a sense of privacy until you are ready to share with others. It will provide you a way to release your thoughts and emotions and to begin making sense of what has happened that has caused your grief.
- Be intentional about self-care. Although it may not feel like it, there is one person who can provide you unconditional support during a period of grief. That person is YOU. During a period of grief, it is not uncommon for the bereaved to ignore self-care, especially if they are beginning to withdraw from others. Maintaining a healthy balance of rest, nutrition and interaction with others will help relieve some of the difficulty associated with grief. Don't overwhelm yourself with trying to tackle big projects or by feeling like you need everyone to think you're okay. You are grieving. Take your time and care for yourself. Take a walk. Read a book. Relax in a bubble bath. Anything that focuses on recharging your body and mind will be helpful as you begin to process life with the reality of loss.
- Establish and maintain a routine. After a significant life change, especially one that is traumatic or unexpected, it is normal to feel anxiety or to feel like nothing is going "normally." Establishing a routine of common activities will help you stay focused as you try to navigate through grief. Simple things such as going to bed at the same time nightly, eating meals on a regular schedule and spending time meditating can help you achieve a sense of control that will help relieve some of the unsteadiness that is common during the grief process.
- Avoid harmful behaviors. As previously mentioned, during times of stress, those who are unable to process the emotions of the situation may resort to harmful behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse. If you feel the need to engage in unhealthy habits or behaviors, try to focus on more positive things. Talk to friends or loved ones and/or engage in some of the self-care activities mentioned above.
- Seek professional help. For many, the idea of seeking professional help feels uncomfortable. However, if you feel overwhelmed by grief or need to learn ways to cope effectively, a mental health professional or counselor could be a critical person to include on your path to healing. The right professional can help you process your emotions related to grief and help you create a plan of action of how you will handle the days, weeks and months to come.
Sources of Help
Many people find comfort and help to process grief by talking to friends, engaging in grief support groups and working with a local mental health provider. In addition to these sources, a growing trend among those needing help and support is using online counseling options, such as that provided by ReGain.
Online therapy is a way of connecting with mental health professionals who are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to help facilitate effective healing. It is convenient, as most sessions can be scheduled at the convenience of the client and can be done anywhere there is access to internet. You won't need to sit in traffic on your way to an appointment, or worry about running into people you know in the waiting room. You can access ReGain from the comfort and privacy of your own home. Below are some reviews of ReGain counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Michelle has been a wonderful listening ear as I have worked through the grief of losing my mother and issues in my relationship. She is very calm and understanding, letting me talk through my thoughts and not condemning at all. I have appreciated her responding to me in a timely manner, especially when I wasn't expecting a response."
"Buddy helped us get through a rough patch of our relationship. He listened to both sides and helped us bridge the gap. He is extremely compassionate, understanding, and empathetic. He has a wide scope of experience and was able to provide insight into other topics as well, such as grief and loss. Talking to Buddy feels like talking to a good friend who really cares about you. I am so thankful to Buddy for how he helped us, and I highly recommend him to anyone looking for a counselor."
Grief is a personal, often complicated, journey. It is something everyone experiences at some point in life. Although the weight of grief can seem overwhelming at times, there is hope for recovery and for achieving happiness again. Self-care, connection with others and the right help when needed, can help healing occur.