Grief is a deeply personal and often unpredictable experience. The "Stages of Grief" model, popularized by Swiss-American Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, became normalized as a framework to understand this complex emotional journey. But this model, which was previously misinterpreted, and frankly never intended by Kübler-Ross to become a go-to model for grief, has since been reviewed, tweaked, and expanded upon within the mental health landscape. While not a fixed sequence, these stages provide insight into the myriad of feelings one might encounter after a significant loss.
At Resilience Lab, we view these stages as a spectrum of emotional responses, helping individuals find clarity and validation in their experiences of grief. Through this article, we'll delve into each stage, providing examples and insights. We'll also highlight how Resilience Lab’s online therapy services can offer essential support, guiding you through every stage with compassion and understanding. Exploring these grief stages is key in your healing journey, reminding you that you're not alone in this process.
Before we can dive into the potential waves of grief that an individual might experience, it is important to start with what grief is. Grief is an intricate and deeply personal emotional response to loss. It's a universal experience, yet one that is uniquely felt and expressed by each individual. Grief can arise from various forms of loss, whether it's the death of a loved one, the end of a significant relationship, loss of health, or even the loss of normalcy and certainty, as experienced globally during times of crisis.
It's important to note, however, that grief can sometimes evolve into a more persistent form known as 'complicated grief'. This occurs when grief extends over a prolonged period, typically over 12 months, and becomes maladaptive, often signaling underlying issues. Complicated grief hinders a person's ability to integrate the loss into their life and move forward, and addressing it is a critical and currently relevant topic in grief counseling and mental health therapy.
At its core, grief is a process of coming to terms with a new reality where something or someone we held dear is no longer present. It involves a range of emotions and reactions, both emotional and physical. People in grief may experience feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness. Physically, grief can manifest as fatigue, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, and other stress-related symptoms.
Understanding grief is crucial because it is not merely an emotional response that fades with time; it's a journey of transformation. This journey can reshape one's understanding of the world, relationships, and oneself. At Resilience Lab, we recognize that navigating through grief is not about 'getting over' the loss but learning how to integrate this experience into your life moving forward.
In this context, the 7 stages of grief model serves as a valuable tool for framing this complex process. It provides a lens through which we can understand the varied emotions and reactions that come with grief. However, it's important to remember that these stages are not linear or the same for everyone. They are, instead, a reflection of the common experiences many may encounter in their unique journey through grief.
Grief, in its essence, is an intensely personal journey, often unpredictable and varied in its expression. The concept of the "7 Stages of Grief'' provides a framework to understand and navigate through this multifaceted emotional process. Originally developed as the “5 Stages of Grief” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, these stages were initially conceived to help understand the experiences of patients facing terminal illnesses but have since become a universal tool to describe the grieving process for various types of loss.
It's important to emphasize that these stages of grief are not rigid or sequential steps but rather a collection of common emotional responses that people may experience following a significant loss. The exact stages of grief might differ based on the individual as well as the circumstances. Grief is not a linear occurrence and can be drastically different for different individuals. It is also possible that individuals could experience more or fewer stages of grief or other stages that we don’t directly cover in this article.
One stage in the 7 Stages of Grief is characterized by shock and denial. This stage acts as the mind's first layer of defense against a painful reality. When confronted with a loss, it's common for individuals to find themselves in a state of disbelief and numbness. Shock provides emotional protection from being too overwhelmed all at once. This may manifest as a temporary inability to accept the truth of the situation, often accompanied by feelings of disconnection or unreality.
During this stage, one might hear phrases like, "This can’t be happening," or "There must be some mistake." These expressions are indicative of the denial aspect, where the person may refuse to acknowledge the loss or its full impact. This denial serves as a coping mechanism, allowing one's emotions to engage with the loss at a more gradual pace.
However, shock and denial are not just psychological responses; they can have physical manifestations as well. People might experience lethargy, a sense of being emotionally frozen, or even physical numbness.
It's important to recognize that shock and denial are natural and necessary parts of the grieving process. They provide a buffer after the initial impact of the loss, giving the individual time to slowly start processing their emotions.
Shock and denial are not permanent states. As the individual begins to acknowledge and confront the reality of their loss, the initial numbness and disbelief start to fade, leading to the subsequent stages of grief. This transition is a natural progression in the journey towards healing, marking the beginning of emotional processing and acceptance.
In therapy, individuals are supported in navigating the feelings of shock and denial they may experience. This process emphasizes pacing and meeting clients where they are in their grief journey. Therapists provide a safe and understanding space where clients can express their feelings and have their grieving process witnessed and validated. The focus is not necessarily on pushing towards confrontation, but rather on allowing clients to be seen and heard, even if they are in a state of denial. This approach is crucial for gradually moving forward in the grief journey, respecting each individual's unique process and timing.
It's important to remember that the denial stage is temporary and natural responses to grief. They represent the mind's way of making sure we only handle as much as we can cope with at the moment. As this stage fades, individuals often find themselves entering the next stage of grief, with a gradually increasing awareness of the reality and impact of their loss.
Another stage in the 7 Stages of Grief, Pain and Guilt, emerges as the shock and denial wear off. This stage is deeply emotional, marked by the intense, raw pain that accompanies the full realization of the loss. It's a crucial, albeit difficult, part of the grieving process. During this phase, individuals confront the overwhelming sorrow of their loss. Someone who has lost a loved one, for example, might experience uncontrollable crying, a profound sense of sadness, and an emptiness that feels all-consuming. Physical symptoms can also surface, including fatigue, changes in appetite, and disrupted sleep patterns.
Alongside this pain, feelings of guilt often arise, adding complexity to the grief experience. Individuals might find themselves haunted by thoughts of what they wish they had or hadn't done or said. Survivor's guilt is a common phenomenon, where a person feels guilty simply for being alive while their loved one is not. This guilt can extend to regret over not appreciating the person or thing enough while it was present, creating a cycle of remorse and sorrow.
In navigating this stage, the support and guidance provided by therapy can be invaluable. Resilience Lab’s online therapy services offer a compassionate environment where individuals can process their pain and guilt. Therapists help in understanding these emotions, reinforcing the idea that they are a normal part of grieving. They also provide strategies for managing the emotional and physical effects of grief, such as increasing your distress tolerance so you can hold these very difficult, intense emotions. Other strategies may involve harm reduction to minimize any negative effects related to undesirable coping methods you might use, including drinking or self-harm.
Acknowledging and expressing this pain and guilt is essential. It's advised to lean on support systems, engage in self-care practices, and seek professional help as needed. These steps are crucial for healthily moving through this stage of grief, paving the way for eventual acceptance and healing. Local support groups are a great option for navigating this stage and can help to provide personal experiences on the right or wrong way to handle this situation for each individual.
Pain and guilt, while challenging, are integral to the grieving process. They serve as a bridge to subsequent stages, playing a vital role in coming to terms with the loss and beginning the healing journey. It is possible for this intense sadness to transition into a prolonged grief disorder or other related mental disorders because of how complicated grief can be to process for each individual.
Navigating through the Pain and Guilt stage of grief is a critical part of the healing process. It's a time when individuals begin to confront the full impact of their loss, processing the deep emotions that come with it. This stage is necessary for moving towards acceptance and healing, although it can be one of the most emotionally demanding parts of the grieving journey.
In this stage of the 7 Stages of Grief, Anger & Bargaining, individuals often grapple with feelings of anger and engage in mental negotiations as part of their coping mechanism. This anger can take many forms, ranging from quiet, simmering resentment to loud, expressive outbursts. It's not uncommon for a person to feel anger towards doctors, friends, family, or even the person who passed away, blaming them for the pain caused by their absence. Although this anger might sometimes seem irrational or misplaced, it's a crucial part of the grieving process, serving as a release valve for pent-up frustrations and pain.
Simultaneously or subsequently, the stage of bargaining often surfaces. This part of the grieving process is filled with “What if” and “If only” statements. Grieving individuals might find themselves mentally negotiating with a higher power, making promises or pleas in exchange for relief from their pain or the return of what they have lost. Bargaining reflects a struggle to find meaning and regain some semblance of control in a situation that feels overwhelmingly uncontrollable.
Navigating through the intense emotions of anger and bargaining can be a challenging aspect of grief. The Anger & Bargaining stage, though often tough to endure, is an essential step toward healing. It allows individuals to process their loss from different emotional angles, paving the way towards eventual acceptance and peace.
Navigating through Anger & Bargaining is an important part of the grieving process. It involves coming to terms with the reality of loss and the emotions that come with it. Recognizing and understanding these feelings as normal and valid is crucial. At Resilience Lab, our therapists have expertise in managing complex emotions like anger and bargaining. They provide personalized guidance using the latest industry methods. Our therapists help clients express and understand their grief healthily, ensuring empathetic and evidence-based support through each unique stage of grief. This holistic, collaborative approach is vital for those journeying through grief with an emphasis on providing a personalized approach for each individual.
The fourth stage in the 7 Stages of Grief, known as the Depression Stage, signifies a period of deep sorrow and reflection. This stage typically emerges once the initial shock and chaos of loss have subsided, and the stark reality of the situation sets in. Unlike clinical depression, the depression experienced in grief is a natural and appropriate response to loss, often marked by feelings of intense sadness, hopelessness, and a sense of emptiness.
During the Depression Stage, individuals may withdraw from life, feel a deep sense of loneliness, and ponder the implications of the loss on their lives. It’s common for someone in this stage to feel overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life, finding little or no pleasure in activities they once enjoyed. For instance, someone who has lost a partner might struggle with the quiet of an empty home, the burden of single parenthood, or the absence of shared routines.
It’s also a time for introspection, where individuals might quietly reflect on the loss and its impact on their future. This introspection can be painful but is crucial for the healing process. Feelings of regret or guilt that were present in earlier stages can resurface, accompanied by a profound longing for what has been lost.
It's important to distinguish this stage from clinical depression. While both share similar symptoms, the depression experienced in grief is directly related to the loss and is a part of the natural grieving process. This stage is not a sign of mental illness but rather an important step towards coming to terms with the loss and finding a way to move forward.
The Depression Stage is a deeply personal and reflective time in the grieving process. It’s a period of coming to terms with the loss and beginning to understand its long-term impact. Although challenging, it's a necessary step towards healing and eventual acceptance.
Potential Feelings During This Stage:
When dealing with grief, Resilience Lab therapists apply specific strategies, such as behavioral activation and symptom assessments, to provide personalized support. They help clients engage in mood-boosting activities and monitor progress with both quantitative and qualitative measures. This approach ensures clients not only process their grief but also make tangible improvements in their emotional well-being. With their expertise in depression, emotional reactivity, and life transitions, our therapists offer evidence-based, goal-oriented therapy, available both virtually and in-person, to navigate this challenging stage of grief with resilience and hope.
As individuals navigate through the depths of grief, they eventually reach the fifth stage, known as The Upward Turn Stage. This phase marks a subtle but significant shift in the grieving process, where the intense pain and turmoil of the earlier stages begin to lift. It's a period characterized by a gradual return of calm and more stable emotions, signaling the beginning of adjustment to life without the lost person, relationship, or entity.
In The Upward Turn Stage, the heavy fog of grief starts to clear, and the reality of the loss becomes more manageable. The overwhelming despair and deep sadness that dominated previous stages start to fade, giving way to a renewed sense of hope and energy. For instance, someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one might begin to engage in social activities again, or return to hobbies and interests that were previously set aside in the midst of their grief. It's a time where the day-to-day aspects of life become less burdensome, and the individual might start to look forward to events or activities.
Emotionally, this stage brings a noticeable change. The feelings of sadness, while not entirely gone, are less intense and overpowering. There's an emerging sense of optimism, a belief that things will get better and that there is a way forward. This doesn't imply that the person has 'moved on' or forgotten about their loss, but rather that they are finding ways to live with it and integrate the experience into their life.
The Upward Turn Stage is an important step in the healing journey. It represents a turning point where the acute pain of loss begins to give way to a more hopeful outlook. This stage is a reminder that grief, despite its intensity and challenges, is a journey with a path forward. The emergence of more stable emotions and a sense of hope is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the possibility of healing and growth after loss.
Potential Feelings During This Stage:
In the 'Upward Turn' stage of grief, individuals begin to experience a gradual sense of relief and optimism. There is a time of recognition of the complexity of emotions that accompany this stage, such as relief from the end of a loved one's suffering or the exhaustion of prolonged mourning. Our therapists at Resilience Lab provide personalized care that acknowledges these mixed emotions, ensuring clients do not feel guilty for experiencing relief.
This stage is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and our therapists are committed to guiding clients through it with empathy, understanding, and evidence-based strategies. The goal is to help clients emerge from the 'Upward Turn' stage with a renewed sense of strength and an understanding that it is possible to find hope and joy after profound grief. Through the Resilience Lab methodology, therapists ensure that progress is not just about feeling better at the end of a session but about making long-lasting changes.
In the sixth stage of the 7 Stages of Grief, known as The Reconstruction & Working Through Stage, individuals begin to actively rebuild their lives and work through their grief. This stage is characterized by a gradual shift from emotional turmoil to a more pragmatic approach to dealing with the practical realities and consequences of the loss.
During this phase, the intense emotions of grief start to give way to a more rational and problem-solving mindset. Individuals may begin to devise strategies for coping with the challenges brought on by their loss. For example, someone who has lost a spouse may start to focus on logistical aspects like managing finances or household responsibilities alone. There's an emerging sense of empowerment and control, as individuals begin to make plans and set goals for the future, something that might have seemed impossible in the earlier stages of grief.
The Reconstruction & Working Through Stage is also a time for emotional healing. As individuals work through the practical aspects of their loss, they also begin to process and integrate their emotional experiences. This might involve finding new meanings in their loss, establishing a new sense of identity, or redefining their life goals and values. It's a phase where the pain of the loss is still present but doesn't dominate life as it once did.
"In the Reconstruction & Working Through Stage, Resilience Lab therapists provide key support, helping individuals reshape their lives post-loss. They offer individual therapy focused on life transitions, emotional reactivity, and trauma, with a strong emphasis on setting and tracking therapy goals through quantitative and qualitative measures. This stage, pivotal for healing and acceptance, is navigated with Resilience Lab's holistic, evidence-based approach, guiding clients towards long-term positive changes and a renewed sense of purpose.
The Reconstruction & Working Through Stage represents a crucial turning point in the grieving process. It's a time when individuals start to take active steps towards healing, both practically and emotionally, often leading to a sense of renewal and growth.
Lastly, The Acceptance & Hope Stage represents a profound shift in the grieving process. It is marked by a sense of coming to terms with the loss and looking towards the future with a renewed sense of hope. This stage does not imply that the pain of loss has completely disappeared or that the individual has 'moved on' in a way that forgets the past. Instead, it signifies an understanding that the loss is an irrevocable part of one's life and a willingness to continue living and finding joy despite this.
In this stage, individuals may start to make peace with their loss. The intense feelings of sadness and despair that once dominated their lives begin to diminish, allowing for more consistent moments of calm and stability. This doesn't mean they no longer miss what was lost, but rather that they have integrated this loss into their new reality. For example, someone who lost a loved one may start to speak about them without overwhelming grief, remembering the good times with fondness rather than pain.
The Acceptance & Hope Stage also brings a forward-looking perspective. Individuals may start to plan for the future, engage in new activities or hobbies, or form new relationships. There's often a renewed sense of purpose and a feeling of reconnection with life. The world begins to offer possibilities again, and there’s a greater ability to appreciate and experience joy and happiness.
Emotionally, this stage is characterized by a sense of peace and a gradual return to a more balanced state of mind. The pain of loss remains, but it no longer defines the individual’s entire existence. There's an understanding that grief may re-emerge from time to time, but it's now part of a larger tapestry of emotions and experiences that constitute life.
The Acceptance & Hope Stage exemplifies our remarkable capacity to adapt and find strength even in the face of adversity. It signifies not the end of grief, but a new beginning, where the memories and impacts of the loss are woven into the fabric of life, allowing individuals to move forward with a sense of peace and renewed purpose.
The Acceptance & Hope Stage is a significant turning point in the grieving process. It marks a transition from a life dominated by loss to one where loss is integrated into a broader narrative of the individual's life. It's a stage where the past and the future can coexist, allowing for continued healing and personal growth.
When considering the duration of the 7 Stages of Grief, it's crucial to understand that grief is an intensely personal experience, and thus, the time spent in each stage varies significantly from one individual to another. There is no standardized timeline for grieving, as the process is influenced by various factors, including the nature of the loss, the individual's emotional and mental health, their resilience, and the support systems they have in place. For some, the journey through these stages might span months, while for others, it could extend over several years.
The progression through the stages of grief is also not a linear path. Individuals may find themselves revisiting certain stages multiple times or experiencing multiple stages at once. For example, a person might seem to have reached a state of acceptance, only to find themselves grappling with feelings of anger or depression again during moments of remembrance or on significant dates.
Furthermore, external factors like cultural norms, societal expectations, and the individual's environment can either facilitate or complicate the grieving process. These elements can affect how an individual expresses and processes their grief, impacting the overall duration of each stage.
The role of therapy in navigating grief is invaluable. Therapies, like those offered by Resilience Lab, can provide crucial support during this journey. Therapists can help individuals understand and manage the emotions of each stage, offering coping strategies and guidance to move through the grief in a healthy and constructive manner.
In essence, while the 7 Stages of Grief offer a framework to understand the grieving process, they do not dictate a fixed timeline for healing. Each person's experience with grief is unique, and the journey through these stages is a deeply individual process. Acknowledging and respecting this personal aspect of grief is vital for anyone navigating their way through the complexities of loss and healing.
Seeking help from a mental health professional is a constructive step for anyone experiencing grief, regardless of its severity. While it's normal to experience sadness and disruption during grief, support from a therapist can be beneficial even in less severe cases. Resilience Lab offers therapy that helps individuals understand and navigate their grief process, fostering healthy coping mechanisms. This support is not limited to cases of complicated grief but is accessible to anyone seeking guidance through their journey of mourning and healing, helping maintain wellbeing and daily functionality. Seeking help from a therapist is an important step when struggling with grief as well as prolonged instances of grieving such as complicated grief.
Another critical sign is the emergence of persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or thoughts of self-harm. Such feelings can indicate a deeper mental health concern, like major depression, which requires immediate professional attention. Additionally, difficulties in processing the loss healthily, such as avoiding reminders or excessively ruminating on the circumstances, suggest that professional guidance could be beneficial.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms, including substance abuse or risky behaviors, are also red flags. Resorting to these methods to manage grief can exacerbate emotional pain and lead to further health complications. In such situations, reaching out to mental health professionals can provide the necessary support and guidance to navigate the complexities of grief and help to walk you through the seven stages of the grief process.
At Resilience Lab, the importance of timely and compassionate support for those grieving is well-understood. Our online therapy services offer specialized assistance in grief counseling, creating a supportive and empathetic space for individuals to explore and process their grief. Therapists at Resilience Lab work to equip individuals with coping strategies, helping them rebuild a sense of purpose and hope.
Seeking professional help for grief is a positive step towards healing and self-care. It signifies the recognition of the need for support and a commitment to one’s mental and emotional well-being, reinforcing the importance of addressing grief in a healthy and proactive manner.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis and needs immediate help, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Clinically Reviewed by Christine Carville, LCSW-R.
Christine Carville, LCSW-R, is the co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Resilience Lab. Christine developed the Resilience Methodology, a trans-theoretical training model for therapists to provide individualized, flexible, trauma-informed care. She has also been teaching at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2016 and continues to maintain her own private psychotherapy practice.