If you’ve ever read or talked to someone about grieving and loss, you likely have heard of the Five Stages of Grief. This is an idea that people refer to when they talk about the way people often progress through the experience the grief cycle, from the first news of a loss through a wide range of emotional changes.
Developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1960s, and later developed further with her coauthor David Kessler, the five stages of grief were originally used specifically to talk about the way a person tends to react to news of a terminal illness. But they’ve come to be recognized as a normal part of grieving when talking about all kinds of loss, including death and dying.
Here are the five stages of grief as commonly formulated:
This is a refusal to believe that the loss is real. “This isn’t happening;” “This can’t be true;” “It’s a mistake” — those are all things a person might think or say upon hearing of a shocking loss. This is one way our brains try to absorb and process incredibly difficult news. Think of it as a defense mechanism to help cope.
Refusing to believe it gives the brain a little more time to take it in and begin to understand it.
Once we’re willing to admit the loss has actually happened, we might proceed to a very strong emotion: anger. This anger can be directed at any number of targets. We might be angry at the person who died, or at the doctor who gave us the news, or at our higher power, or even at ourselves.
Sometimes this anger isn’t white-hot fury, but more like frustration. “This isn’t fair!” “Why is this happening to me/us?” “How could she leave us like this?”
This can take the form of trying to make a deal with our higher power, as in “I promise I will turn my life around and be a better person if you take this news back.” This is especially common in reaction to news of a terminal illness.
But bargaining can also look like “if only” statements, in response to either a terminal illness or a loss. “If only he hadn’t driven that route.” “We should have gotten a second opinion.” “If only I had quit smoking 20 years ago.”
Once we’ve moved past refusing to believe the news, raging at the truth, and trying to get our higher power to take it back, reality sets in. The loss has really happened and our life is forever changed. There’s a hole that once was filled, and this can lead to both sadness and real depression.
Clinical depression takes many forms, and the depression stage can be long-lasting and include sentiments like “I don’t even want to get out of bed,” “My reason for living is gone,” and “I’m just so tired all the time — I don’t feel like doing anything.”
Reaching acceptance of a loss doesn’t mean grief is over. It’s probably more manageable, as we’re not fighting against the reality of the loss. We understand it has happened, and we know we can’t change it. But grief doesn’t turn off like a light, and accepting a loss doesn’t mean feeling good about it. The acceptance stage, in the case of a terminal illness, is the point at which we’re feeling able to acknowledge and prepare for death.
In the case of a loss, acceptance is when intense emotion, frequent mood swings and tears begin to level out and we start to approach something like normal again — even though the feelings of grief are unlikely ever to leave us completely.
If you’ve ever been through a loss, or observed a friend who was grieving, you probably recognize the overwhelming emotions described in these stages. But you might also be thinking that the grief you’ve experienced wasn’t quite that tidy. The truth is that grief does not always follow any specific timeline.If you were to draw a picture of your journey through grief, it would be unlikely to look like a straight line progressing through the stages of loss. In reality, it might look more a tangle as you progressed from denial to acceptance to bargaining, back to denial, on to anger and depression, and so on.
So the Five Stages of Grief aren’t intended to tell us exactly how our grief will go. Instead, the idea of the stages is to help us make sense of the emotions and impulses that are commonly felt during the grief process. If you’re still feeling anger months after a loss, you shouldn’t feel like there’s something wrong with you and you must progress to bargaining right away.
The framework of the five stages isn’t telling you what to do — it’s just giving you language to help you understand what’s happening in your head and your heart as you go through the grieving process.