If you have lost a loved one, or if someone you know is grieving, you might find yourself wondering ‘What are these five stages of grief I keep hearing about?’ and how they relate to you. Let me explain a little more about the five stages.

Author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – a much respected grief expert who was also one of the pioneers of hospice in the US – wrote the definitive book on this subject, On Death and Dying, over thirty years ago. When people discuss the stages of grief, they are most often referring to the five stages of grief that she defined.

In order, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and I’ll go into each of these stages in more detail below.

Kübler-Ross originally applied these stages to any form of catastrophic personal loss (job, income, freedom, health). This also includes the death of a loved one and divorce. Kübler-Ross also claimed these steps do not necessarily come in order, nor are they all experienced by all patients, though she stated that a person will always experience at least two.

So it’s important to remember that not everyone goes through the five stages of grief. Perhaps it helps to see the stages as a rough map to help mourners make sense of what they are going through; grief is unique to each mourner and to each loss.

Stage 1: Denial
The first stage of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model of grieving is denial. When it comes to the death of a loved one, denial tends to be more symbolic than literal. What it doesn't mean is that you literally don't know your loved one has died.

What it does mean is that you come home and can't believe that your wife isn't going to walk in the door at any minute, or that your husband isn't just away on a business trip. Or you simply can't fathom that your child is never going to walk through that door again.

We can't believe what has happened because at this stage we actually can't believe what has happened. To fully believe at this stage would be too much. Denial, the first stage of grieving, actually helps us to survive the loss. It works subtly, giving us moments away from our pain and allowing us to pace our feelings of grief. It is nature's way of letting in only as much as we can handle.

As denial fades, it is slowly replaced with the reality of the loss. As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface. One of these is stage two: anger…

Stage 2: Anger
The second stage of grief is anger. This can be anger at anyone from the deceased to God. For example, those in bereavement often have thoughts of, "Why did you leave me alone like this?" towards their loved ones who died. They may be angry at their loved one for not taking better care of himself, or angry at themselves for not taking better care of their loved one. You may feel anger towards the doctors for not being able to save the person who has died, or you might rage against life in general because you are angry that bad things could happen to someone who meant so much to you. But, most of all, you may be angry at this unexpected, undeserved and unwanted situation in which you find yourself.

The anger may also be directed at God for taking away a loved one. Today, most churches and clergy understand it is not unusual for people to feel anger toward God in bereavement. Many churches have started bereavement groups in which priests and ministers encourage expression of all kinds of feelings. Consider asking your church about this.

According to Kübler-Ross, anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. Do not bottle anger up inside – instead, explore it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love. If you do not allow yourself to fully experience it, the pain only gets worse until you can no longer ignore its demands to be heard.

Don't let anyone diminish the importance of feeling your anger fully. And don't let anyone criticize your anger, not even you.

Stage 3: Bargaining
The third stage of grief, according to Kübler-Ross, is bargaining. At this stage, the bereaved will promise almost anything in order to make life return to normal. It often involves promising to be a better person. For example, those who have lost a loved one might bargain with God: "I'll stop smoking if I can have him back!" Before a loss, it seems you will do anything if only your loved one may be spared. "Please God," you bargain, "I will never be angry at my wife again if you'll just let her live." After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. "What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then can I wake up and realize it’s all been a bad dream?"

We become lost in a maze of "If only..." or "What if..." statements. We want life returned to what it was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening... if only, if only, if only... and guilt is often bargaining's companion. The "if onlys" cause us to find fault with ourselves and what we think we could or should have done differently.

As we move through the bargaining process, the mind alters past events while exploring all those "what if" and "if only" statements. The guilt people often experience after a death has a lot to do with the bargaining process. "If only I'd done X, then maybe he wouldn't have died" or "If we'd allowed the doctors to do Y, maybe we would have had a few more months with her." Sadly, the mind inevitably comes to the same sad conclusion... the tragic reality is that our loved one is truly gone.

Stage 4: Depression

The fourth stage of grief, according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, is depression. This is true, devastating grieving. This is when the reality of the death has set in and feelings of sadness and helplessness take over. This stage is when our attention moves fully into the present. Empty feelings come to the surface, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined.

This depressive stage feels as if it will last forever, but try to remember that it will not. It's important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness, but is instead an appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering – perhaps – if there is any point in going on alone. Why go on at all?

Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural: a state to be fixed, something to snap out of as quickly as possible. Often the people around you may want to get you out of your depression. But Kübler-Ross feels that if grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. She would recommend that you allow yourself to fully experience it, allowing the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety; it will leave when it has served its purpose in your loss. The only way out is through…

As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.

However, if the normal depression that comes with grief turns into ongoing clinical depression, where life has lost meaning, you are unable to accomplish the basic chores of daily living, such as caring for your personal hygiene, you are sleeping too much or not enough, or are having suicidal thoughts, you need to seek grief counseling immediately with a mental health professional who can assess your depression and take quick action to help you stay safe and heal from your loss.

Make self-preservation your number one priority.

Stage 5: Acceptance

According to Kübler-Ross, the fifth stage of grief is acceptance. This is often confused with the notion of being alright or OK with what has happened, but this is not the case. Most people don't ever feel OK or alright about the loss of a loved one, and that is quite normal. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality.

Acceptance is not about liking a situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss. Gradually, in your own time, you begin to find some peace with what has happened. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live, and according to Kübler-Ross this is where our final healing and adjustment can take a firm hold, despite the fact that healing often looks and feels like an unattainable state. This stage is where the bereaved begin to feel better and return to a normal life – or at least a new normality. In acceptance there is healing because in acceptance, there is reality. Death is the final reality of life.

Final thoughts on the five stages of grief

Once again a reminder that not everyone goes through these five stages of grief. They are responses that many people have, but there is no typical response to loss, just as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives.
Remember that each death or major loss you experience will be different than the others. The stages of grief may be partially absent or may last longer or be shorter depending on the relationship held with the deceased. There is no "schedule" for grieving your loss. The wonderful thing about being a part of the human experience is that we are all different in the way we perceive the world, each other, and ourselves!

Author's Bio: 

Lucie Storrs is the creator of The Light Beyond bereavement forum, website, grief library, inspirational movie and blog. This project grew out of her own experiences of grief and loss, her desire to help others and love of the Internet as a means for doing so. Visit www.thelightbeyond.com

The website also offers two helpful ebooks: Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep, over 250 sympathy poems, quotes and readings for funerals, eulogies and inner peace, and If There's Anything I Can Do, which is full of little ways - and big ways - you can help someone you care about cope with grief that little bit better. www.thelightbeyond.com/store.html

"It has never been simpler to reach out and make a difference in the world. I hope that in some small way we help to make your journey through grief a little easier."