If you or a loved one is dealing with loss, it can be helpful to learn more about the grieving process. Here we share the 5 Stages of Grief, along with a few ways to help someone who is grieving after a death or breakup.
It's important to remember that the grieving process can be complex, and it isn't the same for everyone. These steps may not be followed exactly, or other feelings may surface after you thought you were through the stages of grieving. Allowing room to experience grief in your own way can help you heal after loss.
The 5 Stages of Grief
The 5 Stages of Grief is a theory developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It suggests that we go through five distinct stages after the loss of a loved one. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.
In the first stage of the grieving process, denial helps us minimize the overwhelming pain of loss. As we process the reality of our loss, we are also trying to survive emotional pain. It can be hard to believe we have lost an important person in our lives, especially when we may have just spoken with them the previous week or even the previous day.
During this stage in grieving, our reality has shifted completely. It can take our minds time to adjust to our new reality. We reflect on the experiences we've shared with the person we lost, and we might find ourselves wondering how to move forward in life without this person.
This is a lot of information to explore and a lot of painful imagery to process. Denial attempts to slow this process down and take us through it one step at a time, rather than risk the potential of feeling overwhelmed by our emotions.
Denial is not only an attempt to pretend that the loss does not exist. We are also trying to absorb and understand what is happening.
The second stage in grieving is anger. We are trying to adjust to a new reality and are likely experiencing extreme emotional discomfort. There is so much to process that anger may feel like it allows us an emotional outlet.
Keep in mind that anger does not require us to be very vulnerable. However, it may feel more socially acceptable than admitting we are scared. Anger allows us to express emotion with less fear of judgment or rejection.
Anger also tends to be the first thing we feel when starting to release emotions related to loss. This can leave us feeling isolated in our experience. It can also cause us to be perceived as unapproachable by others in moments when we could benefit from comfort, connection, and reassurance.
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When coping with loss, it isn't unusual to feel so desperate that you are willing to do anything to alleviate or minimize the pain. During this stage in grieving, you may try to bargain to change the situation, agreeing to do something in return for being relieved of the pain you feel.
When bargaining starts to take place, we often direct our requests to a higher power, or something bigger than us that may be able to influence a different outcome. Bargaining during the grieving process can come in the form of a variety of promises, including:
- "God, if you can heal this person, I will turn my life around."
- "I promise to be better if you will let this person live."
- "I'll never get angry again if you can stop him/her from dying or leaving me."
There is an acute awareness of our humanness in this stage of grieving; when we realize that there is nothing we can do to influence change or create a better end result.
Bargaining comes from a feeling of helplessness and gives us a perceived sense of control over something that feels so out of control. During bargaining, we tend to focus on our personal faults or regrets. We might look back at our interactions with the person we are losing and note all the times we felt disconnected or may have caused them pain.
It is common to recall times when we may have said things we did not mean and wish we could go back and behave differently. We also sometimes make the drastic assumption that if things had played out differently, we would not be in such an emotionally painful place in our lives.
During our experience of processing grief, there comes a time when our imaginations calm down and we slowly start to look at the reality of our present situation. Bargaining no longer feels like an option and we are faced with what is happening.
In this stage of grieving, we start to feel the loss of our loved one more abundantly. Our panic begins to subside, the emotional fog begins to clear, and the loss feels more present and unavoidable.
In those moments, we tend to pull inward as the sadness grows. We might find ourselves retreating, being less sociable, and reaching out less to others about what we are going through. Although this is a very natural stage in the grieving process, dealing with depression after the loss of a loved one can be extremely isolating.
If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
The last of the 5 Stages of Grief is acceptance. When we come to a place of acceptance, it is not that we no longer feel the pain of loss. Instead, we are no longer resisting the reality of our situation, and we are not struggling to make it something different.
Sadness and regret can still be present in this phase. But the emotional survival tactics of denial, bargaining, and anger are less likely to be present during this phase of the grieving process.
Click Play to Learn More About the Stages of Grief
This video has been medically reviewed by David Susman, PhD.
How Long Do Grief Stages Last?
There is no specific time period for any of these stages. One person may experience the stages quickly, such as in a matter of weeks, whereas another person may take months or even years to move through the stages of grieving. Whatever time it takes for you to move through these stages is perfectly normal.
As we consider the 5 Stages of Grief, it is important to note that people grieve differently. So, you may or may not go through each of these stages or experience them in order. The lines of the grieving process stages are often blurred. We may also move from one stage to another and possibly back again before fully moving into a new stage.
Your pain is unique to you, your relationship to the person you lost is unique, and the emotional processing can feel different to each person. Take the time you need and remove any expectations of how you should be performing as you work through the grieving process.
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Additional Grieving Process Models
Although the 5 Stages of Grief developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is considered one of the most easily recognizable models of grief and bereavement, there are other models to be considered as well. Each one seeks to explain how grief may be perceived and processed.
These models can provide greater understanding to people who are hurting over the loss of a loved one. They can also be used by those in healing professions, helping them to provide effective care for grieving people who are seeking informed guidance.
Four Phases of Grief
Legendary psychologist John Bowlby focused his work on researching the emotional attachment between parent and child. From his perspective, early experiences of attachment with important people in our lives, such as caregivers, help to shape our sense of safety, security, and connections.
British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes developed a model of grief based on Bowlby's theory of attachment, suggesting there are four phases of mourning when experiencing the loss of a loved one:
- Shock and numbness: Loss in this phase feels impossible to accept. Most closely related to Kübler-Ross's stage of denial, we are overwhelmed when trying to cope with our emotions. Parkes suggests that there is physical distressexperienced in this phase as well, which can lead to somatic or physical symptoms.
- Yearning and searching: As we process loss in this phase of grief, we may begin to look for comfort to fill the void our lovedone has left. We might do this by reliving memories through pictures and looking for signs from the person to feel connected to them. In this phase, we become very preoccupied with the person we have lost.
- Despair and disorganization: We may find ourselves questioning and feeling angry in this phase. The realization that our loved one is not returning feels real, and we can have a difficult time understanding or finding hope in our future. We may feel a bit aimless during this portion of the grieving process and retreat from others as we process our pain.
- Reorganization and recovery: In this phase, we feel more hopeful that our hearts and minds can be restored. As with Kübler-Ross's acceptance stage, sadness or longing for our loved one doesn't disappear. However, we move toward healing and reconnecting with others for support, finding small ways to reestablish some normalcy in our daily lives.
7-Stage Model of Grief
Some suggest that there are seven stages in grieving instead of only four or five. This more complex model of the grieving process involves experiencing:
- Shock and denial. Whether a loss occurs suddenly or with some advanced notice, it's possible to experience shock. You feel emotionally numb and may deny the loss.
- Pain and guilt. During this stage in grieving, the pain of the loss starts to set in. You may also feel guilty for needing more from family and friends during this emotional time.
- Anger and bargaining. You may lash out at people you love or become angry with yourself. Or you might try to "strike a bargain" with a higher power, asking that the loss be taken away in exchange for something on your part.
- Depression and loneliness. As you reflect on your loss, you may start to feel depressed or lonely. It is in this stage in grieving that you begin to truly realize the reality of your loss.
- The upward turn. You begin to adjust to your new life, and the intensity of the pain you feel from the loss starts to reduce. At this point in the grieving process, you may notice that you feel calmer.
- Reconstruction and working through. This stage in grieving involves taking action to move forward. You begin to reconstruct your new normal, working through any issues created by the loss.
- Acceptance and hope. In this final stage of the grieving process, you begin to accept the loss and feel hope for what tomorrow might bring. It's not that all your other feelings are gone, just more so that you've accepted them and are ready to move on.
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How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving
It can be difficult to know what to say or do when someone has experienced loss. We do our best to offer comfort, but sometimes our best efforts can feel inadequate and unhelpful.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind if someone you love is going through the stages in grieving:
- Avoid rescuing or fixing. In an attempt to be helpful, we may offer uplifting, hopeful comments or even humor to try to ease their pain or "fix them." Although the intention is good, this approach can leave people feeling as if their pain is not seen, heard, or valid.
- Don't force it. We may want so badly to help and for the person to feel better, so we believe that nudging them to talk and process their emotions before they're truly ready will help them faster. This is not necessarily true and can actually be an obstacle to their healing.
- Make yourself accessible. Offer space for people to grieve. This lets the person know we're available when they're ready. We can invite them to talk with us but remember to provide understanding and validation if they are not ready just yet. Remind them that you're there and not to hesitate to come to you.
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Resources for People in Stages of Grieving
Several organizations provide information or assistance for people going through the grieving process. Regardless of where you are in the stages in grieving, you may find help via entities such as:
- AARP, for articles on grief and loss
- Grief.com, which covers all types of grief, also providing grief workshops and access to free resources
- HOPE for Bereaved, for anyone who has experienced loss through death
- Hospice Foundation of America, grief support before, during, and after a loved one's death
- OptionB, for people who want to bounce back after a painful experience
- The Compassionate Friends, help for people who've lost a child
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A Word From Verywell
It is important to remember that everyone copes with loss differently. While you may experience all five stages of grief, you might also find that it is difficult to classify your feelings into any one of the stages. Have patience with yourself and your feelings in dealing with loss.
Allow yourself time to process all your emotions, and when you are ready to speak about your experiences with loved ones or a healthcare professional, do so. If you are supporting someone who has lost a loved one, such as a spouse or sibling, remember that you don't need to do anything specific. Simply allow them room to talk when they are ready.
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