The grieving process was first outlined by Dr. Kubler-Ross in 1969, from observing people experiencing grief. It was never intended to be a one-size-fits-all prescription for grief, but do show common stages of grief. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Grief does not necessarily occur in these stages; some emotions may overlap or the emotions may take hold in a different order. Use the following as a guide to help you identify complex emotions as they crop up, and to understand what you might experience.

You can also read our thoughts on how you might cope with grief, and how you can help someone who is suffering.

The Grieving Process: What you might experience

Denial, numbness and shock

This first stage of the grieving process is denial.  It shields us from the true pain of loss – even though we know the person has died, we don’t really believe it. Accompanying denial are feelings of numbness and shock. This stage lets us carry on with life for the time being; arrange the funeral, contact the necessary people, and get the estate in order. Feelings of numbness can act as an emotional buffer, as we try to rationalise overwhelming emotions. This stage usually gives way to other emotions, such as anger or sadness.

Anger

Anger can manifest in many different ways – anger at medical professionals for not doing their job properly, at family who didn’t attend the funeral, at friends for saying the wrong thing, at God for letting this happen, even at the person who died for leaving you behind. Acknowledge the anger, and think about what has prompted it. Anger is not inherently negative, in fact it’s proof we are making progress and want to take back control of the situation.

However, when anger is misdirected and manifests in physical acts of violence and verbal aggression, we can hurt the people closest to us. They may also be grieving, and the damage you can do with your words and actions can be long-lasting and hard to repair. If you feel yourself getting worked up, remove yourself from the situation. Return when the anger has passed, and talk about how you’re feeling to the people around you.

Bargaining

Bargaining is marked by thoughts of how the death might have been prevented, and often goes hand-in-hand with denial. Obsessing over specific details, for example questioning how things could have been done differently, is typical of this stage of the grieving process. People tend to exhaust every channel of thought in their search for a solution. Some people will appeal to a higher power, asking for just ten more minutes with that person, or promising to be a better person in exchange for bringing that person back. Others will linger on ‘What if…’ and ‘If only…’ statements.

Bargaining is often accompanied by unresolved guilt for what should have been done differently. It’s impossible to move forward until these feelings have been dealt with, and you make your peace with what has happened.

Depression

Here, we begin to fully feel the loss of that person from our lives. The magnitude of this can be devastating. Depression takes on many different forms; you may feel lethargic, spend all day in bed, or discover a reluctance to see friends and family. Other signs of depression include loss of appetite, crying, feeling isolated and having trouble sleeping. Some time may have elapsed since the death, some people may expect you to have ‘gotten over’ your grief by now. Don’t listen to them; periods of depression are a natural part of the healing process, and suggestions to ignore grief are typically well-meaning but misguided. It’s OK to take as long as you need to address feelings of depression.

Acceptance

The final stage of the grieving process is when you make peace with the loss. There is likely to be a lingering sadness, but you won’t feel overwhelmed at the mere thought of them. You will begin to reconstruct your life, and work out how to live without your loved one in it. You will begin to look forward to the future, and start to make plans for it.

The other stages of grief can feel never-ending, but eventually the time will come when you start to accept the reality of life without that person. You can’t expect to return to the person you once were; you need to focus on building a new life for yourself.

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