Everyone who grieves, grieves differently. There is no right or wrong way to cope with a devastating loss. But for some, the five stages of grief are a useful way of understanding the storm of emotions that we all experience after a death. Here, we’ll take a look at those stages and how they came to be.


What are the five stages of grief and loss?

The five stages of grief are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

A concept developed by Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the five stages of grief were in fact initially meant to reflect the emotions experienced by terminally ill patients and their families. Later on, they were also used to describe the ways in which we react after a death.

One common misconception about the different stages of grief is the idea that they happen in order, one by one. Another is that we all experience every one of them. The truth is that loss takes us all in very different directions. It’s best to think about the stages more as ways to think about what you might be feeling, rather than a to-do list. There’s no correct way to grieve.


The five stages of grief, explained

So, what are the stages of grief like when you’re bereaved? Let’s take a closer look.

1. Denial

The first of the five stages of grief is denial, which often follows right after someone has died – “This can’t be happening”. It can result in a kind of numbness or daze. Or the feeling that there must have been a mistake: finding it hard to believe that your loved one isn’t going to walk back through the front door like nothing has changed.

In Dr Kubler-Ross and David Kessler’s book, On Grief and Grieving, they explain that denial is “nature’s way of letting in only what we can handle”. So, give yourself this time. And if someone close to you seems to be in denial, be patient with them. They’ll accept it when they are ready.

2. Anger

Anger is a natural part of grief. You might feel angry with the person who has died for leaving you behind, or angry with yourself for not foreseeing or preventing their death somehow. Or you might feel angry with the doctor who couldn’t save them, or with God for taking them away. You may simply be angry that you didn’t have more time together.

According to Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s writing on the five stages of grief and bereavement, anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now. It can help you overlook other, more difficult, feelings until you’re ready for them.

Anger is something others find it hard to deal with. Despite this, it’s important to allow yourself to express what you feel. Talk about it. Go somewhere private and scream if you need to.

3. Bargaining

After someone dies, thoughts starting with ‘What if’, ‘Please’ and ‘If only’ abound.

What if I had asked him to stay home that day?
Please let me wake up and find out that this is a dream.
If only I’d persuaded her to stop smoking years earlier.

Kubler-Ross and Kessler say these ‘bargains’ can be the mind’s way of getting relief from the pain of loss. You’re taking refuge by imagining a world in which the person you love is still with you. It can also be a way of making sense of what has happened. As you explore these thoughts, you can slowly come to accept that there’s nothing you could have done to make things end differently.

4. Depression

Depression – feeling despair or hopelessness, numbness, losing your appetite, having trouble sleeping (or not sleeping), crying, not wanting to socialise – is natural after a death. Like the other five stages of grief and loss, it may linger for some time, coming and going in waves.

Yet. While you will always miss the person who has died, this deep and destructive sadness won’t last forever. It will fade with time. In the meantime, try to look after yourself. Eat three balanced meals a day, shower or bathe regularly, and get into a good sleeping rhythm. Even if you don’t feel like it, a healthy routine can help you regain some equilibrium.

5. Acceptance

The last of the five stages of grief is acceptance. Reaching this stage doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly be okay with the death, or that you’ll spring back into the happy person you were before. It simply means that you’ve made a kind of peace with your loss. You’re no longer bargaining or perpetually angry or in denial. You’re ready to start the gradual process of learning to enjoy life again.


Not sure if you’re experiencing the five stages of grief?

How many stages of grief you experience, if you feel them in that order, if you find that they don’t apply to you at all … none of this really matters. But if you keep them in mind, it can help you to understand and cope with what you’re experiencing.

For more advice on coping with loss, take a look at our guide here. To make a free online memorial for your loved one, please take a look at our obituary service. And if you need someone to talk to, don’t be afraid to call Cruse Bereavement Care on 0808 808 1677. They can help you, whether you’d just like a chat or to find local bereavement groups.

Print this guide