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Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief

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  • 01-12-2023
Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief

This article looks at understanding the five stages of grief. Navigate loss with empathy and resilience, supported by expert perspectives and practical advice.


The feeling of loss can often be incredible, often leaving people in a state of profound disbelief known as the first stage of the grieving process, 'denial'. This is a common initial reaction, characterised by feelings of numbness and bewilderment. In denial, the harsh reality of the loss feels intensely surreal. Some may reject the fact that the loss has occurred.

Often, there is a pervasive feeling of disconnection from the world, like they're wrapped and enveloped in a dense fog of disbelief. This abrupt life alteration can be overwhelming and difficult to acknowledge. Denial can be viewed as a defence mechanism.

It shields us from the immediate onslaught of pain associated with the loss, acting as a mental refuge from the daunting truths we are not prepared to confront at that instant. Individuals in this stage might pose questions such as, 'Why is this happening?' or affirm that 'This cannot possibly be happening.'

Undeniably, it's vital to remember that denial and disbelief are normal responses to a sudden change or loss. Being in denial is the mind's way of cushioning the blow and giving us time to adjust to the new reality. It is only when we start acknowledging the truth of our situation that the initial haze of denial starts receding, leading the way to other grief stages.

Denial - Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief


When grief engulfs us, the first instinct is often to suppress it, entering into a state of denial. But as we gradually accept the reality of the loss, the numb fog of denial starts to lift, only to be replaced by a second, and much more potent stage of grieving: anger. 

The road to navigating through this new, disturbing emotion can be as challenging as climbing a steep hill. This anger takes many forms and can target various aspects of our lives. It could be self-directed, leaving us overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and self-blame.

It might be aimed at the loved one we've tragically lost, stirring up feelings of resentment for their departure. It might even surface as anger towards God or the universe, as we question the injustice we've been dealt.

Alternatively, our anger may not have a specific target, occasionally embellishing itself as irritation towards random people or objects. The cries of, 'Why me?' or 'It's not fair!' can be all too familiar for those wrestling with this difficult stage of grief. The intensity of these feelings of anger often takes us by surprise, leaving us reeling.

But to navigate this journey, it's paramount that we acknowledge that anger is a normal, and necessary, part of the healing process. During this stage of grief, the instinctive reaction may be to feel guilty or embarrassed about emotional outbursts and expressions of anger. But it's vital that these emotions are not suppressed or bottled up.

A healthy outlet such as counselling or joining a support group can provide a much-needed safe space to express these emotions without judgment. Interestingly, our anger, as maddening as it can be, often serves an elusive purpose. It paradoxically keeps us connected to the person who's no longer with us, tethering us to them in an emotional tug-of-war.

Viewing anger in this light can help us understand it not just as a destructive force, but also as an essential part of healing and maintaining a bond with the departed.

Anger - Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief


The 'Bargaining' stage, the third in the grief process, tends to be dominated by a barrage of 'what if' and 'if only' questions. People find themselves in a state of negotiation, either with themselves or a higher power to alter the grim reality they are faced with.

Frequently, this can culminate in feelings of guilt, shame, and regret, as people start blaming themselves for the situation they are in. There's a common pattern of thoughts at this stage that often sounds like, 'If only I had acted differently...' or 'Perhaps if I do this instead, I will be able to change the outcome...'

These thoughts, futile as they may be, can eventually form a relentless mental cycle, with people trying their utmost to recover the control they feel they've lost over their lives. Recognising that we are in the bargaining stage of grief can offer understanding and perspective.

It can emphasise the senselessness of dwelling on hypothetical scenarios and regrets, shedding light on how they can feed our sorrow rather than alleviate it.

Indeed, this critical understanding can be a delicate step towards the acceptance of our painful reality, and starting to address the tangible issues that surround it. It's important to remember grief is a personal process and varies dramatically between people.

Bargaining - Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief


The fourth phase of dealing with loss or trauma, also known as the ‘Depression’ stage, is fundamentally different from the previous stages such as anger and bargaining, that are often described as 'active'. The 'Depression' stage often feels immobilising like a junction of passive emotions.

This stage cuts deeper than any other and revolves around true acceptance of the loss, accompanied by the encompassing sense of emptiness it leaves behind. As the harsh reality sinks in, we may start grappling with overwhelming feelings of solitude, and the intended purpose or significance in our usual daily activities might appear to be lost.

Consequently, we may tend to distance ourselves from people around us, not due to our anger but the outgrowth of perceived meaninglessness in everything. It's important to understand that experiencing 'depression' in such scenarios is not indicative of any mental disorder.

Rather, it reflects a completely natural and justified response to profound loss. Remember, you're not weak for feeling this way; it's simply part of the grieving process. 

Reaching out for help from trustworthy people or even professional assistance during this testing phase is greatly advised. Far from being seen as a weakness, it is often an enormously beneficial decision that significantly aids in dealing with the painful phase of 'depression'.

Depression - Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief


The final stage in the progression of grief, referred to as 'Acceptance', is often misunderstood as being equivalent to reaching a stage of jubilation or 'happiness'. This is a misconception; acceptance is actually a phase where the individual recognises the real-life consequences of the loss.

During this stage, the powerful reactions linked with grief start to ebb. The individual is able, bit by bit, to regain authority over their emotional sphere. Processes that previously were hijacked by feelings of despair and sorrow start to slowly return to normal.

It is important to clarify that this does not denote a lack of sadness or a complete vanishing of the pain. Instead, it signifies an introduction of stability in the midst of turbulence. As we progress through this stage of acceptance, we begin to see possibilities of life beyond the cloud of grief that has been hanging over us.

Slowly, the world outside starts to come into view, and we commence planning for the days ahead. A sense of direction, that was seemingly lost, begins to find its way back into our lives. This understanding goes hand in hand with the realisation that the way we knew our lives to be has changed forever. We cannot go back to how things were, nor can we hold onto past routines. We are not the same people we were before the loss. 

As such, we establish new norms, rules, and ways of living for ourselves. We find ways to accommodate our loss within the schema of our lives, and we strive to move forward. However, it is crucial to note that acceptance of a loss does not mean that the individual does not yearn for their loved one. It doesn't mean they have forgotten or moved on completely from the person they have lost.

Instead, it suggests that they have learnt how to live in a world where their loved one is not present physically. They understand that while their loved one is gone, life can, and does, move on. They realise that it is possible to remember their loved one in their hearts and in their memories and still embrace life anew.

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