How to Survive Grief and Loss: The Five Kubler-Ross Stages
Grief and loss have become very common during these difficult times we are living through. And for many of us, there are very confusing and intense emotions that continue to arise as we live through these day-to-day losses that appear in various ways.
It’s important to understand the fact that grief and loss are not only caused by tragic situations like death but can also occur from losses that throw off your daily routine or prevent you from going to work. Losses include many things, such as the loss of jobs, relationships, children growing up and leaving home, and even our self-identity.
How to handle grief and loss?
Grief and loss are unavoidable parts of our life experience; they come and go. Since grief is the process we go through when we suffer a loss, the way out of grief is to go through it.
But it takes time to go through the grieving process. When dealing with grief and loss the worst thing you can do is avoid the process because it can lead to long-term emotional and psychological issues. Instead, give yourself time and grace, and you will be able to process grief and move forward in your life.
It’s possible to get over the losses we feel. For that, it’s vital to understand the whole grieving process. In this article, we will go over a framework in which we learn to live with what we’ve lost.
What are the Kubler-Ross stages of grief and loss?
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first introduced what is now commonly referred to as the Five Stages of Grief. In her 1969 work, On Death and Dying, Kubler-Ross outlined these five stages as representing the feelings of those who have faced death and tragedy based on her many years of work with terminally ill cancer patients.
The stages she outlined were: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
It is important to note that these phases may arise in different ways depending on the person and occur in a different order. Every person grieves for different periods and that no process is set in stone.
The Denial Stage of the grief process
Grief from losses that we experience in life, whether death or otherwise, is a very real process. To heal from grief is possible and can help protect your emotional and psychological wellbeing.
“Denial” is the first stage of the Five Stages of Grief compiled by Elisabeth Kubler Ross & David Kessler. In essence, this stage occurs when you first hear about the loss and insist that it’s not happening the way it appears.
But there’s a lot more to “denial” than what the word implies. So, let’s go over what really happens when you’re in the “denial” stage.
What’s meant by denial?
When a major loss occurs, your first thought will likely be, “this can’t be happening.” For a little while after that, you might refuse to believe that the loss has actually occurred (or will occur) and continue life as usual.
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It’s not that you don’t believe that the loss has happened, but that you don’t want to believe that it happened. As long as you convince yourself that they’re still alive, that you’re still together, or that you weren’t fired, everything is right.
When you deny that something traumatic has happened, you’re avoiding any type of emotion that’s typically involved with grief. To the outside world, it might look as if you don’t care about the loss since you’re not showing any type of outward emotion.
By forcing yourself to stay within the denial stage, you’re making yourself more likely to experience delayed grief. So, instead of experiencing the emotions of grief right now, they’ll happen at a later date instead.
- You might finally begin the grieving process days, weeks, months, or even years later
- Any event or trigger can suddenly ignite the grief without warning
- You’ll still experience the grief at some point
- The suppressed grief will begin to wear away at your emotional and mental states
- You’re only delaying the grief, not completely avoiding it
The most harmful thing you can do when you’re grieving is avoiding your emotions altogether. So, make it a point to allow yourself to begin and continue through the grieving process in order to finally feel some emotions.
Denial is normal, but you’ll eventually find yourself transitioning over to a state of anger. The good news is, it likely won’t hit you out of the blue and at full speed.
For a few hours, days, or weeks, you’ll eventually start to formally acknowledge to yourself what’s really going on. You’ll realize that the relationship is really ending, your loved one is really sick, or that you really only have a few days left working at your current job.
Once it starts to set in, the emotions will begin to release themselves slowly. You might begin to question how you can possibly continue with your life after such a traumatic and emotionally draining loss.
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The important thing is just to let yourself feel your emotions as they begin to take over. Remember that, as much as you deny that the loss is truly happening, it doesn’t mean that it’s really not happening.
The anger stage of the grief process
“Anger” is the second of the five stages of grief created by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. This is the first time in any of the stages of the grief process where you actually express your emotions and acknowledge the loss.
However, “anger” can mean a lot of different things, and it can show up in several ways. Here is what to expect when you get to the anger stage.
Why are we feeling angry?
You’re feeling sad because of the loss, but why does it show up as anger? The reason is that you’re covering up your true feelings and hiding your sadness and grief.
Keep in mind, you’re going through a tough time, and you’re overwhelmed with emotions overall. At the same time, you’re angry about the loss and just want to find someone or something to blame for your pain and suffering.
Targeting your anger toward specific people might be unwarranted, but it’ll most likely be your first method of coping with the loss.
What to expect in the anger stage?
You might find yourself angry at just about everyone and everything. It’s quite common to be a little snippy and short with people, even if they mean well and are just trying to lend a listening ear or a helping hand. Lashing out is common too.
Here’s a brief list of the potential sources of your anger.
- Anger at the doctors or nurses for diagnosing your loved one’s medical condition (or not diagnosing it sooner)
- Anger at yourself for not spending enough time with your loved one when they were healthy and/or alive
- Anger at your loved ones for not understanding your emotions or how you’re affected by the loss
- Anger at your spouse or significant other for breaking up with you or leaving you
- Anger at how the world seems to be ganging up on you and how negative things keep happening to you specifically
Even though you know your anger isn’t rational, it feels as if it is at the time. The most important thing you can do is let others know that you’re struggling with your emotions and don’t mean what you’re saying.
Getting through the anger
While there’s no good way to rush the grieving process, there are some ways you can limit the effects that your emotions are having on those around you. That’s especially important when you find yourself lashing out at those who don’t deserve it.
First, take some time to yourself and allow yourself to process the loss. Give yourself some space to handle your thoughts and emotions before you begin opening up to those around you.
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The goal isn’t to cover up the anger, but rather to find a better method of letting it out. Take some time to acknowledge your emotions and the fact that anger is an unavoidable stage of grief (for the most part), but that doesn’t mean that it has to ruin your relationships with those around you. Remember that there’s nothing that could’ve been done, and hindsight is always 20/20.
Take some time to acknowledge your emotions, but understand that your impulsive anger won’t solve anything. Do your best to rid yourself of any lingering anger by finding a healthier coping strategy to avoid taking it out on other people.
The Bargaining Stage of the grieving process
The third phase of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief is bargaining. This stage involves going to a higher power and essentially trying to barter for the return of whatever is lost or in the process of being lost. You are hoping to reverse the outcome of the situation and make things back to the way they were and are willing to lose anything.
This stage is unique from person to person because it deals with one’s spiritual connection and religious values. This is because you feel hopeless and want to influence and be in control of the situation.
What is bargaining with a higher power?
Bargaining usually involves some form of regret or self-reflection that is then turned into a promise for the future should the situation be reversed.
For example, you may make a promise to God that if the outcome changes in some way (e.g., God to save the life of a loved one pronounced brain dead) or if your pain goes away, you will never act a certain way or make someone angry.
Another example is trying to make a deal with a boss to get a job back after just being fired.
Bargaining is a very common form of grief because we often look to a higher power when we feel out of options or overwhelmed. We hope that by connecting with this higher power and proving something of ourselves, that we will no longer have to go through the pain.
What-If and If-Only statements
Along with speaking to a higher power in hopes of changing your situation, this is also the stage where you are continually questioning and reflecting on times with that person or the times when things were different. You may figure out ways that you could have controlled the situation or reversed it or may reflect on times you could have been a better person.
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Guilt goes hand-in-hand with bargaining. You question the past constantly in search for ways that things could be different in an effort to hold onto times when everything was more normal. This is a form of negotiation that is very common throughout the grieving process because you are left full of uncertainty and are in a state of shock.
It is important to understand that bargaining is an inevitable part of the grieving process, especially for those who are deeply connected to a higher power or some form of religion. You may feel that if you change a certain aspect of your life or if things could have been different, the situation would be reversed.
However, it is crucial to focus on coping in the present instead of playing out past situations. By focusing on moving forward, you will eventually be able to let go of the past and the regrets or experiences that are out of your control.
Depression Stage of the grief process
Depression is the fourth stage of the Kubler-Ross model. This stage involves the realization that the loss is, in fact, going to take place. Its characterized by profound sadness and sorrow regarding the loss.
The length of this stage varies from person to person, and its duration and severity are heavily influenced by the type of loss experienced (i.e., physical, social, job, etc.). For some, this stage lasts days or weeks, while others can experience this stage for weeks or months.
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However, the stage of depression can manifest itself in different ways. So let us go through what can happen when you enter the “depression” stage.
Why anger and bargaining turn into depression
Once you have noticed the progression of the previous stages, you begin in a state of complete denial and eventually lead yourself to feel your real emotions. So you move from anger over loss to begging for a little more time.
Once you realize that no amount of begging will bring your loved one or relationship back, you begin to feel the sadness of knowing things won’t be the way they once were. That’s where depression rears its ugly head.
In this stage, you’ve come to terms with the fact that these changes or losses are really occurring and that there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about it. In actuality, all you can do is cope with your emotions.
What to expect during the depression stage?
You’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what’s the point of even continuing with your life after this loss. After all, a major part of your life was basically stolen from you, and you don’t know if you’ll ever fully recover.
Here’s what you might experience when you’re in the depression stage.
- Inability to sleep despite feeling extremely tired or fatigued
- Appetite changes, whether you’re eating to cope or just avoiding food altogether
- Lack of control of your emotions, including crying and anger
- A sense of loneliness
- A lingering sense of anxiety
Though we can’t put a timeline on each stage of grief, the depression stage does tend to last the longest. At the same time, it’s practically the last stage of grief, as the next stage would be acceptance and returning to your everyday life.
When the Depression Stage becomes actual depression
Even though the depression stage is a completely normal stage of grief, there’s a point at which it becomes something more severe. We’re talking about when depression from grief becomes an actual mental health condition.
So, how do you know whether your depression stage is depression? Well, the depression tends to stick around a little longer than it usually would.
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While those around you are slowly moving on with their lives and returning to normal, you’re still engulfed in the sadness and unable to function as normal.
There are also some other effects that might become a little more severe, including….
- Suicidal thoughts or just thinking about ending it all
- Sleeping much longer than usual and have a hard time getting out of bed
- Developing regret or guilt for things you did or didn’t do
- Lack of enjoyment of activities or hobbies you once loved
- Slacking on hygiene like showering, shaving, or cleaning the house
When you notice that your grief is lasting a little too long and that you’re in a downward spiral, it’s vital that you reach out for help and find professional health.
The Acceptance Stage of the grief process
The final stage of the Kubler-Ross model is acceptance. This stage signifies the end of the grieving process and typically allows a person to return to their everyday life.
Nevertheless, there is considerable misunderstanding regarding this phase. So let us reflect on what the “acceptance” phase really involves.
Misunderstanding about the acceptance phase
Many people assume that the term “acceptance” in this case means that you agree with the loss. But this is not entirely true. Acceptance simply means that you have acknowledged that the loss will occur or has occurred.
When you have reached this last stage, you will probably experience a wave of calm or peace. At this point, you are ready to move on with your life and develop what you believe to be a new sense of normality.
Because of this misconception, others who are handling the same loss might feel as if you didn’t care all that much. After all, they might begin to wonder why you were able to move past the loss so quickly while they’re still struggling.
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Don’t feel guilty about reaching the acceptance stage, especially if you reach it before somebody else who’s also experiencing the loss. Everybody grieves differently, and there’s no timeline on grief.
Creating a “New Normal”
Now that you’ve come to terms with the loss, your life will forever be impacted in some shape or form. After all, you can’t expect to return to your normal everyday life without experiencing at least a few minor changes.
So, your new normal might entail….
- Getting used to waking up alone or not having a person to reside with if your spouse passed away or you’ve gotten divorced
- Getting used to your new limitations and asking for help if you’ve recently been diagnosed with a medical condition or disability
- Getting used to building new friendships and connections after one of your most important friendships ends
- Getting used to working for a new company or performing different tasks if you’ve lost your beloved job
A lot of it comes down to being comfortable adjusting to the new changes after the loss. It might take a while to reach this stage, but this stage allows you the chance to work through the grief and move on with your life.
Shifting your perspective
When you reach this stage, you’re most likely going to notice that your perspective is permanently altered. Rather than thinking about your lost loved one or the tragic loss, you might find yourself reminiscing about happy memories (or positive aspects) instead.
So, instead of thinking about how stressful their last few days were, you might begin to feel thankful that you were able to spend their last few days on Earth with them.
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If you’ve gotten divorced, you might come to the conclusion that the relationship was toxic and that moving on is best for your emotional and mental health.
When a job or career path comes to an end, a new door will open to an even better employment opportunity that best fits your strengths.
Slowly returning to normal
The acceptance stage is perhaps the most critical stage of grief, but not all people will be able to reach it. It takes a lot of time and emotional anguish to experience the acceptance stage.
You’ll know you’ve reached this stage when you slowly begin to return to normal life without grief holding you back. Your perspective will be shifted, and you’ll experience the grief through a new lens: A more positive one.
As you can see, the process of grieving after a loss is just that, a process. It takes time to go through each of the stages outlined in the Kubler-Ross model, and there should be no pressure to rush through these stages.
If you suffer a loss, take your time to experience your emotions and stages in their entirety so you can completely and wholly grieve and heal from the experienced loss. By giving yourself time and grace, grief can be processed, and you can move forward in life.