- Grief is an unpleasant but inevitable ordeal that nearly everyone experiences at some point. Grief can arise from the death of a loved one (known as bereavement), friend, or pet, a relationship ending, the loss of a job or home, and many other unique situations.
- Grief has five common stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages don’t always occur in a linear fashion, as some people may skip ahead or backward as they mourn.
- The stages of grief may be resolved in a matter of months, but in some cases, the healing process can take years. Both are entirely normal, and moving forward after experiencing a profound loss is a deeply personal journey.
- Grief can also create physical symptoms, too: Anxiety, fatigue, phantom pains, and autoimmune issues are common among those in mourning.
- The best source of mental health treatment for bereavement and other forms of grief is grief counseling, a form of therapy that helps mourners process and accept what they’re experiencing.
Grief is something most people would rather avoid. But inevitably, the emotional whirlwind of grief and bereavement is a process each of us goes through in our lifetime. Grief is about loss—a loss of any kind, whether it’s the death of a family member, pet, the end of a relationship, or even a job—and overcoming it is no small task.
But those who are in mourning aren’t alone or without guidance as they navigate the stages of grief. They can begin by educating themselves about what they’re going through and finish strong with the assistance of a mental health professional.
What Are the 5 Stages of Grief After a Death?
Due to the emotional weight of the grieving process, the intense and complex feelings someone experiences typically come in phases, commonly referred to as the stages of grief. There are generally five universal stages of grief, developed by famed psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. This is arguably the most popular model used in grief therapy. Other models may range from 3 to 7 stages.
- Denial: Instead of accepting the news of our recent loss (whatever it may be), we refuse to believe the information we’ve received. Denying the loss is an effort to avoid coming to terms with the difficult emotions that are building up.
- Anger: It’s normal to respond to grief or bereavement with anger, which can be a way to protect oneself from the situation at hand. Projecting outwards while entrenched in a defensive emotional state is a method of self-preservation, but like the other stages, must be resolved for healing to complete.
- Bargaining: When an individual finds themselves in the bargaining stage of grief, they may call on a higher power to intervene, begging for assistance in exchange for the promise of better behavior (“I’ll never lie again if you’ll please stop them from leaving me,” etc.) This process is less spiritual or religious, and more an indication of panic and desperation. Unrealistic thought tangents, especially related to “what-if” scenarios, are common, such as “if only I would’ve said something, then maybe they’d still be here.”
- Depression: When denial, anger, and bargaining don’t work, depression might sink in. Depression is a normal stage of grief for anyone to experience, but of the five stages, it’s the most dangerous and emotionally taxing. People who have endured a significant loss need a healthy, engaged support system. Without this support (and without hope for the future) depression can become a debilitating emotional and physical experience.
- Acceptance: The final and fifth stopping point in Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief is acceptance. Once the person comes to terms with what they’ve lost, they’re likely to find the peace they need to move forward with their life—not forgetting but letting be. Like the other five stages, someone may reach this point, and travel backward before fully healing.
As mentioned, the five stages of grief don’t necessarily follow a straight path. An individual can make a significant amount of progress—quickly, even—and slip backward. But the grieving process isn’t a race. It’s entirely normal for someone’s progress to be non-linear.
How Long Do the Stages of Grief Last?
The timeline for completely moving on and processing grief varies considerably, mostly depending on the individual and the circumstances of their loss. There’s no universal timeline for healing from a profound loss—sometimes the process takes only a month or two—in other cases, years.
Your pain is unique to you, the relationship with the person or connection you lost is unique, and the emotional process will be, too. Take your time and remove any expectations as you work through the grieving process.
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What Is the True Meaning of Grief?
Grief is an intense emotional reaction that can arise from a profound loss. The stages of grief that follow afterward are both universally experienced and deeply personal, and can be hard to understand on one’s own.
Having a support system can help one in their suffering. This might come in the form of family and friends—but a mental health professional is best equipped to walk the path with someone who is grieving.
Where Does Grief Belong in the Bereavement Process?
While grief refers broadly to deep loss of any kind, bereavement only occurs when someone is mourning the loss of a family member who has died. The stages of grief still apply to the bereavement process, but the event that triggers the feelings of grief is quite specific.
Mourning someone who has died may include traditional ceremonies or family events, including but not limited to:
- Religious traditions honoring the dead
It’s important to not place too much distinction between bereavement and other forms of grief. Grieving is the outward expression of displeasure after suffering a loss. It can be expressed physically and emotionally. It’s very important for those who are grieving to allow themselves to express these uncomfortable feelings.
What Does Grieving Do to Your Body?
Grief and bereavement aren’t just emotionally trying, but they can be physically draining, too. The physical symptoms of grief can occur within the first few days and weeks after someone suffers a loss.
Grief’s effects on the body can include:
- Increased inflammation
- Joint pain
- Digestive problems
Especially if they have auto-immune issues, grief can make people more susceptible to illness. Grief can also make it difficult to sleep. Some people may also resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking, gambling, or improperly using drugs in order to take the edge off.
The surges of anxiety and other emotions someone feels while they’re grieving may cause behavioral changes, as well. Tapping or drumming surfaces with one’s fingers, pacing, fidgeting, sweating, cold or feelings of tingling or numbness in the extremities is not uncommon.
During moments of extreme stress, dry mouth, trouble breathing and increased allergy symptoms have been reported. This may be caused by the immune system working harder than normal as different chemical responses are triggered by grief and mourning.
The many physical symptoms of grief, especially the fatigue and phantom pains caused by depression can make daily functioning difficult. But as the healing process moves forward, the grief’s bodily effects will start to resolve themselves, as well.
What’s the Best Treatment for the Stages of Grief and Bereavement?
Grief counseling is the best form of therapy for treating the stages of grief. It’s a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping people process and cope with the intense feelings associated with loss. A grief counselor will help their clients to accept, understand, and move on, regardless of the loss they’ve suffered.
Grief counselors have specific experience, training, and skills related to this difficult journey, which enables them to assist grieving individuals.
The methods used in grief counseling ensure an individual is grieving properly. Grief counseling has two main goals, which are:
- Acknowledgment: First, a grief counselor can help you acknowledge the reality of your loss. Then, they’ll offer support as you reflect on the loss and the impact the individual has had on your life. This is an important step toward healing and moving forward from the pain. It often involves addressing anger, guilt, hopelessness, confusion, and/or abandonment.
- Acceptance: Your grief counselor will also assist you in accepting all that comes with grief and loss. As mentioned previously, once you’re able to accept the nature of your loss, you have a bright future ahead. However, it can (and likely will) take some time and work to get there.
In cases of severe anxiety, depression, or denial, psychiatric medication may be of assistance. Talk with your provider to see if your grief counseling treatment could be complimented with a medication (they can refer you to a psychiatrist who can help you find a medication that’s right for you). Though we all share similar emotional responses to loss, everyone copes differently.
While grief and bereavement may hurt, over time, the mourning process may shed light on other aspects of life that one hasn’t lost. And with a grief counselor’s assistance, those who are mourning can come to terms with loss and move forward with confidence.