Understanding The Five Stages Of Grief

The death of a loved one is a challenging, oftentimes a truly life-altering experience. There are experiences and emotions that are unique to each situation in which a loved one passes on. However, research suggests that there are some common experiences, shared by a wide swath of individuals who have lost a loved one.

A Swiss-American psychiatrist by the name of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is credited for developing a theory regarding the five stages of grief associated with the death of a loved one. Her theory regarding these five stages of grief was first presented in her seminal text “On Death and Dying,” originally published in 1969. Following the publication of her book, Kübler-Ross delivered the Ingersoll Lectures on the subject of Human Immortality at Harvard University. The theme was modeled on her book, and the five stages of grief, and was aptly titled “On Death and Dying.”

The Five Stages Of Grief Delineated In “On Death And Dying” Are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

There is no set formula of timeframe for which a person professes through the five stages of grief. Nonetheless, in some manner, these do appear to be recognizable phases of the grief process experienced by most individuals facing the loss of a loved one.

Denial

According to the Kübler-Ross theory, the first stage of grief associated with the passing of a loved one is denial. Denial commonly manifests itself when a loved one dies suddenly. The initial reaction of a friend or family member oftentimes is denying the death occurred, contending that the notification of the passing must be some sort of mistake.

Even when the death of loved one has been absolutely confirmed, an individual may still experience a sense of unreality regarding the event, which is rooted in denial. The oft-repeated phrase “I can’t believe she is gone” arises from the fact that there is an emotional response involving some element of denial in the aftermath of a loved one’s passing.

If a loved one dies after a prolonged illness, the denial phase likely manifests itself in the aftermath of an initial diagnosis being made. The Kübler-Ross paradigm is designed to take into account the process of dying as well as death itself.

Anger

The second stage of grief written of Kübler-Ross in “Death and Dying” is anger. Anger erupts as a stage in the grief process when it becomes apparent that denial is futile, that denying the reality of the passing of a loved one is no longer objective possible.

Keep in mind that anger can also manifest itself as a phase when a loved one experienced a more prolonged process of dying. If the death is sudden, and the reality of what has happened can be objectively demonstrated immediately, anger may seem to be the initial stage presented. As mentioned previously, even in the case of a sudden death of a loved one, denial typically does manifest, albeit in the form of what might best be considered a rather fleeting stage.

The anger stage of grief following the death of family member or friend oftentimes is intensely focused on an individual’s own loss. Rather than being angry for the person who passed on, an individual is angry about his or her own loss. The question raised many times in the anger stage is not “How could this happen to him?” Rather, the question is “How could this happen to me?”

Typically, when a person experiences the anger stage, centered around the protestation of “how could this happen to me,” that individual begins to experience what can amount to significant guilt. An individual in the anger stage of grief can experience greater sadness associated with the guilt associated with the personal impact the death had on the person’s life. An individual in this stage chastises his or her self for not asking “how could this happen to him” instead of “how could this happen to me.”

The anger stage can be particularly challenging for a person after a loved one’s death. Of course, the stage is difficult because it happens in fairly short speed after a loved one dies. Perhaps more significantly is the fact that a person feels isolated during the anger stage. By this it is meant because a person experiencing the “how could this happen to me” anger associated with the grief process will not willingly share this emotional response with others. A person would worry that he or she would be portrayed as selfish and uncaring, when in fact the exact opposite is the case.

A person experiencing the anger stage of grief must understand that he or she is not alone in the emotions experienced during this phase. If a candid conversation were to occur with other family members or friends associated with the deceased individual, the “how could this happen to me” response would be ubiquitous.

Bargaining

As fanciful as it may seem, bargaining does occur as a stage of grief following the death of a loved one. Despite the impossibility of bringing a deceased individual back to life, a person will bargain with statements like “Why couldn’t it have been me?” Bargaining is particularly profound when the deceased person was younger. A parent who loses a child oftentimes bargains, and do so for a more extended period of time.

Bargaining is particularly pronounced prior to the death of a loved one if that individual experiences a more protracted illness. Hospices are filled with individuals not only facing the end of their lives but with bargaining family members and friends. The mantra of “let me take her place” is a common refrain in hospice.

Interestingly, one common type of bargaining as a stage of grief involves a surviving family member or friend trying to make a compromise with God or the Universe. A survivor will attempt a negotiation based on the premise of that individual being a better person in his or her life if the deceased loved on could come back to life.

Bargaining extends beyond the realm of restoring a deceased person to life. Many religions, and spiritual practices of different types, maintain the existence of an afterlife. Many of religious and spiritual belief systems maintain that a deceased person enjoys a better state in the afterlife if his or her life on Earth was honorably lived.

The reality is that a good many surviving family members worry about the state of their loved ones in the afterlife. For example, Christians express concern about a deceased loved one making it through the proverbial Pearly Gates into the Heavenly Kingdom.

The first female publisher of a major daily newspaper in the United States took the bargaining phase of grief to a whole new level. A devout Roman Catholic, Helen Bonfils was taught that there are three possible destinations in the afterlife: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Heaven and Hell are understandable and are part of afterlife doctrine in all major Christian religions. Purgatory is unique to some Christian faiths, including the Roman Catholic Church.

Purgatory represents something of a waystation in which a person can atone for their sins following death. In addition, the Catholic faith teaches that people on Earth can pray for souls in Purgatory, which aids them in eventually passing on to Heaven.

Helen Bonfils, a wealthy woman, bargained with God, at least she thought she did. Specifically, Bonfils bargained that she would build a magnificent church to the glory of God if the Heavenly Father would cut her own father a break. Bonfils’ father was something of a scoundrel during his time on Earth and she feared for his immortal soul. In exchange for building the church, Bonfils “negotiated” with God to let her father slip into Purgatory to obtain a second change to get to a final reward in Heaven.

The story of Helen Bonfils is shared to underscore the reality that bargaining is commonplace after the death of a loved one. Moreover, bargaining is not confined to a small segment of the population. Many people do it and actually take concrete steps to manifest their bargains.

Depresssion

Depression can prove to be the most intense and enduring stage in the grief process for many people. When it comes to the stages of grief, noting that depression is viewed in two ways is important.

The fourth stage of grief identified by Kübler-Ross is called depression even though a person at this juncture may not meet the clinical definition of the disorder. On the other hand, there are individuals with a deceased loved one who do find themselves afflicted with clinical depression.

Clinical depression is defined as mood disorder that results in a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest, according to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. Depression can impact how not only how a person feels, but also how he or she thinks and acts.

In addition to what can be referred to as the two types of depression possible at this stage, the root of depression stems from two different responses to the passing of a family member or friend. First, an individual can become depressed because of the loss of a loved one. Second, a person can become depressed because he or she recognizes his or her own mortality when someone close to them dies. In fact, in many cases, depression representing stage four of the grief process arises both from the loss of a loved one and a recognition of one’s own mortality.

A younger person dealing with stage four of the grief process is more likely to experience depression arising from the loss of a loved one. An older person is more likely to experience depression arising from a recognition of his or her own mortality, as illustrated by the loss of a loved one. Finally, a person in the middle years of life is more likely to experience depression arising from a combination of the loss of a loved one and a recognition of mortality.

Acceptance

Acceptance is the final stage of grief in the Kübler-Ross scheme. Although this may sound simplistic on the surface, at this stage a person literally accepts the state of affairs in regard to a loved one’s death. Anger and depression subside and a person recognizes that a reality of life is death.

As with many of the stages of grief, acceptance is two-pronged. First, a person accepts the fact that a loved one is gone. Second, an individual comes to at least some level of acceptance that he or she is mortal and no amount of denial, bargaining, anger, or depression will alter that reality.

Support For People Going Through The Five Stages Of Grief

Once again, a person going through the five stages of grief after the death of a loved one is not alone. There are countless other people around the globe going through the same journey.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of resources available to support people in the five stages of grief following the death of a family member of friend. For example, churches as well as other religious and spiritual organizations maintain support groups for people following the death of a loved one.

Funeral homes and mortuaries have become more active in providing resources for individuals grieving the loss of a loved one. At a minimum, a funeral home will likely be able to provide contact information on a range of different types of grief support services.

There are counselors and therapists that focus their practices on assisting people in coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. This typically includes working through the fives stages of grief in a healthy, effective manner.