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5 Stages of Grief and the Grieving Process

The suggestion that grief has stages has been controversial ever since 1969 when the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first proposed them in her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying. Still, as a licensed counselor who works with grieving clients on a regular basis, I have found that sharing my own understanding of Kubler-Ross’s stages can help clients make sense of their grief, which I hope this video will do for you. But first, a few cautions. The stages of grief are overlapping and recycling, so even though we tend to move through them sequentially, we will also move back and forth between them and even recycle through them repeatedly in smaller circles over time. We will also find ourselves in more than one stage at a time, so don’t think of them as strictly distinct or linear, but rather view each succeeding stage as becoming more dominant over time as we progress down the path of grieving. So, here are the Five Stages of Grieving as I understand them AND have experienced them myself.

The first is DENIAL, which does not mean we are refusing to acknowledge the loss. Rather, it is a shock absorber built of numbness and disbelief that protect us from becoming overwhelmed by giving our minds time to prepare for experiencing the immense pain of the loss. As such, a major loss can leave us feeling numb without even realizing it. Denial is a normal, natural, and helpful part of grieving, but becoming stuck in it for a prolonged period of time can lead to unresolved grief.

ANGER often follows denial, but not for everyone. But when it does, our anger can be rational or irrational. We may be angry at ourselves, God, the medical community, the deceased person, or anyone or anything. The anger of grieving is protective by allowing us to move closer to dealing with the loss but not so close as to become overwhelmed. By focusing on “the blame,” we can distract ourselves from “the pain,” offering us a buffer from our tremendous hurt until we are ready to move closer to the pain.

As long as we are not acting out our anger in destructive or self-destructive ways, then it is a normal, natural, and helpful part of grieving. However, getting stuck for a prolonged period of time in chronic anger can lead to unresolved grief. Kubler-Ross called the next stage BARGAINING, but I prefer UNDOING, which I think better describes what happens next. The Undoing stage moves us even closer to the pain as we find ourselves obsessing on every detail of the loss, including what led up to it, how it could have happened, and what we could have done differently as our mind tries to undo the unacceptable. Undoing is often the longest stage and is a reflection of the tortuous path the mind must follow to eventually accept the unacceptable truth, “I cannot fix this!” If, however, after a prolonged period of time we are still unable to move beyond this obsessive focus on the loss, then we might fall into unresolved grief.

Stages of Grief

DEPRESSION is the stage in which we finally feel the full impact of the loss with all its implications. Previous stages have given us tasks and time to prepare ourselves to experience the full pain of the loss, and now a wiser part of the mind, a gatekeeper of sorts, knows it’s time to face the unthinkable: We have suffered a horrible loss and cannot do anything to change that reality. The depression of grieving is normal, natural, and not the same as clinical depression, and it eventually begins to resolve itself when we become so tired of hurting that we choose to find our way back to life, which involves a process of learning to let go. However, if we get stuck in hopelessness or guilt for a prolonged period of time, then the natural sadness of grief can turn into clinical depression and unresolved grief. ACCEPTANCE comes after we have closed our eyes, kicked and screamed, pleaded and begged, cried and hurt, and then finally figured out how to live life in the new normal. We still hurt, but not in the same way as before.

We focus more on the present and future, including our relationships, and much less on the past, which we now remember in its wholeness rather than obsessively focusing on the loss. There is no such thing as “closure” because the loss has changed us forever. Our journey to acceptance has allowed us to build a new normal that incorporates the loss as a loss, and in the process we have become wiser. We no longer take things as much for granted, we value each moment more, and we have changed our priorities to the things that really matter. Therefore, major loss is not only a painful problem but also a bittersweet opportunity as we learn to find the serenity to accept what we cannot change and the courage to change what we can, which is ourselves.

Although grieving is a natural and universal experience, no two people grieve the same. I used the phrase “for a prolonged period of time” as an indication that natural grieving has fallen into unresolved grief, but what is “a prolonged period of time” with respect to becoming stuck in any stage of grieving? Well, . there is no specific timetable. The worst loss of all is the death of a child. Most parents grieving such a loss require at least three years to work through the stages of grief because grieving is a two-step forward and one-step backward rollercoaster ride with many twists and turns. Grieving often takes longer than expected because cultural expectations are so unrealistic: “Three days off work, and you’ll be fine.” The bottom line is this: Grieving is an individual experience that take time and effort and as long you are not persistently avoiding the feelings associated with the loss, or endlessly obsessing on the loss, or remaining unable to function, or behaving destructively or self-destructively, then your style of grieving is probably right for you.

As found on Youtube

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