What are the Stages of Grief?

It is important to note that these stages are general guidelines and not tasks to accomplish or move through.  In fact, most people move fluidly between the stages, both forward and backward, sometimes feeling or experiencing many of the feelings at the same time.  In addition, someone who may have reached the stage of acceptance at some point may re-experience anger or denial on a birthday or anniversary of the loss of a loved one. 

1. Denial:
  The feeling that it just has not really happened. A difficulty accepting the fact of death and facing the reality of loss. Many people in this stage are focused less on their feelings and the meaning of the loss and more on the planning of funerals, wakes, and other concrete details.  This is by no means a "bad" thing, but a natural normal process.  It is only when denial persists that it becomes something that may need counseling attention.  Remember, not everyone grieves in the same way and some people may need their denial to get through the initial shock and logistics. 

2. Anger:
  Feelings of frustration or rage at the loss.  Anger at individuals involved in the loss such as doctors, friends, family members, or other victims. In some cases, anger may even be felt at the loved one who has passed away or at the self for not "doing enough" or "not being their".  Again, these feelings are normal but can be disturbing to others in grief who have not yet reached this stage.  People in this stage usually wonder "why" and may feel furious at the fact that their loved one has been taken away.  This anger can be powerful and often gets directed at whoever is closest by. It is a process I call redirecting, somewhat analogous to the unhappy employee who goes home and kicks the dog.  The anger is real, the feelings are real, they can just get misplaced on the wrong person.

3. Bargaining:  This stage is characterized by a sense that the loss must be coped with and understood.  It is called bargaining because we begin to wonder what we can live with and without.  How will I go on?  Will I re-marry?  Will I have another child? Can I ever make another friend like that?  What can I say to myself to help move on? Someone who is bargaining often times begins to "do a lot of thinking" and ask for alone time to reflect on how to move on.  This is very different from moving on; this is just thinking about moving on.

4. Depression:  For many people, this stage can last the longest sometimes even a year.  In many cultures, a period of mourning is considered appropriate and even respectful.  This stage is a real sense of loss, of someone or something missing that will never return.  Often, we will experience crying spells for seemingly no reason as the sights and sounds around us trigger thoughts of loss. Grief is meant to be shared.  It does not and will not heal without the human sharing, in person, of these feelings of loss.  This is when counseling is incredibly valuable and necessary.  Un-processed or un-digested grief can fester inside us and become a toxic wound that is trapped below the surface.  It cannot be escaped, but only delayed, waiting for the next small or big loss to trigger it to the surface.  I have seen many people who have delayed all of their grief, big and small, until later in life.  The result of this, is usually a period of prolonged, nameless depression that is very troubling.  I encourage you to face your grief. It is not pleasant but it is honorable.

5. Acceptance:  Death and loss may never truly be accepted or understood but this stage refers to a general sense of "moving on" and continuing with life's struggles and joys.  Words like "closure" and "letting go" are common.  Feelings of loss and memories will resurface especially when other losses are felt. We cannot rush acceptance and getting there doesn't guarantee staying there. 
In some ways grief never ends.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I did not make the rules, I just help people understand their experiences.  Grief can feel endless because new losses can stimulate the re-processing of old feelings of grief even when we think we moved past it.  In essence, when a pet dies, we can end up feeling the feelings of loss about our mother or father or child as well.

I hope these thoughts have been helpful.  My purpose is not to increase or decrease hopefulness but to just tell it like it is so that we may all understand the path that lies ahead.

Warmest Regards,

Jeffrey