One of the worst experiences anyone can have is losing a loved one. Whether the death was something you could brace for or a situation that completely blind-sided you, it doesn’t make the feelings that follow any easier to deal with. Understanding loss starts with grasping the concept of the five stages of grief. They are:
However, just because the grieving process can be divided into stages doesn’t mean everyone will have the same experience understanding loss. Some may go through the stages of grief out of order. Some may only experience a few stages on their way to acceptance.
Remember: you can’t 100 percent predict the way you’ll react during such a tragic and emotionally complicated situation. However, understanding how people typically go through these stages of grief can help you process faster, so you may find peace in acceptance at some point soon. Or, at the very least, a little comfort.
Stages of Grief:
The first stage of grief is denial. It’s hard to accept when bad things happen, especially something as permanent as losing a loved one. At first, you may try to convince yourself it hasn’t happened — and you may not even be aware that you’re doing it.
Denial can manifest in several ways. Shock, numbness, confusion and shutting down emotionally are symptoms of denial even if the person is not outright saying, “this has not happened.”
Other behaviors go hand-in-hand with this stage of grief:
- Avoidance — If you don’t see the people who want to support you, then you don’t have to deal with what has happened. Avoiding being around people who want to grieve with you or comfort you is a sign of denial because you are not accepting the changes that follow such a loss.
- Procrastination — You may say you’ve accepted the death of your loved one, but if you’re putting off going through their belongings or picking out that perfect photo for the memorial service, you could be deep in the stage of denial. Facing these tasks is often painful and makes understanding loss too real to deal with.
- Forgetting — Picking up the phone and dialing the person who has passed is expected behavior when someone dies. Sometimes you just forget that they’re gone. This is an especially painful symptom because it causes you to relieve the pain of losing them over and over.
- Keeping busy all the time — If you volunteer at the bake sale, clean your entire house, start a new hobby and mow every lawn on the block, you probably have some deep hurt you need to unpack. Staying busy can be helpful, but it keeps you stuck in the denial stage because it prevents you from processing your grief and understanding your loss properly.
- Saying or thinking, “I’m fine” — Often, it’s hard to verbalize exactly what you’re feeling. But saying “I’m fine” rather than honestly communicating your feelings does keep you stuck in the denial stage because you’re refusing to be honest with yourself and move through the emotion.
Anger is a natural emotion to feel following the death of someone you care about. Some people even skip the denial stage and go straight to anger. However, this stage of grief can be a dangerous one to be stuck in.
The person in this stage can feel frustration, impatience, resentment, rage, and even embarrassment because you’re ashamed of showing your strong emotions in front of other people.
But your feelings during a time like this are nothing to be ashamed of — and some people care about you who want to help you through this stage of grief.
Unchecked anger can lead to some unpleasant and even dangerous behaviors. Not only can you display irritability, pessimism and become more sarcastic than usual, you also run the risk of feeling out of control. Increased alcohol or drug use are common ways to self-medicate during this stage of grief. People can also seek out verbal or physical fights — over things that aren’t related to the tragedy at all.
While everyone deserves space to properly process and understand their loss, moving through this stage of grief is important for yourself and those you care about.
Often grief can cause us to push others away from us. However, unlike isolating ourselves in denial, exhibiting these angry behaviors can push those who want to help us away because we become unbearable and unsafe to be around.
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If you go through the bargaining stage of grief, you’re probably experiencing a lot of guilt. You may blame yourself for what happened or have regrets that you’re struggling to cope with. This is the stage where your thoughts run away with you. You start over-thinking and become fixated on what happened.
You may think, “if only I had done XYZ, then they would still be here” or “if only I told them I loved them one more time…” and other thoughts of things you can’t change.
It’s called the bargaining stage because a standard behavior attempts to strike a deal with a higher power.
No one deserves to live in this bottomless pit of self-loathing and judgment. While it is part of the grieving process, it is essential not to get stuck here on your journey to understanding loss.
Probably the most expected stage of grief, depression is often the last step before acceptance. Sometimes, people skip the other stages and sit in this one longer. Other times, people go between anger and depression so quickly that they can almost feel manic and jarring.
What you can expect in this stage is feelings of sadness, loneliness and crying. However, depression is not just being extra sad. Depression is much deeper, and when left untreated, it can cause severe life-interrupting issues.
Disturbed sleep or insomnia, loss of appetite, lack of motivation and lethargy are all physical symptoms that can manifest during this stage of grief. You also run the risk of abusing alcohol or drugs like in the anger stage or isolating yourself from others like in the denial stage.
If you find yourself stuck in the depression stage for a prolonged period, definitely seek out help from a mental health professional.
The final stage of grief is acceptance — but that doesn’t mean your grief is magically gone. Acceptance simply marks the beginning of healing. This can be found in small moments like planning and attending the funeral or going through a box of old photos.
Acceptance is the start of your healing journey after loss. Grief never truly goes away, but the way you feel about that loss changes over time. Grief is like a ball in a box that has a pain button. In the beginning, it is big and hits the sides of the wall quickly and often to the point where the pain button is triggered repeatedly. The pain can feel near-constant.
But over time, the ball begins to shrink. The ball still exists. It’s still bouncing around, but it no longer hits the pain button as frequently.
However, the moments that do hit the button still feel the same pain level. Over time, the ball shrinks even more. These triggered moments have longer breaks in between — like being fine all year round but emotionally struggling on a particular holiday or anniversary — but this is a natural part of the healing process with grief.
With the proper help, it becomes easier to process and have the skills to cope with it.
When to Seek Professional Help
Dealing with grief is a lonely and confusing situation that can be difficult to navigate. But you don’t have to go through the stages alone. A licensed professional therapist or grief support group can be an essential tool to processing your feelings and getting the support you need to move through your stages of grief.
If you’re in the state of Pennsylvania and looking for a therapist to help you learn to cope during this difficult time, contact Native Clinics.
Our team of experienced professionals is ready to help you through your stages of grief and genuinely provide the support you deserve. Contact us today to start the conversation. We are here and ready to listen.