The Five Stages of Grief: Are They Really in Order?

We have all heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But are they really in order? Which one comes first? How do you know when you’re grieving and is there ever an end to the process? Let’s break down each stage, and see how it impacts the healing process.

“Grief – for those of us who understand, no explanation is needed, for those of us who do not, no description is possible.” – Fran Solomon

Every person’s healing journey is unique. Although we often talk about the grieving process as linear, it isn’t quite that simple. You may find yourself or your loved ones moving back and forth between stages, or even skipping some altogether. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

There isn’t one specific way that loss affects people. It all depends on your unique personality traits, the people who surround you, and your ability to use natural coping mechanisms. Some people recover quickly, while others may require many years. And there may be setbacks along the way – it’s impossible to control the process completely. The key is to be patient with yourself and give it the time necessary to heal.

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What are the 5 “stages” of grief?

The five stages of grief were first proposed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” She created the model while working with terminally ill patients, and observed that they often experienced similar patterns of behavior. The stages are:

  • Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Anger: “Why is this happening to me?”
  • Bargaining: “I’ll do anything for this not to be happening.”
  • Depression: “I’m so sad, I don’t know what to do.”
  • Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what is happening

It makes sense that many people dealing with their imminent death would first deny, question, and wish it away. But even in acceptance, feelings of depression and even anger can resurface. Nobody can schedule their own death, so accepting our immortality and departure from everything that we know can seem impossible.

The stages of grief don’t always happen in order, and that’s okay.

Many studies have found that most people do not experience the stages of grief in exact order. In fact, many people never reach the “acceptance” stage at all. In other words, there is no black-and-white formula for healing through grief. Some of the newer grief models teach that people never really “get over it” and that although it will be easier with time, it will never go away completely.

Let’s take a closer look at the 5 named stages of grief:

The first named stage of grief is denial. This is when we try to convince ourselves that the person or situation is not really gone. We may try to rationalize it by saying that they are just on a long vacation, or that they will come back soon. Denial helps us to cope with the pain of loss and gives us time to adjust to the new reality.

The second named stage of grief is anger. This is when we become frustrated and lash out at those around us. We may be angry at God, fate, or the person who has died. We may even be angry at ourselves for not being able to prevent death or for not being able to fix the situation.

The third named stage of grief is bargaining. This is when we try to make deals with God or fate in order to bring the person back. We may promise to be a better people if only they will come back, or we may try to find someone to blame for the death.

The fourth named stage of grief is depression. This is when we finally accept that the person is gone and begin to grieve their loss. We may feel hopeless and helpless, and we may withdraw from family and friends.

The fifth and last named stage of grief is acceptance. This is when we realize that the person is never coming back and learn to live without them. We may still have days where we are sad, but we eventually come to terms with our loss and move on.

More than 5 grief stages?

Many professional psychologists name additional feelings that we go through when dealing with loss, including:

  • shock
  • guilt
  • fear
  • physical pain
  • reconstruction
  • hope

There are everyday events that can trigger the return of intense grief – things like special events, holidays or anniversaries, or subtle experiences like a scent, a song, or a piece of clothing. Grief triggers can be long-term and can bring more opportunities to heal from the pain of loss.

How do you become at peace with your grief?

“Acceptance doesn’t mean that you feel happy about the loss. Rather, in this stage, there is finally an acceptance of the pain and loss you experienced, and you start to look forward to and plan for the future,” says Sarah Gundle, PsyD.

The stages of grief are a helpful way to understand the process that we go through when we experience loss. However, it’s important to remember that everyone grieves in their own way and there is no right or wrong way to do it, and that’s ok.

Allowing yourself to grief

Grief is a sensible reaction to loss, yet in our culture that tends to value happiness and positivity, it can feel like mourning is taboo. If you’re presently grieving, here are some ways you can honor your emotions:

  • Let yourself cry: Crying is a natural way to release emotions, so don’t be afraid to let the tears flow.
  • Talk about your feelings: Talking about your grief can be helpful in processing your thoughts and emotions. Find a friend or family member who will listen to you without judgment.
  • Write about your loss: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to make sense of them and can be therapeutic.
  • Join a support group: There are often groups available to help those who are grieving. Talking to others who are going through similar experiences can be very helpful.
  • Go be in nature: Being in nature can help you to feel connected to something larger than yourself and can be soothing.

Grief Support Groups at Tharp Funeral Home

Tharp offers a variety of weekly grief groups. Find out more here.