Different people experience grief in different ways. It is likely that a person will experience a range of emotions while grieving.
Although grief is a very personal experience for everyone, there are often similarities between people’s experiences.
In 1969, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a book called On Death and Dying that introduced the scientific community to the stages, or the “one common denominator,” of death and dying. The stages she discussed became the five stages of grief that many people know today.
However, there is no correct way to experience grief. A person will not necessarily cycle through the stages and overcome their grief at the end. Instead, the stages can overlap, and some people may not even experience all the stages of grief.
The following sections describe the commonly accepted stages of grief and how they may differ based on the type of loss or situation a person is experiencing.
Dr. Kübler-Ross identified five stages of death and dying:
Originally, these stages were just categories to help describe the process of death and dying. However, grief is usually a part of this process.
The Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation explain that these stages are not sequential, and that over time, the public has simplified them. They also mention that the book itself is not a research paper, though people often cite it as such.
Still, people and organizations alike now widely accept these five stages of grief. They still use them to describe the feelings a person may experience following situations that involve loss, such as:
- the death of a loved one
- the loss of a job
- a relationship ending
- a diagnosis of cancer or another serious illness
The American Cancer Society describe the five stages of grief as follows:
Denial is typically the first stage of grief, occurring just before or after a loss. Characteristic experiences include fear, shock, or emotional numbness. During this stage, a person may avoid acknowledging or talking about the loss with others.
People generally consider anger to be the second stage of grief. This can last for days, weeks, months, or longer.
Typically, a person will experience agitation and frustration that can manifest in different ways. For example, they may:
- feel agitated
- feel weak
- engage in activities that are aimless
- feel lonely
- feel isolated
Bargaining is usually the third stage in grieving, and it is often the shortest. During this time, a person may try to find meaning in the loss and reach out to others to discuss it.
The fourth stage of the grieving process is depression. People often experience depression symptoms in waves.
People in this stage may feel overwhelmed or extreme sadness. They may also withdraw or become hostile toward others.
Often the final stage of grief, acceptance occurs as a person begins to come to terms with the loss. In most cases, they are starting to move on with their life and are not preoccupied with the loss.
It is important to remember that not everyone will go through all the stages of grief. A person may also experience the stages at different times.
There are many situations in which the stages of grief can help clarify a person’s emotional experiences. For example, they can help them understand that what they are feeling is normal, and they can help others who wish to offer support.
The following sections describe some situations wherein a person may experience grief, as well as what to expect.
Loss or bereavement
It is normal for a person to experience grief following the loss of a loved one. Someone experiencing the loss of a person or pet may go through all the stages of grief, or they may only experience a few of the stages.
It is not uncommon for a person grieving to deny the death. It is also normal to become angry at the person for dying, or for not taking proper precautions to stay safe.
In other cases, a person may blame themselves for the loss and go through scenarios that may have stopped the person from dying. Depression may also cause the grieving person to have self-doubt and not know how to continue without the person.
Finally, they may accept the death and appreciate the time they had with the loved one.
Divorce or breakups
When a relationship ends, a person may experience grief — particularly if the breakup was unexpected or unwanted. During a divorce or separation, a person may feel as though their former partner is just upset and will be back to normal the next day, denying that the breakup has occurred.
They may also experience anger at the other person. A person experiencing the loss of a relationship may also go through the bargaining stage. For example, they may think that they could have prevented the breakup had they spent more time with the person or addressed their needs better.
A person may also become depressed and wonder how they will go on without the other. Finally, they may accept that the breakup or divorce was needed, and that they are better off without the relationship.
The loss of a job can trigger a response that can contain all five stages of grief. A person may feel as though their boss made a mistake and will hire them back when they come to their senses. Or, a person may hate their former boss and wish the company ill.
A person may also start to look back at their job performance and wonder what they could have done differently, or they may think that they will not be able to move forward without their job.
Finally, they may come to accept that the job was not a good fit for them, and they will find a better opportunity elsewhere.
Receiving bad news, such as a diagnosis of a terminal illness, can also cause a person to grieve.
At first, a person may deny the news, believing that it cannot be correct. They may become angry at the doctor, family members, or others. Periods of depression are also common.
Eventually, a person may accept the outcome and realize that they still have time with others or can move on from the life-altering news.
There is no universal coping mechanism for grief. A person may find that different methods work well for them, while others do not help at all. It is important to try different strategies to find one that works.
Some general tips for coping include:
- reaching out to friends or family for support
- taking comfort from faith or spirituality
- joining a support group
- seeking individual counseling
- accepting individual feelings and emotions
- becoming aware of the triggers of the grief
- exercising often and eating a healthful diet
Some people may feel uncomfortable when spending time with a grieving person. This is normal. Not everyone instinctively knows how to comfort another person. They may not be able to relate, or they may not know what to say or do.
In some cases, simply reaching out to the grieving person can make a difference. There is no universal way to help someone else deal with their grief. Sometimes, a person may want to do normal activities with a friend or loved ones. Other people may want to sit in silence with them.
Grief can involve many ups and downs, as a person will likely be dealing with several emotions. A person may go through all the stages of grief or only some of them, and they may not experience all stages in the above order. There is also no timeframe for the grieving process.
A person who is grieving may want to seek help from friends and family, support groups, and individual therapy. A person who is supporting them can reach out to the person and let them know that they are there for them and care for them.