The New Stages of Grief: 5 Tasks, No Timeline

What bereaved survivors wish they'd known about the grieving process
Morning makes a grand entrance
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Bereaved people often brace for the so-called stages of grief, only to discover their own grieving process unfolds differently. The stages of grief -- popularized from earlier theories put forth by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, and later modified by others -- initially described responses to terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. While some find those responses relevant to coping with death, psychologists increasingly believe that the idea of "stages" oversimplifies a complex experience. And grieving survivors seem to agree.

"When we're confronted with emotional chaos, we yearn for clarity, and the Kübler-Ross stages of grief serve as a kind of road map," says Robert Neimeyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis who studies grief. "But it's more accurate to think about phases of adaptation rather than stages of grief. And they overlap rather than fall in sequence."

No two people mourn the same way. The grieving process is shaped by one's relationship to the deceased and the nature of the death, Neimeyer says. For example, "non-normative losses" -- sudden or untimely deaths (accidents, homicides, deaths in youth or life's prime) -- tend to trigger more intense anger and disbelief, and longer depression.

What all survivors share: Death presents challenges, from processing the loss and coping with grief symptoms through reformulating a relationship to the late loved one -- tasks that can take months and years to work through.

Acknowledging the Reality of Loss

The finality of death is always a shock, even after a known terminal illness. After helping her 62-year-old husband battle a brain tumor for four years, Maureen McFadden thought she'd girded herself for his eventual passing. "A nun warned me that for all the pain I'd already gone through, I would not be prepared for what grief is. She was right," says the Brooklyn, New York, widow. "Even though I understood the outcome when he was first diagnosed, I had no idea that I was still hoping. When someone dies, you're just not prepared for that, because humans don't know how to live without hope."

It wasn't until after the busy period of nursing, funeral planning, and the memorial services that the truth struck -- "as if I'd been shot," McFadden says. Later, one of her husband's physicians told her that people who are constantly at a dying loved one's side often have the hardest initial response. "He said they seem to hold an unarticulated belief that just by virtue of their presence and determination, they will keep the person alive," she says. "The eventual death seems like a terrible failure."

Accepting that death is real (and not your fault) isn't the same as being OK with it. It merely means absorbing the truth of what has happened. This can be as difficult and painful as smacking through the first high breakers at the ocean's shore. For some people, acknowledgment happens quickly; others remain in disbelief for months or years (or experience disbelief in periodic bursts).

What helps:

Experiencing the rituals of death. Lise Funderberg and her sisters allowed someone else to organize a quick memorial service because "we were so out of it, floating in Jell-O." Looking back, she wishes they had done it themselves. "We didn't even put anything in the papers. I wish we had known how a ritual of closure is really important for everyone in the community of the deceased, everyone who loved him," says the author of Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. "It's not like we would be doing another one."

Knowing there are no shortcuts through grief. "Grief can begin even before death, during caregiving. But grief doesn't end until we do," says Sherry E. Showalter, a social worker in Tarpon Springs, Florida, who's the author of Healing Heartaches: Stories of Loss and Life.

Practicing your faith traditions. Some research shows that survivors with a spiritual life tend to absorb grief more quickly, possibly because -- psychologists believe -- people who eventually find meaning in loss are generally better able to cope with it.

Grief task #2: Weathering the stress of separation

Mourning brings many physical and emotional hallmarks: crying, being unable to cry, sleeplessness, not eating, numbness, feeling forlorn, withdrawing socially, and so on. The exact mix is different for everyone.

Anger is a common response, especially to a violent or untimely death. "My anger was so primal and intense, that this good person, my dad, had to die. It was illogical. I was mad at the world. I even thought, 'Why couldn't it have been my mom?' who was already sick and not a contributing member of society," says Harriet, a San Francisco producer whose father died at 69 after a cancer diagnosis.

Intense emotions can be a way to "hang on" to the deceased person, bereavement counselors say. It's a tangible connection to the person who died. "It feels like power, like life," one widow says of her white-hot anger. Letting go of the emotion, or learning to live with it, can feel like letting go of the person who died. Naturally, there can be a built-in reluctance to do that.

Another confusing emotion: Relief. "I felt horribly guilty that I was so relieved when my mom died," says the daughter of an alcoholic. Caregivers, for example, often feel surprise (and, in turn, guilt) that they feel a lifting of a physical and/or emotional burden when caregiving ends. This is a natural response that's separate from the sadness of losing the person. It's entirely possible, and normal, to feel two such different emotions at the same time.

What helps:

Letting yourself experience turbulent emotions rather than shutting them down. "Wallowing is good," says Cherie Spino, a mom of four in Toledo, Ohio, whose mother was killed at age 69 by a drunk driver. "You have to go through it, dwell on the person and your sadness, cry."

Redirecting anger. Within a few years of her dad's death, Harriet, the producer, "used my rage to fuel my passion" for a new project about cancer.

Asking what the deceased person would suggest. Maureen McFadden, whose husband died of a brain tumor, says she partly transitioned out of anger when the thought struck her, "What would Jim want from me?"

Reading about others' experiences. Literature about grief can point out common threads. Survivors often point to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis.

Seeking bereavement support. Professionally led support groups or individual counseling provide skilled guidance as you navigate confusing or painful emotions. The goal isn't to make the feelings go away but to help you embrace their purpose. Some people are ready immediately for this kind of help while some come to it long after the loss, and others do fine on their own.

Adjusting to Everyday Life After a Loss

After the funeral and burial, mundane life patterns such as shopping and working must eventually resume, now in altered form. "Everyday life" often leaves survivors experiencing long-term reactions on top of the more familiar emotional and physical manifestations of grief.

Most common: yearning (intense longing for the person who has died), stress, and depression. These can prevail whether the relationship was happy or turbulent.

"Whatever unresolved issues you have, they get magnified and are elusive at the same time; you feel alone in the world," says Ellie, whose parents and sister all died within five years. "I felt so isolated in my grief."

What helps:

Not rushing yourself. "Being without my parents knocked me down and kept me down for a long time; it was as if something had been severed in me," says Ellie. "Time and new experiences helped, but it was mostly a matter of putting one foot in front of the other."

Ignoring the "grief police." Don't let others rush your adjustment. Turn a deaf ear to the well-meaning comments people make that miss the mark -- including "It's time to move on."

Getting help as needed with practical tasks. Handling finances, cooking, yard work, and so on can swamp a bereaved person, especially if they're unfamiliar duties. This just adds to stress and prolongs pain.

Inching toward new ways of doing things. One woman who had a standing Saturday morning long phone call with her late mother felt bereft at that hour each week. "I switched my walking time to then and called my sister while I walked, which shook up my routine and dulled the pain."

Not expecting you can medicate the pain away. Antidepressants have a place in helping someone who has a chemical imbalance causing depression. But antidepressants can also impede the grieving process, and they can't remove the yearning that's associated with depression. The goal should be to think about the deceased with less pain, over time, and to derive a measure of comfort from such thoughts.

Grief task #4: Revising your relationship to the deceased

Your relationship to the person who died doesn't end with his or her death; it changes. "The goal of grieving is not to let go but to find a way to hold on with less pain," Neimeyer says.

Simon Ruben of Israel's University of Haifa describes the grieving process as being "two-tracked," with two processes happening simultaneously. On one track, we cope with the visible symptoms and emotions (anger, depression, sleeplessness, and so on). On the other track, less obvious but equally important, we're working to reframe our relationship to the loved one who has died.

Nobody forgets a loved one. The question is, how do we hold him or her in our memory, our rituals, and our conversation in a way that's manageable, possibly even comforting, rather than painful?

What helps:

Reminiscing aloud. "Loss is so taboo in American culture. You're supposed to have a funeral and move on," says Jennifer Amandari of Los Angeles, who lost her mother when she was 16 and then lost an infant daughter six years ago. "But not talking about the person stunts your ability to heal and work the loss into your life."

Having your grief witnessed. When psychologist Robert Neimeyer's teenage son got choked up at Thanksgiving on realizing he was seated in his late grandmother's chair, the table conversation came to a halt. Rather than rushing the awkward moment, someone shared his own memory of her. "We all began to recall 'Gloria stories,' and it was a beautiful moment that allowed us to continue a connection to her," Neimeyer says.

Reflecting on the legacy of the person who died (alone or with others). How did he or she inspire you? What was his or her life's meaning and purpose? Questions like these help shape a perspective on the seeming meaninglessness of death.

Following rituals that celebrate or honor the deceased. Victorians made an art of the rituals of remembrance, from wearing black and jewelry made from the hair of the deceased to producing funeral cards and postmortem photography. Such traditions help survivors maintain a connection and continuity. Family members join Lisa Byers of Toledo, Ohio, on an annual visit to the grave of her late husband, who died of a heart attack at age 46. Patti Anderson, who lives in Cincinnati, joins her out-of-state sisters in annual trips for their mother's birthday. They've turned it into a memorial to her, complete with a special dinner devoted to reminiscing. Another family sends balloons aloft on the anniversary of their father's death -- followed by a dinner at his favorite restaurant.

Creating a memorial. Cherie Spino and her sisters plan to make a wall hanging from scraps of their mother's clothing that they'd saved. Others have found solace in creating scrapbooks or PowerPoint presentations with old photos, symbolically lighting a Caring candle and posting a dedication, or planting a tree or garden.

Grief task #5: Rewriting the storyline of your life

"Grief is more than an emotion; it's a process of reconstructing a world of meaning that's been challenged by loss," psychologist Neimeyer says. When our life is closely entwined with another's, and that person dies, it's as if a main character in a book dropped out. How can future chapters be rewritten so the book makes sense?

And yet there must be a rewrite, because life is a narrative. An important part of grieving is to gain a perspective on the meaning of the loss and to reconstruct a world in which you can live effectively afterward. Who will now do the things that your loved one once did for you? Who will you confide in about your promotion or your child's first steps? Will you ever be able to walk into a hospital or nursing home again? Be able to love again? How has the meaning of your life changed?

One challenge: This involves integrating the reality of death into a cultural system that likes to pretend death doesn't exist.

What helps:

Finding compassion in the workplace, one's place of worship, and social organizations. It can be incredibly useful to reintegrating into life after a loss to have it acknowledged, rather than ignored without comment. Example: a manager stepping forward to say, "I'm sorry for your loss; let's talk about what you feel like tackling now."

Putting your life story on paper. Neimeyer has his patients write the chapter titles of their life stories. Then he asks them to reflect, in writing, on specific questions: How did you organize the flow of your self-narrative? What are the major themes that tie it together? If you were to give a title to your self-narrative, what would it be?

Recognizing that you're not the same person as before. Losing any loved one is a transformative experience. Expect and embrace change, rather than avoiding it and expecting to return to your "old self."

Expecting the intensity of your grief to vary. "Whenever I go to a funeral, I cry and cry now -- for my own loss," says one woman. Mother's Day, birthdays, and anniversaries can ignite surges of depression years later -- or there may not even be an obvious trigger.

Being open to help. It's worth noting that there may be a syndrome called complicated grief, in which grief reaches a point where therapy can be useful. Is prolonged grief a new psychological disorder? Many psychologists now think so and want to see it become a recognized disorder. But more relevant than labels is being open to help if you feel stuck.

A "Happy" Ending?

Important point: Completing these five tasks doesn't "end" the grieving process. They may never be fully completed. Grief isn't a disease, after all; it's a transition.

"Grief is like a room we may enter or leave again and again, for years," psychologist Robert Neimeyer says. "The character and quality of grief may change across time, but it remains available to us as a resource that we can revisit."

That positive word, resource, is a deliberate choice: "Being able to revisit earlier losses and their implications for us can enrich our lives and make our narrative more coherent about who we are and how we got to be who we are," Neimeyer adds.

"I still feel such a sense of loss," says writer Lise Funderberg of her father's death in 2006. "But qualities of that experience were incredibly moving -- the compassion and charity shown to me and witnessed by me. It's strange to hold two opposing ideas in your head: that an experience can be horrible and yet have good effects. Things were stirred up by my dad's dying that are pretty incredible and life-affirming. I now know that if you've loved a person, you will always grieve them. It just changes over time."

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

almost 4 years, said...

Having to leave the home where my husband just died a month ago, the separation anxiety I have this article is helping me adjust momentarily, it's very hard to leave here, being forced out by my landlord, I'm not ready to go, he died here on hospice, closing his eyes, this apartment is part of the Linking Objects,

almost 4 years, said...

Absolutely awesome info and agree ! Very few understand, articulate it, or "get it" and thank you! I am traveling go through it and know it.

almost 4 years, said...

Truly an outstanding article, and well worth sharing ~ which I intend to do ~ again! Thank you for this, Paula!

almost 4 years, said...

Loosing my husband 2 weeks ago, with so many downs and anxiety this really helped me identify my symptoms.

over 4 years, said...

Thanks for this very helpful article. 5 years grieving and this is the most accurate and instructive thing I've encountered. bookmarked.

about 5 years, said...

3 months and 11 days are gone already since my 47 years of marriage wife became sick and died. The pain it just will not go away and everyday becomes worst until i fell to antidepressant pills. How long will this take place...

about 5 years, said...

This was helpful but i still feel hopeless. I feel like i am mechanically going through the motions of whatever people tell me will help.

about 5 years, said...

I lost my oldest son (36 years old) in a helicopter crash (Army) 11 years ago. I miss him a lot but God gave me Faith, Hope and Love, to continue living. I found Faith that gives me inner peace, Hope to find many young men with out a mother and that I can be of help to them, and Love to know that I have more chidren and grand children that love me and I love them. Everyday I count my blessing ( I will be celebratng 71 years soon) and I keep busy. (still working.) You will never be alone when you have Christ in your heart. Close your eyes and He will sorrounded with his arms and with His love.

over 5 years, said...

I am glad to have found this link to losing a close family member! I am still having a hard time, still going thru the 5 stages of lose. I have lost 2 husbands, 2 daughters, Mom and Dad, all within 12 years. I have a son that is my rock, and confidont. I am very depressed, still feeling guilty, but i know still i did everything in my power to help them any way I could. I wish to move on, but now am disabled myself, and live alone with all of the good and bad memoeries. Have done some bad impluse things, I really regret, but trying to work thru it. I will be 60 soon, and want to stay alive to see my grandchildren graduate! I also don't want to hurt my son, so I go along, mostly alone. He is here when I really need him, but it gets so lonely. After 5 years of losing my last husband, I am finally cleaning out closets, and trying to take better care of my 8 little dogs. I found this site really helpful, and want to say thank you! I am also trying to quit smoking, having a very hard time with it!

over 5 years, said...

This is extremely well written and helpful. Thank you.

over 5 years, said...

Tomorrow will be my husbands birthday, I miss him so much. Birthdays and holidays are especially lonely. We were married 53 years, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 5 months later. Hospice was a great help, I was able to take care of him in our home with their assistance. Our faith in eternal life because of our savour Jesus Christ gives me comfort and helps me face the terrible loneliness. I would encourage seeking spiritual guidance, my Pastor and church family are a real help. We have a great Grief support team, I have attended two widow retreats and found the sessions very emotionally draining, however talking about your loss with others was a great comfort at the same time. I would encourage attending grief support sessions.

over 5 years, said...

I have been a listening board for two peoplke in the midst of grief-one is my son who went to his Dad's house and found his dad dead-severl months ago and another is one of my derest friends who lost her husband to a genetic disease diagnosed twenty years ago.My son needs some help and does not feel comfortable in seeking it. My friend realizes she needs help and is going for help. I just try to listen to her nd be there when she wants a hug or just a body in the house. Keep telling my son to try and talk to someone because there are unresolved issues between him and his dad. I try to listen and stay out of it because I am not the objective one.Each article has been very interesting and I find the additional comments about the additional stages of grief to be very helpful. I find Dr. Niemeyer's additional comments about grief to be very enlightening. I was my Dad's caregiver for several years. When he passed away, I found it very difficult contacted you guys, saw a grief support group for awhile and a psychologist. So for me thie additional info from Dr. Niemeyer was very helpful. Concept of complicated grief was very interesting. I think if situations are not clearly defined, ie wife and husband, father and son can make for a very complicated issue. So complicated grief as a concept makes sense. brucha

over 5 years, said...

very informative-i was a hospice nurse and this was very good information.

over 5 years, said...

I have a friend who still talks about his late wife in the presesnt form, (ie) she doesn't like ham. Not she didn't like ham. It has been nearly 5 years and he is stuck there and cannot move forward at all. He talks about her constantly and how he still misses her so much, etc. He has her picture all over the house and first thing you see in his wallet. Grumpy, angry, started over- eating, drinking, being loud, and when I suggested he might be depressed (he is) he gets angry and says he is not! We were seing each other for almost 3 years, but I couldn't take it any more. I tried to help him in talking about her,etc, but didn't help. I do not know what to do for him and he will not discuss it with his doctor.

about 6 years, said...

My brother and I have been the primary caregivers for Mom. She was such a trooper and was willing to try everything that she and her doctor could think of to manager her hypertension and chronic stomach pain that sometimes debilitated her. A year ago, her condition worsened and her heart became weak. She slowly realized she could no longer do a lot of things on her own. Eventually, we grinded all her meals, washed her hair, bathed her, and helped her change her clothing. She used to enjoy watching cartoons and of course with one of us sitting next to her. It was sad to see her deteriorating--difficulty standing up, no interest in eating, sleeping alot, communicating mainly with hand gestures rather than speaking. With a fighting spirit, she wanted to live but had to accept that there was no cure. Then, she said, "I'm 90 years old, why can't I die". Within a few weeks, and further deterioration of her health, we knew she would probably not last through Christmas. Going in and out of consciousness, with moans of "I'm dying", she reached out her arms and gave me a long hard hug. I knew that it was her goodbye because she was not a physical person. I said, "Mom, if you are ready to go, everything is ok, so you can go." Of course, I was trying not to burst out crying then. Right afterwards, she reached out again and gave a long hug to my brother. Within a few minutes, she went into a semi-comatose state and the next morning she passed away. I was sorry I was not there when it happened, but my brother was. I had thought of the possibility that Mom wanted to spare me witnessing her passing, knowing that it would hit me harder. My brother and I cared for her for 7 years so it is difficult getting used to her no longer being here and needing us. I think it will take a long time for us to get over the grieving process. This article is helping me to sort out my feelings.

about 6 years, said...

I thought the information about what is normal is always helpful. When I do grief counseling, clients almost always ask if what they are feeling is "normal". I like the things that help "list" as well. People often think that death ends a relationship; it doesn't, but it does change it, sometimes in ways that are hard to imagine at the beginning of the grief process.

over 6 years, said...

Anger has always been my response to illness and grief - it helped to read I could put it to good use because it is a very heavy burden affecting my life. Watching and caring for my Mom and Brother thru their cancer journeys,and now my husband ,I feel just an intense anger,and this site has helped me. I am so glad I found it!

over 6 years, said...

My husband and I had birthdays 18 days apart (he was 13 years older). Most years we would celebrate them some time in between the dates. On the years where one of us had a "significant" birthday (ending in zero or five), we would celebrate on that person's special day. Next Sunday, I will be 60. We won't be able to celebrate it together. Add that to the holidays and my grief seems to know no bounds this year. I know I will adjust but wish I knew when. This is the first time in my entire life I have been 100% on my own. It's been scary at times. Knowing that others have survived these feelings helps.