The 5 Stages of Grief


Losing a parent, spouse, or other loved one is really hard. What most of us don't know, until it happens, is that it hurts for a long time. According to experts, though, there are recognizable stages -- or signposts -- that you'll pass through as you move from bereavement to healing. In her landmark 1969 book On Death and Dying , psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross popularized the idea of five stages of grief. Since then some experts have continued to work with Kubler-Ross's model, while others have simplified the theory to include just three or four stages, or expanded the list to as many as ten.

But most experts agree that everyone processes a loss by experiencing a series of different feelings, though we may go through these stages in a different order or skip one altogether. Here's a guide to the stages of grief and how to navigate them to find comfort and healing.

Stage one in the stages of grief: Shock and denial

For the first hours, days, even weeks after someone you're close to dies, you may feel like you simply can't absorb what's happened. It might feel like there's a glass wall between you and your feelings. You know you're sad, but you can't actually grieve. The numbness protects you from dissolving, but it may feel a bit frightening, too -- why can't I cry?

Losing someone you've lived with may also bring intense feelings of loneliness and emptiness as you struggle with the hole left in your daily life. If you've spent the past months or years as a caregiver , it's natural to experience a sense of being cut adrift -- after giving so much of your time and devotion to your loved one, suddenly you are no longer needed.

What you might be feeling:

  • Numb and distracted -- "This can't be happening to me.
  • Alienated from other people , as though everyone else exists in the sunny world of everyday events, while you're in a dark tunnel.
  • Bereft of purpose. Many caregivers say they feel painfully lost, as if the connection that kept them going every day is no longer there.

What you might notice:

  • Memory gaps , such as being unable to recall what you did yesterday, or not knowing how long it's been since you last ate.
  • Being disorganized and "spacey" -- misplacing your keys or cell phone, losing your car in the parking lot, forgetting to return phone calls.
  • Feeling out of touch with your real feelings, reacting in ways that don't feel like "you," such as snapping at a sibling or feeling nothing when a friend tells you some happy or sad news.

What to do:

  • Give yourself permission to feel however you feel. You've just been through an emotional earthquake, and the aftershocks are going to continue for a long time. It's okay if you can't cry, and it's also okay if you cry all the time or at inappropriate moments.
  • Break through the denial. Recognize that numbness has a purpose: It keeps you from falling apart. But if feelings of distance and unreality are bothering you, use family members and close friends as touchstones. Prevent yourself from "stuffing" your feelings by checking in with others: How are you holding up? Create opportunities to talk over the experiences you've been through and reminisce about your loved one.

Stage two in the stages of grief: Pain and guilt

When the protective curtain of denial slowly slips aside, intense feelings start to surface. This may be the hardest time, when things seem darkest. Self-blame is common. You may find yourself replaying conversations and decisions in your mind and asking yourself if you should have done things differently. If you've lost someone who's been suffering or in pain, you may experience a complex mix of relief coupled with guilt. It's common to hear a judging voice in your head, berating you fo r feeling relieved -- but actually relief is a perfectly normal reaction.

What you might be feeling:

  • Extreme mood swings, feeling okay one moment and overwhelmed with sadness the next.
  • Physical and/or emotional exhaustion. You might feel like you can't get out of bed in the morning, or even like you can't go on any longer.
  • Guilt -- if you've lost someone who died relatively young, you may feel guilty that you yourself have your health. If you've been a primary caregiver, you may feel relieved that the intense period of caregiving is over and you can return to your "normal" life, yet you feel terribly guilty for having such thoughts.

What you might notice:

  • Tears that come when you least expect them.
  • Negative thoughts about yourself.
  • Obsessive thought patterns, such as going over in your mind things you did and didn't do or say.
  • Exhaustion and lethargy -- feeling overwhelmed and defeated, asking yourself "what's the point?"

What to do:

  • Find ways to turn off the "tapes" replaying themselves in your mind. If there are moments or images that are particularly traumatic to remember (the decision to turn off life support, for example, or an image of your loved one in pain), talk through the memories with family members and friends who went through them with you.

Saying, "I keep thinking of how much pain she was in and wondering if there was more we could have done" allows you to get the dark feelings and fears out in the open so that you and those who were also present can talk through what happened.

You may be surprised to find that others remember things differently. Getting everyone's feelings out in the open allows you to reassure each other that you all did the best you could in a difficult situation.

  • Ask for help. This is the time to find a support group, therapist, or close friend or family member who's been through something similar, who can help you work through these very difficult feelings.
  • Force yourself to reach out. It's easy to hide away or isolate yourself when you feel that you're "not at your best," but this is just the time to reach out. Put a few close friends or family members on alert by saying, "I'm having a pretty tough time right now. Can I call you when I'm really feeling down?" Setting this up ahead of time gives you permission to pick up the phone.
  • Let yourself off the hook. If you're experiencing guilt for surviving, or relief that their suffering or your caregiving role is over, remind yourself that those feelings are common and natural and nothing to feel bad about. The truth of the situation is that the person you were caring for is out of pain and some of the burdens that have overwhelmed you have been lifted, and it's natural to react with relief.

Stage three in the stages of grief: Anger, frustration, and bitterness

For many people, this stage alternates in spurts with pain and guilt. You may find yourself becoming very reactive. You're going along just fine until something -- a TV episode, a story told by a friend, an ad in a magazine -- sets off an explosion of angry, even hostile feelings. Sometimes anger is a way to shield ourselves from feeling intense pain; other times it's the simple contrast between other peoples' concerns and the sheer magnitude of what we're going through that triggers an attack of bitterness or frustration.

What you might be feeling:

  • Sudden attacks of self-pity and frustration or bursts of outrage and a sense of injustice that may feel childlike: "Why me?" or "This isn't fair!" As one person put it, "I just keep thinking that this isn't what we signed up for."
  • Bitterness or resentment. If you've lost someone who died relatively young, you may feel bitter about having lost her "before her time." Many people describe feelings they're not proud of, such as, "Why couldn't it have been him instead?" One person who lost her father early to cancer reported feeling ashamed of her lack of compassion when other friends described their difficulties with fathers in poor health. She heard a voice in her head saying, "I'll trade you any day."

What you might notice :

  • A desire to avoid certain social situations, particularly those where others are celebra tory or self-congratulatory.
  • Irritation when others complain about things that seem petty and unimportant compared with what you're going through.
  • A tendency to react with mistrust and sarcasm.
  • Anger and bitterness over others' sincere expressions of sympathy. Someone saying "I understand," or "Is there something I can do?" might make you want to scream, for instance.

What to do:

  • Avoid those who bring you down. If you notice that certain people or situations bring on bouts of anger and ill humor, it's perfectly okay to avoid them -- you're protecting both of you. For instance, if a certain friend tends to initiate a "pity party," put that friendship on hold for awhile.
  • Tell people what's happened. It can be hard to bring up a loss, but it's more uncomfortable still if you keep silent and those around you remain oblivious. When there's an appropriate opening, explain that you've recently experienced a loss. People will be more supportive than you think, and some will really "get it," resulting in deeper shared connection. This will also stop most of those who are just having a bad day from telling you about it.
  • Have compassion for yourself. When feelings of anger and bitterness are separating you from others, instead of berating yourself for your lack of compassion, turn that compassion on yourself. You've just lost someone terribly important to you, and it's natural for your mind to compare yourself with others and find their situations less traumatic. Talk to yourself with sympathy and forgiveness and remind yourself that you won't always feel this way.

Learn About Acceptance as a Stage of Grief

No matter how deep your grief, slowly but surely you'll be pulled back into the world -- perhaps even against your will. Life has a way of throwing moments our way that wake us to the possibilities still in front of us.

But at first, i t's almost certainly going to feel like one step forward, two steps back. That's okay. Bit by bit your mind will accept what's happened, and you'll discover new reserves of strength and resilience.

What you might be feeling:

  • A sense of "waking up" to the world around you.
  • Moments of surprising joy and satisfaction , followed by guilt: "How can I feel happy?"
  • New reserves of strength and determination: "I can get through this."
  • If you've lost your second parent, you may feel a sense of moving forward into a new phase of your life. Now you're the "older generation" in your family, which can feel scary and sad. But over time it may also feel freeing. Even if most of the time you're still very low, you'll start to see that there is a way past the grief .

What you might notice :

  • Things can seem funny again. Whereas a few months ago you avoided silly movies and didn't find jokes funny, now every once in a while something makes you laugh or smile.
  • A return to awareness: You notice the smell of roasting coffee or a friend's new scarf.
  • The rediscovery of old satisfactions: You might realize you want to resume knitting, start a new book, or rejoin a volunteer effort that used to be important to you.
  • At least for short periods, you feel like yourself again.

What to do:

  • Seek out experiences that feel meaningful. If seeing your grandchildren is the only thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, make as many dates as possible to spend time with them. If watching birds at the bird feeder lifts your spirits in midwinter, keep the feeder filled and perhaps invest in a bird guide and try to identify your winter visitors.
  • Fight "survivor's guilt." Don't feel bad about being happy. Life goes on, and we're meant to go on with it. If the moments are few and far between, notice them and seek out similar moments. Ask yourself what your loved one would have wished for you -- to see you in perpetual mourning or happy to see you rediscovering joy in life?
  • Give back to others. Many people, when grieving a loss, find solace in helping others. It can take you out of yourself and put things in perspective to help others in need. Volunteer in your community or at your place of worship, or offer to help a friend or neighbor who is going through a hard time.

Remember all the people who helped you through your loved one's last illness? There are others out there for whom you can perform the same valuable service, with a new depth of compassion and understanding.

Books to Read About Grieving

Calvin Trillin, About Alice (Random House, 2006). Trillin mourns the death of his wife, Alice.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005). Didion writes about the year that followed the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

Patricia Hampl, The Florist's Daughter (Harcourt, 2007). Hampl reflects on her life as a "dutiful daughter," taking care of her parents until their deaths.

David Rieff, Swimming in a Sea of Death (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Author Susan Sontag's son writes about her death from cancer .

Lee Montgomery, The Things Between Us (Free Press, 2007). Memoirist Lee Montgomery tackles her father's death from cancer and her mother's alcoholism, highlighting the complexity and importance of family relationships.

Ianthe Brautigan, You Can't Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir (St. Martin's/Griffin, 2001). Author Richard Brautigan's daughter writes of his death by suicide with insight and compassion.

11 days ago, said...

My mom died 3 weeks ago. I'm extremely exhausted. I have nightmares. It doesn't feel anywhere near "true" yet. My husband wants to sell the house and move out of state. People are pressuring me to do stuff I can't do yet--go back to my 50+ hour week job, etc. Some days I forget to eat, other days I graze allllll day to the point of vomiting in the night. I went shopping and didn't realize I still bought Mom's usual stuff. I talk about her easily, to neighbors, friends. No tears yet in 3 weeks; I put the whole service together myself and it felt more like a family get together.

11 days ago, said...

I didnt understand the screen statement. writing ok was not my intention now that i know what it means. Would have written sadder than ever for the screen name.

12 days ago, said...

Linda, you are in shock and this is totally normal. My husband died 8 weeks ago and I am only now starting to deal with the emotional fallout. I was the only one not crying at the funeral, such was my detatchment. It is neither right nor wrong to feel as you do - it is what it is - this phrase has got mr through a lot of thoughts in the last few weeks. Just look after you, and let the others look after themselves...and yes it is totally normal xxx

12 days ago, said...

My boyfriend died on Wednesday of lukemia and 5 days later my mom died of a bad infection. The two most important people in my life are gone and I'm so much in shock I can't show my emotions. I'm really feeling scared and empty. I'm not a person that can talk or express there emotions and I'm not a person that can cry very easy. Is this normal and is this part of my stages of grief. I see other friends and family crying more than me and I'm worried that if they don't see me cry that they might think that I'm a horrible and I'm someone that doesn't really care. I think that by being strong that I'm going to be able to deal with this disaster in my life better , but I'm not strong and I'm really very very scared and lonely. What should I do ? I don't feel normal

27 days ago, said...

My mom passed away in march of 2012 and I can't seem to let it go but my partner has noticed that I forget alot of stuff that she tells me and I cry often like every thing that happened to my mom before she passed like her falling into the floor and the doctors coming in telling us there isn't anything else they could do like it replays in my head everyday...idk what to do

28 days ago, said...

This information was helpful

about 1 month ago, said...

my father pass February 21 2015 I still havnt yet got over his death I move out of the town he was in so I wouldn't keep felling the other but the pain does not still go away I plainly get upset thinking about how my dad made a promise to me that he will never leave and he did how my mom and sister and them goes on like it never happen I feel hate and angry how they tell me I need to go on how my mom took his facebook page down how can I move on

about 1 month ago, said...

My daddy passed away last year just before thanksgiving and I really miss him. I think about him all the time. Before he left he lived with my husband and me. It was great having him with me. We had a good relationship and he relied on me to get things done for him. I didn't want me dad to feel like he was a burden. We loved him and wanted him to feel loved and cared about. I have two brothers but we're not close at all. My dad was great and he loved me and I loved my dad. I think about how he raised me and he did an excellent job. I dont have regrets I did my best for him while he was here and knew it. I just miss him being in the room, not much to say just want my dad. I wonder if he still thinks about me or if he watches me. At times I see him in my mind just looking at me. I wish I could give him a hug one more time and look him in the eyes and tell him again. Daddy I love you.

2 months ago, said...

My mother passed away in 2013 and it still hurts so much. We did not have a very good relationship and I was, quite frankly, horrid to her at times. I am filled with so much guilt and pain, I keep replaying all the times when I could have helped her more, understood her more, and should have just been there for her. I hate myself for everything I did badly, everything I didn't do but should have done, all the harsh words we exchanged. People tell me that Mum wouldn't have seen things in the bad light I do but it doesn't help. I think I want to feel sad and miserable as a punishment because I deserve it.. I want the pain to stop but at the same time I don't. I can't imagine that I will ever stop feeling like this. Mum was so very brave as her health deteriorated over several years, she fought with every ounce of her being to the very end. She deserved much more than I ever gave her. My regret will stay with me for ever.

3 months ago, said...

I lost my mom 13 Mos ago.I had a very close bond till this day I still cry for her it's been so hard for me I adopted 5yrs girl and 6 yr old my mom went with me to the class and to court.I changed there names my mom was so happy she was very close to the 6old boy.oh my he loved her so much but after adoptiong my mom came down with stage 4 pancreas cancer I couldn't leave my mom it was so hard to see her so much pain I cried everyday to her please fight I can't live with out you.I was being selfish I prayed to God to give me strength .I finally told I her understood.if she was tried I'll be ok with my kids and my sisters.I now sometimes feel guilt cause she left us. I sometimes just want to give up I wake up walk around with a fake smile but heart feels so empty. I now raising my two sisters and my kids.people ask me how do you do it..I just smile only if they knew inside of me hurting, 2 sisters are several palsy disable and my son 8yr is disable.but I noticed I can't put my guard down I can't seem to bond with my daughter like the way my mom had with me that's sad...does it get easier. ....

4 months ago, said...

Thank you for this article. I lost my mom to cancer few months ago. I always thought maybe she can defeat death, i always think she will make it. But she didn't make it that time. I never faced death before, and so when i did, i can't do anything but stand beside my mom and let death take her away from me. I still feel lost this time, i'm not sure what i am living for? or what's the point of the future? maybe i am just waiting for my own time. but how will i know? I just feel numb and all my compassion has dried out. I feel bitterness to every family related to mom apart from my brothers and dad. i feel like everybody else had moved on and buried her memory. Its only me, my brothers and my father are the only who were thinking of her. i feel like the others don't even miss her. I hated them for that. They all said they will be there for us but they never did. We don't need their help but i felt like they lied in front of my moms grave. They betrayed her, now she is gone. I also can't help but be annoyed when they complain about their "sickness". In my head, i kept on saying "you're not gonna die with just that. My mother went thru suffering. Yours is like a bit of an insect, it incomparable"--- And i absolutely resent them right now. Thats why I am trying to avoid getting intouch or attend any family events. I feel like my hate is eating up all the goodness, if there is any, inside me. I feel all the toxic of my feelings slowly changing me. I hope I can get through this ordeal, its such an ugly feeling, i don't when to heal but i will be compassionate on myself like what it was stated above. Maybe from there I can improve and bring back the love for life.

4 months ago, said...

My dad passed on March 1,2014 it was fast in January he complained of stomach pains and was have spells of shortness of breath my mom was always on top of dad with meds, appts etc. dad had two strokes years apart which left me unable to speak clear sentences but he could get he point out. he understood everything and had full use of his limbs he was funny and loved life. things progressed from January where he would stay upstairs because coming down would take so much effort it got to where my mom would go in the room and he would be sitting up because breathing had become difficult and the doctors at (KAISER) oh it"s pneumonia put him on antibiotics but something wasn't right so then the doctor told us to go to the ER and they would do a full workup and they did I remember driving dad to the hospital not knowing he would never return....I knew he was weak because leaving the house to get in the car he was holding on to moms shoulders. on February 25th mom told me the results were in and I'm thinking okay we can get dad healed and go on with life. Mom told me it was stage IV lung cancer and that no treatment could be done the cancer had spread to liver, kidneys and he had only days we didn't want to know how much time the only thing for me to do was PRAY...the doctors begged with mom to accept hospice and get dad to the hospice home because time was limited on February 28th they transferred dad and he lived through the transport. I work nights so I was on my way to the home and as I walked in the room March 1st Mom was crying saying his name but he had taken his last breath. Dad was a strong man a man of his word I still cry every, every other day He is always on my mind with him not being able to talk I often think did he want to tell us something. I wish I could have given him a hug and kiss and tell him to relax I would take care of mom that I would miss him never forget him and someday see him again. my heart aches my parents were married 50 years and when I look and talk to my mom she is trying dad was her right hand now she's alone even though its us 5 children I can tell she's lost but she know JESUS and his father JEHOVAH so it keeps her grounded just writing this I have taken a deep breathe I feel dad is with me