Stages of Grief

The 5 Stages of Grief
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.


23 days 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... Show more 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. Hide


27 days 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... Show more 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 Hide


about 1 month ago, said...

I am having a very hard time with "GREIVING", as well I am an only child , I lost my Mother who was best friend And protector three years, its been soooo hard then followed by her loss my best friend died needless to say i never thought i would make it through less than a year later my last parent my father decided to remarry a lady that was a widow of two other men, my family had money this new wife hated me and refused me the right to see my father on his death bed, she now wears my... Show more I am having a very hard time with "GREIVING", as well I am an only child , I lost my Mother who was best friend And protector three years, its been soooo hard then followed by her loss my best friend died needless to say i never thought i would make it through less than a year later my last parent my father decided to remarry a lady that was a widow of two other men, my family had money this new wife hated me and refused me the right to see my father on his death bed, she now wears my Mothers rings and my father for some reason left EVERYTHING to this lady and her children, and i havent even heard from this lady yet my father passed Dec. 18, 2015 and im yet to hear her voice, i have NOBODY .... SHE NOW OWNS ALL MY MOTHERS AND FATHERS LIFETIME HEIRLOOMS FAMILY BIBLES GRAVE PLOTS AND HOUSES ALL LANDS , i have nothing left in this whole world or nobody no family on nothing and i feel nothing and i dont know why, i have NO urge to even get out of bed..... im number than numb .....i dont know where to go from here......christmas was just another long day and newyears i dont even remember.....i dont remember most of anything i do...... loneleness is soooo hard......life will never be the same my life is on a path that i have no clue, i dont work due to mental health And depression situations...... WHERE WILL I END UP? Hide


about 1 month ago, said...

My Father passed away December 10, 2015. And I am having a horrible time. I cant seem to stop thinking there is something that I could of done. He was 72 years old, had Parkinsons for 11years, and had good and bad days. He had coded one night, and it took too long for them to bring him back. But when they did, he had to be put in a ventilator. He never woke up. So we had an EEG done which showed little to no brain activity left. And due to his wishes he didnt want to be on a... Show more My Father passed away December 10, 2015. And I am having a horrible time. I cant seem to stop thinking there is something that I could of done. He was 72 years old, had Parkinsons for 11years, and had good and bad days. He had coded one night, and it took too long for them to bring him back. But when they did, he had to be put in a ventilator. He never woke up. So we had an EEG done which showed little to no brain activity left. And due to his wishes he didnt want to be on a ventilator long term. So with all the family there, we let him pass on. Being there and seeing him take his last breath. And the numbers on the machine slowly drop to zero, really has done a toll on me. I keep thinking about if I did something different. Or if i helped in some way. I dont know. I just don't know how to get over it. And when it will feel better. It hurts like hell. And i feel like im on a downward spiral that i cant seem to help. I speak to my friends, and fiancé sparingly, but it's not what i want. I want to speak to my dad. I want to speaak to him one last time and have him tell me that I'll be ok. And i cant have that. And that's what is hard for me. But i will find a way to make my hurt and sorrow go away and cherish what we had. One day at a time i am trying my hardest. Hide


about 1 month ago, said...

My mother died Thanksgiving morning 2015, and my dad has opted to be angry withat me and is on a path to alienating me and my family. I am struggling with why my father is behaving this way towards me and my wife and children, when we have done NOTHING but offer assistance. I have a younger brother and older sister that have mooched off my dad from day 1.....asking for money, if they can have the car my mother drove, since he doesn't need 2 cars now, they both live with him now, and... Show more My mother died Thanksgiving morning 2015, and my dad has opted to be angry withat me and is on a path to alienating me and my family. I am struggling with why my father is behaving this way towards me and my wife and children, when we have done NOTHING but offer assistance. I have a younger brother and older sister that have mooched off my dad from day 1.....asking for money, if they can have the car my mother drove, since he doesn't need 2 cars now, they both live with him now, and neither one pull their weight around the house. My wife goes over twice a week to clean, and prepare meals for my dad for when he gets home from OTR truck driving. My dad is pushing me and my family away, while my brother and sister sucks the life out of him. What can I do? Hide


2 months ago, said...

my mom was killed back in 2003 i was 14 at the time she and her boyfriend always argued the first time they fought she wanted me to cry so he wouldnt hit her i thought they were playing i didnt know but they had left after the fight and all i could do is cry i walked to the grocery store to use the pay phone because we didnt have a house phone i called the pastor of the church i went to she and her husband pick me up we were gone for a bout 3 hours they tried to comfort me then brought me... Show more my mom was killed back in 2003 i was 14 at the time she and her boyfriend always argued the first time they fought she wanted me to cry so he wouldnt hit her i thought they were playing i didnt know but they had left after the fight and all i could do is cry i walked to the grocery store to use the pay phone because we didnt have a house phone i called the pastor of the church i went to she and her husband pick me up we were gone for a bout 3 hours they tried to comfort me then brought me back home my mom still havent gotten back yet after her boyfriend made her get in the car with him so after i sat and cried for hours they finally came back i was awakened after the door open ,she then said to me don't tell anybody about what happen and i never did so after her death i just been so hurt and i feel that its my fault Hide


2 months ago, said...

After Mom passed almost 5 years ago, my anguish was incredible. I was amazed how strong my Dad was through it all. But my Dad was like that. He'd hold it in and privately grieve. As the months went on, I knew Dad's frail health was going to wain. I tried to enjoy the time we had and include him in our lives whenever possible. His health battles were at times incredible. He never gave up, he was always looking forward to the next day. And As I sit here this morning, just a month and a half... Show more After Mom passed almost 5 years ago, my anguish was incredible. I was amazed how strong my Dad was through it all. But my Dad was like that. He'd hold it in and privately grieve. As the months went on, I knew Dad's frail health was going to wain. I tried to enjoy the time we had and include him in our lives whenever possible. His health battles were at times incredible. He never gave up, he was always looking forward to the next day. And As I sit here this morning, just a month and a half without him, I wonder how I can get through to the next day. He was my best friend all through my life, even through the usually difficult "teen drama" years he was always there- advice on his lips or a hand in pocket "just in case" he'd say. I know I am made of good stuff because I know what he was made of. He taught me how to live, love, and deal with life's "gotcha's". He wanted me to handle his affairs when his time came and although I am not sure I am going to get this all finished very soon, I know he's here - smiling at me and gently guiding me as he always did. Grief is a bitch. So are cactus thorns. But the cactus like grief teaches us not to grab it barehanded. Grief is a delicate thing and it can strengthen you and teach you. Instead of struggling against it - embrace it. It's the way that God enabled us to deal with a death. It's a very deep and spiritual event. I pray to Jesus each morning. I know this will eventually become a thing which will transform me for the better. My father was unquestionably one of the most decent and generous people I ever knew. A friend and personal hero to me and although I am devestated - I have faith in knowing Christ is guiding me through this for a higher purpose. I hope that anyone whom may read this can draw strength. Be like a Willow and try to flow with winds of change, when we try to stand against those winds, we break. 1 John 4:4New International Version (NIV) 4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. Hide


2 months ago, said...

My uncle Paul died of stage 4 lung cancer April 10th, 2014. He didn't live to see his 64th birthday. I'm not over his death. And my boyfriend don't understand I'm still crushed. He was the only one who was always there for me and now I have no one. My boyfriend is my world but he don't understand anything. To be honest sometimes I wish I was dead instead of my uncle. My uncle Paul died of stage 4 lung cancer April 10th, 2014. He didn't live to see his 64th birthday. I'm not over his death. And my boyfriend don't understand I'm still crushed. He was the only one who was always there for me and now I have no one. My boyfriend is my world but he don't understand anything. To be honest sometimes I wish I was dead instead of my uncle. Hide


3 months ago, said...

I am 78 yrs old. My daughter who is 52 is mentally ill and I have been a caregiver always for she has cognitive problems and physical problems. My husband worked right until this past winter. He fell on ice and is now due for a hip replacement ; he is 83. He never took time to spend with me; everything was his job and the people he worked with. He would leave 5/30 am and come home 5pm and go to bed. Because he really didn't find a decent job till late in life, I understood his ""need"" so... Show more I am 78 yrs old. My daughter who is 52 is mentally ill and I have been a caregiver always for she has cognitive problems and physical problems. My husband worked right until this past winter. He fell on ice and is now due for a hip replacement ; he is 83. He never took time to spend with me; everything was his job and the people he worked with. He would leave 5/30 am and come home 5pm and go to bed. Because he really didn't find a decent job till late in life, I understood his ""need"" so I wanted him to be happy However as he got older I could see his health going downhill so it was not easy for me Also I was somewhat out of the normal senior scene, as I have to tend to my daughter. So now, here I am, getting ready for his hip surgery; He has had MANY health problems, because I was a nurse he ""let Barb handle everything" I never had vacations, no trips. Now I wonder, what kind of life did I have! Everyone thinks my husband is wonderful, Do I have a right to feel hurt, resentful and at times a little bitter? Hide


3 months ago, said...

. 2 years as of today I lost my dad to lung cancer I'm his only daughter and his full time caregiver I never knew my mom so it's really hitting me hard losing him I'm married with 4 boys his passing is effecting me hard and my marriage I any seen to get over this idk were else to turn and wat else to do my husband is aggravated with my still being completely crushed and not being able to move on just throwing this out there in open for any suggestions I need help can't seem to come alive and... Show more . 2 years as of today I lost my dad to lung cancer I'm his only daughter and his full time caregiver I never knew my mom so it's really hitting me hard losing him I'm married with 4 boys his passing is effecting me hard and my marriage I any seen to get over this idk were else to turn and wat else to do my husband is aggravated with my still being completely crushed and not being able to move on just throwing this out there in open for any suggestions I need help can't seem to come alive and its been exactly 2 years today I don't want to lose my husband here my life and world he's been fantastic and I understand his aggravation anyone or there tht can help me? Hide


4 months ago, said...

My Mum and dad were together for 50 years, and although Mum was never a warm cuddly person, they were happy. Dad was a lovely man and although I was devastated when he died 2 years ago my mum has never shown any sign of being remotely bothered by his loss, immediately got rid of all his things without asking me or my sisters if we wanted anything, and now has a boyfriend. She also told me she 'nearly didn't bother having me' is this normal? My Mum and dad were together for 50 years, and although Mum was never a warm cuddly person, they were happy. Dad was a lovely man and although I was devastated when he died 2 years ago my mum has never shown any sign of being remotely bothered by his loss, immediately got rid of all his things without asking me or my sisters if we wanted anything, and now has a boyfriend. She also told me she 'nearly didn't bother having me' is this normal? Hide