First documented by Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book ‘On Death and Dying’ after she was disturbed by the treatment of the dying throughout her time in the United States, the five stages of grief have become synonymous with emotional response to trauma and grief. The identification of these stages was a revolutionary concept at the time, but has since become widely accepted.
Grief is an evolving emotion and not everyone will go through the five stages in the stated order, as there is no typical way to grieve. With some people, one stage can last for minutes, days or even years, while others may skip through several without really noticing. There is no right or wrong way to mourn and although most people generally follow this order, if you do not - it doesn’t mean you are grieving the wrong way.
The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Often this is the only way we can make it through those first few days or weeks when everything seems overwhelming and impossible to comprehend, when we go numb and nothing really registers. We can hold conversations and make decisions but if someone was to ask a few hours later what had happened, we would have no recollection of it.
This is nature’s way of only giving us only as much as we can handle. In time, we will take more on board and slowly start to accept the truth of what is happening; this is the beginning of the healing process. There is no time limit and some people move quickly through this stage while others can’t accept the reality for a long time and cope in the best way they can.
Underneath our anger is pain. It is common to feel abandoned and be angry with the person that they have lost, even though we know logically that they did not choose to die. We are often angry because we have been left to deal with everything and upset that the plans you had together can no longer happen.
Anger gives us something to hang on to after the initial period of feeling lost and alone. Now, while we still feel alone, our anger gives us strength and pushes us out of the nothingness of earlier into feeling. This is often a difficult time because those feelings keep rushing to the foreground leaving us emotionally drained as we experience them over and over.
More often than not, this anger extends out to those closest to us; we know they did nothing wrong, but it makes no difference as we look for someone to blame for our loss.
Often if someone is very sick or injured, we will try to bargain with God to keep our loved ones with us and it is the same after they have gone. We wonder about ‘what if’, we want things to go back to normal and we wish we could go back and do things differently. Guilt is also often a problem here with thoughts such as ‘why was I left behind?’
Eventually we realize that we can’t do anything to change what has happened and we have to live in the present. Life can seem never-ending, empty and bleak. This is a perfectly normal reaction and is not a sign of mental illness, but rather it is an appropriate response to the loss of someone close.
In this stage, it is very easy to withdraw from life and move away from friends and family. A common thought process is not wanting to get close to any one again because it hurts too much to lose a loved one.
This, like any other stage, is one that can’t be hurried. Well-meaning friends and family will try to help you get through this quickly and while you shouldn’t shut yourself off totally from others, at times a period of reflection is necessary. A simple explanation may allow others to give you that space but often a time frame, helps to satisfy both sides with the bereaved having the time they need and the loved one knowing that there will be a time to reconnect in the way they want.
Acceptance is just that; it is not that everything is all right again - it is that you have accepted what has happened. While many people will never feel ‘okay’ about losing a loved one, most people will come to acceptance even while they are still working through the other stages.
Accepting something doesn’t always mean you are ready to move on; it just means you understand the reality of the situation that has changed forever. It doesn’t mean we are betraying our loved ones, it means we are learning to live in a new reality.
Finding acceptance means that you will probably eventually have more good days than bad ones. It doesn’t mean we will forget our loved one, it just means that for increasingly longer periods we can spend time thinking about other things. We can spend time on our friendships and relationships with other family members without feeling as though we are betraying the one who has gone.
Grief is a complex emotion. No one should be made to feel guilty for their feelings or actions; you can only do what is right for you in that particular moment and when the time is right – for you – and only then will you be able to move forward and begin to live life to its fullest again.