5 Stages of Grief and Loss

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Losing a loved one is an incredibly painful and distressing experience and there are few feelings worse in the world than knowing that you will never see someone who meant the world to you again. At the same time though, if this person was close to you, then there are many other implications and complications too, and it’s something that affects your life in a vast majority of ways. We will often find ourselves wracked with complicated and difficult emotions such as stress and guilt, and even asking big questions about the nature of life.

These are all perfectly normal ways to respond, and there is no ‘right way’ to deal with such an emotional trauma. The only thing that is universal is how difficult a time this is and how greatly and diversely it can affect us. These feelings despite being painful are healthy and furthermore the magnitude of the loss only reflects the size of our affection and love for the deceased. As painful as loss is, it is also something necessary you must face if you want to truly love another.

While there is great variation though, there are some common emotions and feelings that are more common than others and come ‘stages’ that most of us will go through in response to loss and understanding these can help us to put our feelings into context and to realize that we are not alone in feeling the way that we do. Here we will look at some of the best known ‘stages’ of grief, the ‘5 Stages of Grief’.

The 5 Stages of Grief

The five stages were originally proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969 in her book ‘On Death and Dying’. Here she described the five stages that surviving family members and friends might go through after the loss of a loved one. These five stages are by no means set in stone however, and nor are they linear or universal. It is possible for an individual to go through the stages in any order, to regress and experience the stages multiple times, or to entirely skip the stages. However they do give a useful reference point for both the grieving and those trying to assist their recovery.

Here are the stages.

1. Denial

The first stage is to deny the situation and to convince yourself it is not real or that it can be reversed. This is a ‘defense mechanism’ as described by Freud in order to protect the fragile ego from the harsh reality. In order to avoid going into completely shut down we tell ourselves there is still hope and still a chance long after those possibilities have gone. It is important though for the individual to move out of this stage so that they can come to terms with the reality, and also so that they can provide support and comfort to others.

2. Anger

Once the reality of the situation as set in, the individual will often feel intense anger. This is again a defense mechanism as the emotion of anger is more usable than the emotion of depression. We will thus direct our emotional energy toward lashing out at the world rather than dealing with the full depression that will come eventually once we are exhausted. Anger can be expressed in a number of ways, and it is common for us to take out our frustrations on family, friends and even the deceased or dying as we feel angry at them for ‘leaving us’ or for not ‘fighting’. These emotions themselves can then lead to more complex feelings of guilt as we judge ourselves for being harsh to those who need us.

Alternatively we may also direct our anger toward physicians or the institution for not being able to help our loved one, or at ourselves for being powerless. In other cases we may simply be furious with nature or even God for making this reality. In any case it is important for those around the grieving to recognize their anger as misplaced and not to take offense.

3. Bargaining

At this stage we will often try and win back control of the situation, while also trying to play any card we have left. This might involve praying and pleading with God, it might involve looking online for ‘miracle cures’ or even looking into other religions and faiths. As we search for an answer or a way to save our loved one, or come up with some loose ‘plan’ to see them again, we feel that we are grasping back some of our control and that the situation is not entirely helpless. This in itself however is just another form of denial in most cases.

4. Depression

Depression follows finally once we have given up in our attempts to get our loved one back and come to terms with the reality. At this point we realize that the situation is inescapable, but at the same time we find ourselves unready to face it. This then in turn will result in sadness as we miss our loved one, as we think about the good times we had, and as we think about what they went through and where they are now. We may also feel sorrow for other people who will also miss our loved one, and it’s important to comfort each other. All these feelings can lead to great sadness, as well as a feeling of emptiness because someone who was once a source of warmth and love is now gone from our lives. Going through this stage is incredibly painful and hard, but it is also necessary and healthy. Eventually you will hopefully come to a point where you can think back to the times you had with your loved one and smile and feel happy to have known them, rather than to feel sad at the thought.

5. Acceptance

When this happens you will achieve acceptance. Of course you still miss the person, but you have found a way to go on and to deal with them being gone from your life. You can find ways to keep them alive in your mind and through your actions, and you accept the fact that at least for now you are on your own and have to distribute that love elsewhere among the friends and family who are still alive and who still need you.

Other Emotions: Guilt, Fear, Repression

The five stages of grief are undoubtedly a useful therapeutic framework, and anyone who has lost a loved one or even been through a break up is likely to recognize some of the feelings and emotions in themselves. All of us have tried to plead with God (even atheists) or have denied that our loved one is as sick as we are being told they are. And all of us have lashed out unfairly against things in a bid to get some kind of justice or just to vent such strong feelings.

However where the five stages are lacking is in their omissions, and there are actually several emotions that we tend to go through when we lose someone we love which are also somewhat universal. Guilt for instance is a very common response to losing someone we love. Of course this guilt is normally misplaced, and we will feel that we should have ‘done more’, maybe encouraging a different diet or not letting them go out alone. The reality is of course that death is random for the most part, but still we find it hard to accept and take some of the blame ourselves. It is important to work through these feelings as they can be highly damaging.

Likewise many of us will feel afraid after losing someone we love. This forces us to come to terms with our own mortality, and especially if we were present when they were dying. This can cause us to ask big questions that often make us feel small and alone, and if that person was once an emotional anchor then that crutch to which we have grown accustomed is no more. This all leads us to feel scared and alone, though over time these feelings will tend to go away as our lives are once again surrounded by warmth and as new loves come into our world.

Finally many people will not consciously exhibit any of these stages, or at least won’t seem to to others. These are the individuals who remain largely stoic and maybe even jovial in the face of great loss. To others this may seem heartless, but it is important to recognize that they are hurting too. Such a response is again a defense mechanism, and here the individual is simply refusing to face the reality or entertain thoughts of what has transpired in order to avoid the strong emotions that will follow. They may do this unconsciously, or even purposefully so that they can be a ‘rock’ for other people. This is a highly unhealthy way to deal with loss however, and by repressing the feelings they are likely to emerge later in other ways. At the same time it is a real tragedy to be too upset by the thought of someone to avoid thinking of them. While the stages of grief are incredibly painful, they are also completely necessary and healthy, and once we have been through them and accepted the reality in our minds, they allow us to think of our loved one and smile thereby keeping their memory alive.

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Stanley C Loewen

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