grief stages, what are the stages of grief, phases of grief

Grief Stages & How to Navigate Them

Grief Stages: What are the stages of grief?

You might have heard about the grief stages or grief phases before. The stages of grief appear often in popular culture and are often parodied or simplified. For example, a character might be shown going quickly through all the stages of grief in just a few moments – getting sad, angry, and then accepting the situation. The idea of grief stages is widely known, but what are the stages of grief?

The stages of grief are an attempt to outline the universal human experience of grief that transcends cultures and backgrounds. Grief is the reaction to the loss of someone or something significant.

These grief stages were outlined by Elisabeth  Kübler-Ross in 1969. She worked with death and dying, and was able to identify some common patterns people showed in reaction to their own illness or the loss of a closed one.

The five phases of grief are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Depression
  4. Bargaining and
  5. Acceptance

They do not necessarily occur in a specific order. People who experience them might not work through them one by one. Rather, many experience them together or go back to a previous phase. The stages of grief are guiding principles to understand the mourning process and better contextualize what people are dealing with.

Everyone experiences grief in different ways. Some live it very emotionally, while others are more subdued. Some go through the process faster. There is no universal way of mourning, but there are some common emotions.

Grief Stages: The five stages


The first stage is denial. Denial is a defense that often appears when we first hear of a death or a diagnosis. This reaction is characterized by the idea that “this isn’t happening.”

Even if we rationally accept it, we are overwhelmed by the situation and do not process it emotionally. This reaction is helpful because it gives us time to process what’s going on and shields us from the initial shock.

However, some people may spend a lot of time in denial. A  famous, though fictional example, is Miss Havisham from Dickens’ Great Expectations. After being ditched at the altar, she spends the rest of her life wearing a wedding dress and never moves on from that one event.

Denial usually is the first reaction because it is often the response to shock. However, some people may feel it later in the process. Denial is characterized by a muted emotional response and a tendency to isolation. The person may avoid information or situations that remind them of the shocking event. Some may withdraw. This is a normal reaction.


For many, anger is the first reaction, but for others, anger takes a while to resurface. You may aim anger at the deceased, yourself, friends, family, things, or situations. Sometimes, that anger may be misdirected.

Many people feel guilt over their anger. However, it is a normal reaction that we feel because we feel pain. It’s best to live your anger and try to express it in healthy ways. Remember that it is another of the grief stages and that it’s a reaction many have to a loss. If you express your anger it will not last more than it needs.


A death or diagnosis might make us feel helpless. When we feel that we don’t have control, we might try to find ways to gain some, even if it is imaginary. The stage of bargaining involves trying to make a deal with a higher power. For example, we might think that we will go to church more if only the diagnosis turns out to be false. Bargaining can take the form of trying to find more and better treatments, turning to supposed miracle cures or esoteric forms of healing. Bargaining is a way of trying to take control of a situation beyond our power.

I’m not saying that there is not something transcendent or larger than meets the everyday eye.  However, as we mature spiritual we grow to understand that this greater than our individual self thing does not operate like Santa Claus or a parent etc…

grief stages, what are the stages of grief, phases of griefDepression

It is a feeling of sadness, regret, and often guilt. Depression, like the name indicates, often appears with the same symptoms as a clinical depression. You might have trouble sleeping, cry a lot, feel guilty or empty. Or you might lose your appetite or start eating more. Perhaps you may feel tired and distracted.

In depression, you might feel sad more than anything. This is a period to truly live and express your grief in order to be ready to let go.


Acceptance is the final stage of mourning, but we do not always get there. Also, acceptance is the period when we accept the death or loss and make peace with it. It does not mean we must be happy with it, but rather than we have finally processed it as a part of our reality.

Sometimes, people do not reach acceptance or can not do it. You may see this with parents who have lost a child, for instance. There are people who experience grief that goes on and does not seem to get better. In some cases, grief becomes pathological.

Religious beliefs, spirituality and transcendent perspectives help one gain acceptance.

Grief Stages: Complicated Grief

For some people, grief and feelings of loss are severe and do not improve even if a lot of time passes. While there is not a clear guideline for processing grief, most people are able to move on with their lives, even if they still feel sad, within a year or so. However, there are people who continue to experience a very intense grief for years.

People sometimes experience intense emotions that do not lose that intensity. The person might focus intensely on preserving reminders of a loved one, for example, keeping their room exactly as it was.

Alternatively, the person may be excessively avoidant of anything that reminds them of the loss. People tend to have problems accepting the loss and feel bitter or guilty about it.  They might feel irritable, angry, or depressed. It can feel like life lost its meaning when the loved one died. People with complicated grief may not enjoy their life or any new experiences. Sometimes, they have a hard time remembering the positive experiences they had before the loss.

Complicated grief may benefit from professional treatment. While grief is a universal human experience, support and counseling may do a lot to improve it.

Grief Stages: Conclusion

So, what are the stages of grief?  The phases of grief or grief stages are generally five experiences most people live through when they are mourning a loss of a person or situation. These five grief stages are denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.

They may not appear in the same order for everyone. People can also go back to previous stages or experience them together. The stages of grief are patterns that help people understand what they are experiencing and accept that as part of the process.

Not everyone reaches acceptance. Some people find that their grief is very intense and disruptive even when a lot of time passes. This can indicate complicated grief and may require professional support. One some may get stuck longer than others and need extra help most of us overcome our grief. One thing about grief is none of us are alone in experiencing it. If you are human and you live long enough you will experience grief.

The good thing is you can take what you have learned and move ahead in life with more wisdom, strength and perseverance.

grief stages, what are the stages of grief, phases of grief

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