Understanding Grief And Loss Stages Of Grief In The Grief Process

Grief is a natural, emotional response to loss. The grief process is a very personal one and everyone experiences grief and loss in a different way. Though it may seem overwhelming at times, grief is an important part of the healing process. With acceptance and grief counseling, feelings of grief and loss do decrease over time.

What Causes Grief?

Grief is generally not a permanent condition–the feelings usually subside gradually over a matter of weeks, months or years, depending on the person and the degree of loss. No specific grief timeline exists, as each person experiences grief in his own way and in his own time. People often associate grief with the death of a loved one, but any painful loss can cause grief. For example, you may experience feelings of grief and loss after a:

  • Death of a pet
  • Diagnosis of a serious illness
  • Job loss
  • Loss of a relationship
  • Miscarriage.

Grief can be intense and life altering, or a subtle sadness that lives in the background. Either way, it’s important to allow the grief process to take its course.

Recognize the Symptoms of Grief

Grief and loss can cause both emotional and physical symptoms. Even though everyone experiences grief differently, the symptoms are generally the same. Emotional and physical symptoms often evident in the grief process include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Anger
  • Fatigue
  • Fear
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Weight loss/gain.

Learn to recognize the symptoms of grief in yourself and others so you can find appropriate help and support through the grief process.

Learn About the Stages of Grief

In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presented the five stages of grief in her groundbreaking book, “On Death and Dying.” Based on her research with terminally ill patients, Kübler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief that many people go through in reaction to impending death. In the ensuing years, professionals worldwide have adapted these five stages of grief to all types of loss:

1.    Denial: When in denial, we often become numb and do not allow ourselves to believe that the loss actually happened. Denial is a defense mechanism that allows us to come to accept our feelings of grief gradually.

2.    Anger: In this second stage of grief and loss, we may be very angry at the world or at the person who left us, especially in the case of death. We may also be angry with ourselves for “allowing” the loss to occur, even if we couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

3.    Bargaining: In this stage of grieving, we attempt to work out a deal, sometimes with a higher power or with ourselves or other people, to somehow retract the loss. For example, “I will give all my money to charity if I can live just five more years,” is an example of bargaining.

4.    Depression: After bargaining, we may slip into a deep sadness and detachment. Feelings in this stage often result from the realization that the loss cannot be fixed or changed and the belief that life won’t get better.

5.    Acceptance: Often considered the final stage of the grief process, we are able to accept the reality of our loss and begin to move forward again in life.

The five stages of grief don’t necessarily proceed in order, nor does every grieving person experience all the stages in the grief process. People grieve differently and some go through stages quite quickly, while others skip stages entirely. Some may find themselves stuck in the first four stages of grief for months, unable to come to an acceptance of their loss, while others quickly come to the acceptance stage. Most people experience the five stages of grief in a roller coaster-like fashion, going back and forth between the stages several times before finally accepting the reality of the loss.

In 1984, bereavement expert Dr. Roberta Temes studied and wrote about three alternative, but similar, stages of grief in her book “Living With an Empty Chair: A Guide Through Grief”:

1.    Numbness: Numbness is the first means of dealing with shock, and is typified by a sense that life is a dream and you’re just “going through the motions.” This stage usually begins right after the loss and can last for several months.

2.    Disorganization: After numbness, a person begins to feel the intense pain of loss, and may experience anxiety, panic and other overwhelming feelings.

3.    Reorganization: In the reorganization phase, people begin to reenter life and feel “normal” again.

Find Support to Cope with Grief and Loss

The pain of grief and loss can be intense and, in an effort not to feel pain, you may push away the very people who can help you the most. The support of others can be the most important factor in enabling you to heal from your loss. Sources of support to help you through the grief process include:

  • Counselor or therapist: A counselor experienced in grief counseling can help you work through your grief and loss.
  • Family and friends: Accept help and support from loved ones and let them know what you need, even if it’s just a hug.
  • Support group: A support group puts you in contact with other people dealing with similar losses. Sharing your feelings with support group members can ease your suffering.
  • Your faith: You can take comfort in your spiritual practice by praying, meditating or speaking to a leader in your community of faith.

Take Care of Yourself to Heal Grief

In addition to enlisting the support of others, you also need to find ways to take care of yourself during this difficult time, such as:

  • Acknowledging your emotions: As soon as you are able, face your painful feelings. Though you may want to conceal and suppress your feelings of grief and loss, it will only prolong the grief process and could lead to other health problems.
  • Expressing your feelings: Release your emotions creatively by writing in a journal, making a scrapbook or writing a letter to your lost loved one. If you need to cry, go ahead, and if you feel angry, release some anger in constructive ways, like throwing a pillow or going for a run.
  • Not allowing others to tell you how to feel: People may tell you it’s time to move on or that you should be over your loss already. Ignore their well-meaning advice, and let yourself feel whatever comes up for as long as you need to.
  • Taking care of physical health: If you feel good physically, your emotional health will benefit as well. Make sure you eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Resist the temptation to use alcohol or drugs to mask your pain.
  • Trying not to be alone too often: As hard as it may seem in the moment, you can take the edge off your loss by not spending too much time alone. Get out of the house, and do things that take your mind off your grief. Allow friends and family to be with you and support you during this time.

In time, your grief will become less intense. If things don’t seem to be getting better, or you feel worse over time, you may be experiencing complicated grief or major depression, both of which require the help of a mental health professional. If you are experiencing complicated grief, you are stuck in your intense pain and your grief keeps you from living a normal life, despite the passage of time. With clinical depression, your feelings of sadness and despair are constant and you may feel hopeless, worthless or even suicidal.


Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation. (n.d.). About grief. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.ekrfoundation.org/about-grief

Kübler-Ross, E. and Kessler, D. (n.d.). The five stages of grief. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/

Smith, M. and Segal, J. (2011). Coping with grief and loss. Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grief_loss.htm

Temes, R. (1984). Living With an Empty Chair: A Guide Through Grief. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon.

The Light Beyond. (2007). Death and grief: When will you start to feel better? Retrieved April 19, 2011, from http://www.thelightbeyond.com/death_and_grief_when_will_you_start_to_feel_better_.html