The stages of grief are not a checklist nor will they necessarily occur in order, or in the same order, for each individual. Some may vacillate between several for a while; others may repeat stages. There is no real time frame for “when it will all be over,” either. However, it is recommended to not make major decisions for at least a year following the death of someone very close to you.
Most counselors recognize five stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
- Denial. This is the initial stage. There is shock and disbelief as we first learn of the news. People may initially feel numb. “Why is this happening?” “You must be wrong.” “I don’t believe it.” Denial is a buffer zone, a self-defense, for our minds to be able to slow down and process the information that is coming in. It is important to not sugar-coat necessary information. Speak the truth, but with love and compassion. While those facing the news of the death of a loved one will more quickly accept the news, those facing the news of a terminal illness may attempt to ignore the diagnosis, pushing off decisions that need to be made.
- Anger. In this stage, the individual may express his anger in outward ways. Shouting, throwing things, and verbal attacks are good examples. Blame may be placed on people – the doctors, the person who died, those that were with their loved one, even God. Many people turn their anger inward which is known as guilt. “I should have seen the signs.” “If only I had,….” Guilt may also occur if the person is angry at the deceased. “Why did you leave me?” When dealing with someone in the anger stage it is important to not take it personally should the anger and rage be turned on you. Try to remain non-judgmental.
- Bargaining. An individual may try to reach a deal for a different outcome. “I’ll do anything…” “I’ll give my life, money, etc.” There may also be statements of “If only…” The person may secretly try to bargain with God to change the outcome. Bargaining is another defense mechanism in order to help come to acceptance.
- Depression. Loneliness, hopelessness, utter sadness, fear, regret. “Why bother…” “I can’t go on.” A person may refuse visitors, may spend most of their time in tears, and may not be able to function in their normal routine. These are all a part of depression. We must understand that the depression that occurs following a loss is not the same as clinical depression. However, it is important to note that those who seem to stay in this stage too long may have slipped into clinical depression which may warrant intervention. Remember, though, there is not a time frame to go through the depression stage. Once someone reaches this stage they are beginning to accept the new reality.
- Acceptance. Those who reach this stage are not “cured.” They simply have come to the place where they can move on with life. While the grief over the loss of their loved one will always be with them, they can now pick up and adjust to life without them.
Not everyone who experiences a loss is able to move on to acceptance. Some remain in the anger, bargaining, or depression stage indefinitely. Those who seem “stuck” may need additional counseling or more support from those around them. Those who attend church may want to speak with their pastor for help in this area. There are also numerous support groups available today consisting of individuals who have suffered similar losses. GriefShare is one such group that deals specifically with those who have suffered the death of a spouse, child, family member or friend.
Again, these “stages” are not check marks on a check list. Once you have “gone through them all” does not mean you have completely healed. Grief is a life long journey; it may appear at any time, without warning, throughout your lifetime. A good illustration is that of recuperating from an injury. While the injury may have healed, pain from it may occur without warning; it is a weak place in the body susceptible to recurrences. All of us at one time or another will experience grief. The important thing to remember is that it is normal.