Are there stages of grief?
Grief is a natural process, but it is a process that can hurt both emotionally and physically. Because of this pain, you might find yourself wondering if what you’re feeling is normal, or how long your grief will last.
When searching for these answers, you may have come across the five stages of grief model, which suggests that there are five different stages you experience after the death of someone close to you.
The five stages of grief model was one of the most common theories about how grief works, but, as research into the topic grows over time, it is no longer considered the most useful.
In this article, we’ll explore the theory in more detail, focusing on how it was developed and why the five stages are not truly reflective of the grieving process. We’ll then look at some of the newer ideas around how grief works, with the aim of providing you with a fuller understanding of what grief is and feels like.
Ultimately though, it’s important to remember that grief is an entirely individual experience, and how it affects you can be influenced by a huge number of factors. It’s not a process that follows a set timeline or a specific order, and it’s not a journey you can predict.
Who developed the five stages of grief?
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her book ‘On Death and Dying’ after observing terminally ill patients and their emotional response to death. She concluded that a patient may experience five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - when facing their own death.
Although this theory was later adapted to reflect the grieving process, it was never evidenced as being a true reflection of what people are going through. Professionals working with those who have been bereaved instead found that people did not go through the stages in order, and that some missed stages completely.
Over time, the five stage model has evolved into a seven and 12 stage model too. These models both incorporate the five stages outlined by Kübler-Ross alongside newer ones, but they also haven’t been proven to be an accurate understanding of grief.
This means that while you may have experienced some of the stages outlined below during your grieving process, it’s important to remember that it’s OK if your grief journey feels different. This is because there’s no timeline for grief, or a set way to experience it. What you’re feeling may be more complex, and that’s normal too.
What stages are said to be involved in the grieving process?
Shock and numbness
Shock and numbness are both common feelings in grief, particularly in the immediate aftermath of someone dying. You may feel foggy; unable to process or understand what has happened, and you might not be able to control how your body reacts. For example, some people might not be able to stop crying, while others might not be able to cry at all.
After hearing that the person close to you has died, you may feel overwhelmed and unable to process the reality of your situation. Because of this, acting as if their death hasn’t happened is often a common defence mechanism.
While this temporary period of denial can help to numb the intensity of your pain, it may also provide you with the time and space you need to learn how to confront your emotions.
Anger is a common, natural response to the pain caused by loss, and it may be directed towards the person who’s died, yourself, the people around you or your surroundings. Often, this reaction can cause guilt, which may leave you feeling even angrier as you try to process your emotions.
You might find yourself asking questions such as ‘why me?’ or ‘why now?’, and you might grow frustrated as you think about the time you’ve lost with the person who has died, or what your future now looks like without them. This can lead to you feeling isolated or alone in your grief.
Feeling helpless when grieving can sometimes result in you trying to make deals with either yourself or a higher power, such as God or something (or someone) bigger than ourselves, so you can hang onto some form of hope. This is known as bargaining, and often these deals may contain sacrifices you are willing to make in order to bring the person who has died back and make everything return to the normal you once knew.
This way of thinking may lead to you revisiting certain moments or situations in the past and wishing they had turned out differently.
Experiencing intense sadness and longing for the person that has died is perhaps the most commonly anticipated feeling in a grief journey.
As the unavoidable reality of your situation becomes clear, you may feel overwhelmed and unable to face the world around you. This might come in waves, or you might feel stuck in the emptiness caused by your loss. While this is a natural response to bereavement, coping with depression during grief can be lonely and isolating.
Often, people wrongly associate the acceptance stage of grief with the idea that they may no longer experience the pain triggered by their loss. However, finding acceptance in this instance is instead about accepting your new reality, which means living a life with loss.
Rather than try to change or deny what has happened, you start to find that you are able to come to terms with your loss. This doesn’t mean that you stop feeling sad or having bad days; it just means that you begin to realise what your new life looks and feels like.
What if I feel differently?
Your grief may reflect the stages described above, but it may also feel completely different. That’s why it’s important not to solely rely on the stages of grief model as a way to understand how grief works.
Below, we outline some of the newer ideas about grief that you might find more helpful instead.
Newer ideas about grief
In 1999, Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut developed the Dual Process Model of Grief. They suggested that grieving is a process of moving between two types of responses:
- loss-oriented responses, which refer to the wave of emotions or feelings you work through when thinking about the person who has died
- restoration-oriented responses, which refer to the process of getting on with day-to-day life and managing the practical things that need to happen after someone dies.
This way of thinking about grief, and looking at it as an active process that you go through, is something that William Worden also considered in 2008. He talks about there being tasks in grief:
- accepting the reality of the loss
- working through the pain of grief
- adapting to a world without the person who has died, both emotionally, physically and spiritually
- finding a way to stay connected with the person who has died whilst carrying on day-to-day life.
Both views on grief can be seen to be more reflective of the rollercoaster of emotions you experience while trying to come to terms with your bereavement, and that’s why they are now considered to be more helpful than the stages of grief outlined above.
Growing around grief
Also considered more helpful is Lois Tonkin’s growing around grief model, which was first published in an article in 1996. She suggested that as you go through life, learning more, doing more and seeing more, your connection with the person who died isn’t lost or forgotten. Instead, it stays with you as you and your life grow around it.
We’ve got more information about Tonkin and her theory, but what’s deemed to be so comforting about her model is the understanding that, over time, life can grow and flourish around even the toughest of losses.
What do our experts say about the stages of grief?
Bianca Neumann, Head of Bereavement:
“Grief takes you to a place you never thought emotionally possible. Your whole body feels like it explodes with emotions so strong that they can hardly feel bearable. It can make you question who you are, how much more you can take. It puts things in your head you don't have space or answers for - questions around the why, the what next and what has been.
“One scenario from the past suddenly presents itself with 5, 8 or ten different outcomes and you might find yourself thinking ‘If only I…’ You relive the last moments of the dead person's life - the sights, sounds, smells, feelings in your body, the tastes from those moments; sometimes like they are intensified, sometimes with hardly any detail in it. You try to breathe but tears make your chest feel so hot that it’s hard.
“After a while, when many months or years have passed, you might notice that the nightmares have become less frequent, and that the memories - particularly the hard ones - leave you with more breathing space. On some days, you’re able to choose to engage with the grief, whereas on other days that window of choice is too small and you are surprised with what has suddenly appeared in your memory box to deal with.
“I would like to develop a new, contemporary and more holistic model of grief that not only looks at the emotional side of things, but also takes into account the social impact and wider grief landscape. It would look at how people from other parts of the world grieve, considering their diverse experiences and cultures. And it would look at what we can learn from others around meaning making, and how we have become a society that relies on grief to be dealt with or fixed - ideally by someone else so we don't have to feel the pain.
“Instead, I would like us to explore how we can encourage people to take more responsibility for both themselves and each other when living and dealing with grief.”
Dr Barbara Gale MBE, Expert Content Reviewer:
“Grief is hard, and is different for everyone and changes over time. It is the price we pay for love. I know this from my own experience of grief and by working as a therapist with adults and children facing grief. It is natural to look for explanations and understanding of what one is going through and when it will end. Kübler-Ross did some good by encouraging people to talk about dying and grief, but her ideas were too simplistic and for many, it did more harm than good.
“I believe the new theories described earlier acknowledge the impact of living day-to-day whilst grieving. Grief is part of life and encouraging people to ‘move on’ is not helpful. I have often thought of bereavement as a wound, the closer the relationship the deeper the wound, and the more it bleeds and hurts. A wound does heal, but it is always there and sometimes you only have to touch it and it is as painful as if it just happened.”