The 5 stages of grief are 1. Denial & Isolation 2. Anger 3. Bargaining 4. Depression & 5. Acceptance. People do not necessarily go through these stages in the order mentioned or even spend time in all of them.
These stages were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The purpose of outlining these stages is not to tell you that you must go through this precise order each time you encounter grief but to help you understand and put into context where you find yourself currently.
Let’s look a little further at each one of these stages:
1. Denial & Isolation
When intense grief first hits us, our first reaction is likely to be “This can’t be true. This isn’t happening to me.” The sudden arrival of grief takes us by a complete shock and denial is a normal way to protect ourselves in the face of this suddenness. Think of denial as a process that provides you with some buffer time to get ready before you deal with your grief. So you hide from the facts or block any hurtful words.
As the mask of denial wears down, we are forced to see the reality in its painful colours. Our earlier soft heart is now exposed to the darkness of grief and this makes us angry. This anger can be aimed at inanimate objects, friends, family or even the person who died. We are in rage because we’ve been forcibly put to trial.
After the rage subsides, we again are forced to see the reality as it is, to view things exactly how they happened. But we are still not ready. So we land ourselves in the world of ‘If only’-
– “If only we’d gone to the doctor sooner.” (But you didn’t)
– “If only I’d told him that I loved him to this day.” (But you didn’t)
– “If only I’d refused to go to the vacation all together.” (But you didn’t)
Its all those (But you didn’t)s that we are trying to guard our fragile selves from by resting in the embrace of the ‘If only’. It is a weaker defence to protect ourselves from pain.
One also experiences guilt while bargaining, after all the whole process is about how we could have done things differently to not invite this sadness.
One form of depression may be caused by matters more practical like costs of the burial or the death ceremony or not spending enough time with those who depend on us. These can be handled by providing reassurances to the concerned person.
The other kind is more personal where we weep on the inside as we are hurt from the pain.
Not many are able to see beyond anger or denial and thus, reach this stage. Acceptance is a hard earned stage where you do not experience happiness but you do feel a sense of calm and peace. You come to accept things as they happened. You come to accept the grief you went through to reach here.
Grief is experienced differently by everyone. The emotions paint a different canvas for each. But one thing common for all is not to halt the process of grieving in any manner. One must let the natural process of healing start by first allowing oneself to grieve. To put it in Kahlil Gibran’s words –
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”