What does grief look like?
Perhaps you have lost a loved one, or a significant relationship has recently ended. Maybe you’re dealing with losing your health, divorce, or the death of a pet. These are all momentous losses that can and will affect your mind and body. Grief after a loss is a very natural aspect of being human. We all grieve in different ways, and our grief is impacted by multiple things including what the loss means to us, when it occurs, and how it occurs. There is no one “right” way to grieve a loss, but the wrong way is to ignore it or distract yourself from dealing with it.
This article discusses the different ways that grief can present itself. Everyone grieves in their own way, and your grief process will probably be very different than my grief process even if we experience the same loss. Losses are very personal, and while it’s tempting to compare your loss or your grief to someone else’s, this will not help you through your journey. You alone know the meaning of your loss, and your job is to fully realize your own loss and grief process.
The Five Stages of Grief
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed the concept of stages of dying for those in grief, and the model has been adapted to provide meaning for those who are grieving. She posited that there are five stages of grief that people typically go through in order to fully process a loss. These stages are not meant to box and define your emotions into neat categories, but rather to help you understand what you are feeling and give a name for where you are in the process. The 5 stages are usually not linear, and everyone goes through them at a different pace and order. You may be in the fourth stage and then jump back into the second stage, and all of this is perfectly normal. And not everyone goes through all of them. Your grief is as unique as you are.
Denial is often the first stage of grief and the most acute. It presents itself right after the loss, when our world has lost meaning and become overwhelming. We go through denial because the loss we’ve experienced is too much for our minds to process. This stage can seem odd to others but it helps us survive and cope with the loss. It also helps us manage our grief so that it is not too much to handle at one time. You may be in shock, and just getting through the day can be difficult. Denial assists us in pacing our feelings of grief. As we come to accept more and more that the loss occurred, then our mind lets the feelings and emotions we weren’t able to process before come to the surface.
In telling the story of our loss, the feelings we denied before start coming to the surface. When your mind is feeling safe enough, anger occurs. When your brain knows that you can survive whatever comes next, your anger may come to the surface, and can present itself in many ways. Who are you angry at? Perhaps yourself, perhaps circumstances, a doctor, the world, someone else. Maybe you are angry at God, or whatever higher power you ascribe to, for letting this happen. Anger is the safe expression of your pain. It gives structure to the nothingness of your loss. The important thing here is to let yourself feel your anger. This is often difficult, as anger can be an intense emotion. But don’t judge your anger; name it, feel it, and in time, let it go.
Bargaining can happen before or after the loss. If before, it may look like you bargaining with someone, or even your higher power, saying something like “I’ll be a better person if only…” or “If you spare my husband, I’ll do…”. After the loss, bargaining can look like you promising to be something or do something and making the loss go away. Bargaining is our mind’s unique way of giving ourselves a reprieve from the pain and deep emotions, and moving us forward in our grief process.
At this point you may be going back and forth between the first three stages, and that is all completely normal. The stages are not designed to be progressed through linearly, and your grief is as unique as you are.
Depression is perhaps the stage we most associate with grief. We have moved ourselves into the present, have accepted that bargaining will not bring back our loved one, and the grief enters our minds and bodies on a deeper level. Depression is a very normal response to a great loss. As with anger, you need to allow yourself to feel the deep sadness and associated depression that occurs with the loss. Do not try to avoid it, or distract yourself from it. When your mind has processed all of your pain, the depression will leave and you will start to feel like yourself again. You may think that you will never feel like the person you were before the loss, as depression is partly a loss of hope. But depression can be temporary, it is not permanent, and it is also very treatable.
The name of this stage, acceptance, can be misleading. Acceptance does not mean that you have accepted the loss and are OK with it. It means rather that even though the loss happened, and you were profoundly affected, you are able to move forward and get on with your life once more. You are accepting the reality of the loss and accepting your life without this person, pet, or thing in it anymore. We start to learn about who we are again, we cement what our meaning in life is, and we start reintegrating in the world. Acceptance may not have a specific end point. It is a process and will likely take time to get to. You may start connecting with others again, getting back into dating, get a new pet, or trying new activities that your loss catapulted you into. You start to live and feel again.
Understanding the five stages of grief can help you understand what emotions you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and may normalize whatever you are going through during your grieving process. What the five stages should not do is tell you how to grieve in a certain way. It can serve as a roadmap, but not for a linear road but rather a circular, in and out process. Unfortunately, the process of grieving is not something we can rush. Fully processing and experiencing our grief takes time, effort, and the recognition of painful emotions. As the children’s book Going on a Bear Hunt (Michael Rosen) says, “we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it”, the only way to overcome our grief is to go through it.
If you are interested in how therapy can support you through your grief process, contact us at Catalyss Counseling for a free 20-minute phone consultation or schedule an appointment
with one of our experienced grief therapists.