The Five Stages Of Grief

In this world, grief and loss are inevitable.  This is an unfortunate truth and is part of being only human and a mere mortal.  It doesn’t matter how positive an outlook you have on life – bad things will happen to good people, and when these things happen, we need to let ourselves go through the grief process.

It often helps to know that there is a known process involved in coping with loss and grief.  You know that you’re not alone and that you are normal. This helps you permit yourself to grieve. And it is important to go through the process. If you block yourself off and don’t let yourself walk the journey, this can cause problems further down the track – we deal with a number of people using hypnotherapy who have bottled up grief from an old loss and have never fully released it.

The process of grief was first investigated formally in the 1960s by Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.  Of course, the grief process had been informally explored by writers throughout history, who had turned their feelings into art.  Some of the more striking examples of these works are “In Memoriam” by Tennyson (written after a close friend was drowned in a shipwreck) and “A Grief Observed” by CS Lewis (of Narnia fame), which was written after the death of his wife from cancer.

Dr Kübler-Ross looked at the process of grief in the context of death and dying. In fact, the book in which she outlined the process was called “On Death and Dying.” She was mostly interested in people who were suffering from terminal illnesses as well as their family members.  However, the process is similar no matter why you have to go through the process. People have similar reactions when faced with the other tragedies of life: divorce, redundancy, losing a home through fire or some other natural disaster, being diagnosed with a long-term medical condition that won’t go away, and even some seemingly happy and successful events, like having a child growing up and moving out of the family home.

All of the five stages are necessary parts of the process.  In the case of severe loss, such as death or divorce, the process can become a cycle, repeating over and over, although it becomes less severe over time.  If you do not give yourself permission to go through all the stages, or if circumstances prevent you from going through them properly, some of the grief may be blocked and bottled up. For example, people going through a natural disaster may feel that they have to stay strong and calm so they can help other people cope, or so they can help with the rescue effort.  This reaction is admirable and, in many ways, helpful for others, but the grief will still need to be released – we’ve seen a lot of people come for help from hypnosis who have been through this.

The five stages of grieving are as follows:

  1. Denial.  This is the first stage, the stage when the impact of the loss hasn’t really sunk in.  You wonder if you’ve just been imagining those symptoms, or that the doctor has made a mistake, or that your significant other is just making a bad joke about leaving you.  “This can’t be happening!” is a good way of summarising this stage.  This stage never lasts long.
  2. Anger.  We are outraged and furious that such a thing could happen, especially to us.  We look for the cause or something to blame and demand that the problem be fixed (sometimes, we blame ourselves and get angry at ourselves).  “It’s not fair!  Why me?  Why is this happening?” are frequent phrases said by people in this stage.  During this stage, it is important to release the anger, but we have to be careful not to express it in harmful ways.  Again, writing things down is a time-honoured method of expressing it.  An excellent example of someone – or, rather, two people – going through this stage is found in Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, where the poet tells his dying father that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Read this poem aloud – it might help. Or use physical activity as an outlet, even if all you can do is punch a pillow.
  3. Bargaining.  Here, people try to focus on what they can do to change the outcome (needless to say, this stage doesn’t last long if you have lost a loved one to death or if you have lost your home to a natural disaster).  You try to make a deal that will stave off an impending loss.  In the case of divorce or redundancy, this bargaining sometimes does reverse the inevitable, but it doesn’t always.
  4. Depression.  This isn’t the same as clinical depression, although it can lead to it.  This is by far the most uncomfortable stage of the grief process and involves withdrawal, crying, lack of appetite, listlessness and silence.  Two things are important to remember if you are going through this stage or know someone who is. The first is that this stage is necessary and you should not hurry through it but let it proceed at its own pace and resolve naturally.  The second is that you shouldn’t try to cheer up a person going through this stage.  It’s awkward and onlookers often feel that they don’t have the right words to say.  However, words are often not necessary – just being there silently really helps a lot of the time.
  5. Acceptance.  Here, people come to terms with their situation and realise that they will be able to get through whatever it is and that everything will be well.  This is where you face the truth and accept it, and prepare to move on.

Of course, not everyone goes through the stages at the same pace, and how the stages will be expressed will differ from person to person.