Unpacking the 5 Stages of Grief

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Loving Ashes - Woman dealing with grief

Defined by its intensity of sorrow, grief is by far one of the most harrowing emotions we can experience. For many, grief is extremely overwhelming, and the first step towards minimising this is to understand the process itself. Remember this: there is no incorrect way to grieve. Everyone experiences the grieving process differently, in different orders, at different levels of intensity. We explain below the 5 stages of grief.


Denial is one’s initial defence mechanism, numbing emotions in order to get through the day. This natural barrier against the crushing finality of loss is characterised by isolation and shock. When in denial, it is common to fantasise about things ending well. This ties in closely with the third stage, bargaining.


This stage is important to feel, as it represents the common, more manageable cousin of one’s other suppressed emotions. One may strike out at friends, family, strangers and religious deities as well. We generally ‘prefer’ anger to denial, for example, because it is structured and strongly directed, differing from the remoteness of denial. When experiencing anger, it is important for supporters to try look past the lashing-out and seek clarity, aiding the aggrieved.


The ‘what if’ stage. As mentioned, denial and bargaining often intertwine, though all stages of grief may swap around within minutes or hours of one another, over the weeks and months of grieving. A bargaining person feels guilty, wanting to go back in time and find the perceived faults in their actions thus altering the outcome. Perception does not always equal reality – one cannot possibly have controlled everything that lead to the loss.


Whilst feelings of depression are comprised of hopelessness, withdrawal and intense sadness, the ‘upside’ is that the aggrieved is more present and aware during this period. One typically withdraws from social interactions, and experiences regret. Depressed feelings are necessary for grief; the emptiness of depression illustrates the weight of one’s newfound awareness of their loss.


Acceptance is a gift granted unequally. It can be the most ‘controversial’ of stages, as it is widely misrepresented. Acceptance is not ‘being okay’ with the loss – one likely never will be but learns to accept the finality. Acceptance can be having more good days, creating new relationships and reorganising social roles. One isn’t ‘replacing’ their loved one, but connecting to one’s needs. To accept loss is to start implementing changes to adapt to life without the loved one.

One must allow the other stages to express themselves. Recovery can be perceived negatively by uninformed onlookers; remember that this experience is entirely one’s own, and no standard can be held against a grieving person. It is not ‘brave’ to deny one’s acceptance. Similarly, it is not ‘normal’ or ‘more genuine’ to have an extremely prolonged reaction to loss. Journalist Ruth Davis Konigsberg – who debunks myths about grief in her book – reminds us that, “loss is forever, acute grief is not”. The two are not the same. Grief is profoundly personal and unique, and one must strive to experience it in one’s fullest capacity, in order to adjust to a new iteration of reality.

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