Why the “five stages of grief” help with so many life situations

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When people are grieving they go through five distinct stages. Although originally developed to help people suffering from a terminal illness and for coping with bereavement the “five stages of grief” have since been developed for many life situations that involve personal loss.

These include a relationship break-up; redundancy, a business collapse or income loss; imprisonment; an infertility diagnosis; and exam results disappointment or not getting into a chosen college.

As well, it can help immensely with understanding and recovering from many mental health problems including addiction to such as drugs, sex, gambling or alcohol.

The five stages of grief are also known as the Kübler-Ross model. This is after Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004) who introduced them in her 1969 book On Death and Dying.

Kübler-Ross was directly motivated by the lack of teaching on how to deal with dying and death that she saw in medical schools. But she also had directly personal reasons too.

During the Second World War she helped refugees in Europe where she saw lots of illness and loss. Then she visited the Maidanek Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Poland where the sense of human loss was overwhelming.

But she was also astounded by the strength of human spirit she heard about from survivors of this inhumane place. She was particularly moved by the hundreds of butterflies carved by fingernails into some walls there by those facing their death.

From then on it motivated her own life – she wanted to help people suffering from loss. In the 1960s she suffered several miscarriages that gave her even more resolve to develop something that could help.

Today an adaptation of the five stages is even used as a management aid. Known as the Kübler-Ross Change Curve, it is used by companies such as IBM, the BBC and Boeing to guide employees through times of change.

What are the five stages of grief?

The word “grief” derives from Old French grever meaning “burden”. When we experience loss it feels as if we are bearing a heavy load.

Sometimes it seems as if we will always have this heaviness. It can make us physically struggle as well – as if every step is through sticky mud.

So right from the beginning it helps to know that the majority of people will go through these five stages following a personal loss. It is absolutely normal.

The five stages of grief are:

  • Denial.
  • Anger.
  • Bargaining.
  • Depression.
  • Acceptance.

There is no fixed timetable for this process. That depends on the nature of the loss, what happens afterwards and the disposition of the person.

Whatever the loss – from losing income, usual freedoms or good health to a relationship split, losing sense of self due to addiction or a bereavement – it is helpful to know what the five stages involve in more detail.

1. Denial.

On first hearing about the loss there is numbness. It is complete shock.

It feels like it’s too much for us to rearrange our reality to the new one. So being in denial helps us minimize the overwhelming pain.

We need time to let in what is a momentous shift. Many people report at this stage a sense of separation from their self as if they are looking at their own life in a movie.

2. Anger.

When denial leaves us it is replaced with anger at this new order that is actually disorder of the world we knew. We feel in chaos and we are angry at the world, at God, at the circumstances, at people involved in causing this chaos – sometimes at all of these at once.

Many people are also angry with themselves that they couldn’t stop it from happening. Questions flash around people’s minds like lightning strikes in a storm: “Why me?”; “How could they?”; “Why did you let this happen?”

Anger is also an emotional release that is actually often more acceptable than showing vulnerability. We need an emotional release, so feel for one – and anger is there.

3. Bargaining.

As anger diminishes an inner searching will fill us. Many questions, pleas or prayers are offered, some in an attempt to deal with guilt, regrets or shame.

These can be such as: “If you get me out of this mess, I promise never to drink again” or “I’ll never get angry again if you stop her from dying.”

We can also repeatedly go over such as “what ifs” and “shoulds” where we are bargaining with ourselves. “What if I’d told them I loved them more often…?”; “What if I’d spent time more listening to them…?”; “I should have just not had that first drink…”

We become aware at this stage of our helplessness. Bargaining is a way of processing and perhaps learning from the acute feelings we are having.

4. Depression.

This stark realization of our helplessness most often leads to some form of depression. “Your sorrow is the inevitable result of circumstances beyond your control,” Kübler-Ross wrote in her book On Grief and Grieving.

It can be difficult to see any hope for the future and life can seem a bit aimless. Of course we might try to seek some relief from the new disorder in our lives by reliving memories of how it used to be when everything seemed in order. But this can also make us feel depressed

However it is also part of the process that can be useful. 

Kübler-Ross wrote about this in On Grief and Grieving: “As difficult as it is to endure, depression has elements that can be helpful in grief. It slows us down and allows us to take real stock of the loss. It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up. It clears the deck for growth. It takes us to a deeper place in our soul that we would not normally explore.”

5. Acceptance.

We come to accept that life is how it is now. There is an acceptance of the new reorganized order.

Our sadness or regret may not leave us. But we have moved towards healing and reconnection.

“You will learn to live with it,” Kübler-Ross said. “You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. We will never like this reality or make it okay, but eventually we accept it.”

People with spiritual beliefs from such as the spiritual awakening of the 12 Steps recovery program tend to reach this acceptance stage more swiftly. This is because they have developed an attitude of letting go and a belief that a greater power is taking care of their lives.

The five stages of grief have even been used this year to explain people’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Author David Kessler who co-wrote two books with Kübler-Ross including On Grief and Grieving applied the five stages to responses to the virus – “There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: this virus won’t affect us.

“There’s anger: you’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?

“There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

“Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance.”

Lastly, on losing a loved one Elisabeth Kübler-Ross had these moving words: “A ship exists on the ocean, even if it sails out beyond the limits of our sight. The people in the ship have not vanished; they are simply moving to another shore. The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” 

To find out how Tikvah Lake Recovery can help you or someone you care about with any form of grieving or personal loss please get in touch with us today.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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