The 5 Stages of Grief & How to Create Meaning
Wow! The past week, really the past 13 months have been a process of grieving. I am really good at helping others through difficult times, but it is not always as easy to help myself and those who mean the most to me. Y’all know I keep it real, and I’m open with my own struggles.
Last July, my girlfriend’s mom was diagnosed with a variety of life threatening health conditions, and it has been a process of doctor’s appointments, moving her multiple times and trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. I am sad to report that she ended her struggle a couple of Friday’s ago on August 8. Although it is incredibly sad to have to say goodbye, it has also been relieving to know she is no longer struggling and suffering.
I saw a quote right after she passed that said, “Grief never ends… but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness nor a lack of faith… It is the price of love...” and it seemed so to true to me. It’s as if the grief we feel is a reaction to all the love we want to give to someone who is no longer with us. I don’t believe grief ever goes away, but it definitely changes over time.
During my many years working as a therapist, I have worked frequently with clients going through the process of grief and grieving. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to grieving, but I have seen many common themes that most people experience. I often reference the writing of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler about The 5 Stages of Grief through the books On Grief and Grieving and Live Lessons. Although these stages do not occur in a linear way for most people, the 5 Stages of Grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. David Kessler recently wrote a follow up book about a possible sixth stage of grief; Finding Meaning.
In today’s blog, I will be addressing each of the stages and some of the things to expect during each one. It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the stages can occur at the same time. We are complex people with complex emotions, so it’s very natural to experience multiple feelings simultaneously. It is also possible to experience the stages more than once.
The brain doesn’t like to have to deal with difficult feelings and emotions, so it is not uncommon to experience feelings of denial when going through grief. When going through the denial stage of grieving, it is important to be understanding of yourself and where you are in your process. During this stage you may feel like you actually forget the reality of things. You could find yourself picking up the phone to call the person who has passed, and then have a realization that isn’t possible. It can also show up as a kind of disbelief that they are really gone.
If you are helping someone else through their grief, remember that there is nothing wrong with people going through this stage. One of the biggest pitfalls I see when experiencing denial is when people try to push through this feeling too quickly or force someone into the acceptance stage before they are ready.
The anger stage can be quite jarring and unexpected. You’re no longer in denial that a loss has occurred, but there are often many feelings of anger associated with the loss. It could be anger at the reason the loss happened, anger at the person for dying or leaving, anger at all the things you were not able to do or won’t be able to do going forward. It could even show up as anger at yourself for not having done more or not being able to stop the loss from occurring.
Although it is normal and natural to experience feelings of anger, it is important to not stay fused with this stage. Moving through the anger takes time, and it is possible. Let yourself feel what you need to feel and know that expressing the anger is one of the best ways to move through it.
As your brain is trying to come to grips with the loss you’re experiencing, it will try to bargain. It is still not ready to fully accept the loss, and it is really trying to come up with any other possible outcomes. This is the stage where the “what ifs” can take over, and you’ll find yourself re-playing things over and over again. From wanting to go back and do things differently to wishing you could trade place with the person or have taken all the pain away, these are all natural parts of bargaining. Logic has sorta taken a step out of the process and emotion has taken over.
I find it’s helpful with clients during this stage to validate how they are feeling. Allow yourself to think about the “what ifs” but also bring some logic back to the situation. Give yourself the permission to see all that you did do for the person you’ve lost. It also helpful in this stage to remember that the person who passed would want you to go on living your best life, even if they are not here anymore.
The longer you go through the grieving process, the more you do realize the reality of things. Depression may come in waves or it may show up and take hold of you for a while. You may find yourself withdrawn and uninterested in things that once brought you joy. It could be that you experience waves of sadness and burst into tears at any moment or it may show up as memories you’ll find yourself thinking on while driving down the road.
Many people report a feeling of going through the motions of life, and this can go on for an extended period of time. Depression is often an important stage of the healing process, but much like anger, you don’t want to stay fused with it forever. If you are unable to push through the depression stage, and you do feel like you’ve become fused with it, I would suggest finding someone to talk to you about the symptoms. Yes, it is a natural part of grieving, but it is also important to make sure you are safe and taking care of yourself.
Although we may never fully get to a complete state of acceptance, at least not for a long time, it is what many believe to be the final stage of grief. The acceptance stage is not where you are ok with what happened, but you are starting to accept the new reality of going on with your life in spite of the loss. Although there may be feelings of accepting what has happened, there will still be hard days and times when you cycle back through the other stages of grief. You learn to live again, and you start to realize that you own life is not over.
The first year after a loss is often the hardest to get through. You have to experience a whole year of firsts without your loved one, and it can make holidays or special occasions a mixture of emotions. This is not to say that feelings won’t linger after the first year, but in my clinical experience, the first year is usually the hardest emotionally to get through.
I love that Kubler-Ross and Kessler have added an addition stage to the 5 Stages of Grief. I guess now they will be called the 6 Stages of Grief, and I can’t wait to read their new book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. When I work with clients through grief, I often encourage them to find ways to memorialize their loved one in whatever ways they see fit. Life is for the living, but that doesn’t mean we forget those who have passed on.
Finding meaning in death, dying and grief could be as simple as finding ways to be grateful for the time you had with them. It could involve setting up a scholarship in their name to the college they attended or it could be planting a tree in their honor. There is really no limit to the types of things that could give yourself meaning and to help you find peace through your grief.
My advice to anyone going through the 5 Stages of Grief, or should I say the 6 Stages of Grief is to remember that time really is the great healer. No one grieves exactly like someone else, and everyone is entitled to their own process. It’s hard, it’s messy at times, but it is a necessary part of living. You will have to figure out what works best for your own process, and try to remember to be good to yourself.
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Work with Me
If you are interested in setting up an appointment for therapy, life coaching, or consulting or if you would like more information about ways to work through grief or help someone going through a grieving process, you can call my office directly at 314-485-9189 or feel free to send me a message. My direct email address is email@example.com and you can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest for more life and relationship tips!
I will be launching a number of new workshops and coaching groups in the next few months, so there will be many ways to connect and work with me! Stay tuned for details on them coming soon!
Therapy Thoughts Workshops
If you are local to the St. Louis area and interested in attending my monthly Therapy Thoughts Workshops, I would love to have you join the discussion. With school starting this month, things get a bit hectic for everyone, so we have decided hold the next in-person workshop in September. It will be Wednesday, September 18, 2019 from 7:30pm-8:30pm, and it will at the The Bike Stop Cafe in St. Charles. We will be continuing the discussion about relationships, and I will let you know the exact topic very soon. Just a reminder, the cost is $5 to get in, and this gets you $2 off any drink of your choice as well as entry into the attendance raffle drawings. I hope to see you there!
Therapy Thoughts Podcast
My Therapy Thoughts podcast is re-launching in this week, and I am so excited!!! There was a small delay in getting things re-launched while dealing with loss and grieving in my own life, but I’m not letting anything stand in our way. It will be available in audio format only at first, but it will eventually be available in video format too.
The file will be uploaded to my website at this link each Thursday afternoon, and then I’ll share it to all the podcasting sites from there. I am really looking forward to having this up and running again, and I am so grateful to all of you for your continued support. Remember to make sure you are following all my social media platforms and make sure you subscribe to my YouTube channel, so you will know when a new episode is posted and you’ll be able to watch all the episodes once I have the videos ready to go!