Grief is inevitable. At some stage in life, everybody suffers the loss of something they cherish. Typical causes are the loss of a parent, child or sibling, the breakup of a relationship or the passing of a pet.
Dealing with grief is a personal journey. There is no set formula or rule book that outlines how you should deal with loss. However, it is important that grief is not ignored as this can lead to psychological and emotional problems later in life.
Although there is some debate as to the actual healing process after a loss, it is acknowledged that people overcome grief in stages. It is helpful to identify the different types of grief and understand the typical stages you go through during your recovery.
What Are The Seven Stages of Grief?
1. Shock and Disbelief
When someone becomes aware of a loss, the initial reaction is typically shock and disbelief. This is your brain’s protective mechanism kicking in to avoid you from being overwhelmed.
Feelings of shock and disbelief suspend your pain until you are ready to grieve properly.
How you respond to a change in circumstances, and the length of time it takes to pass through each stage, depends on various factors such as age, the closeness of the relationship and your emotional dependency on whatever it is you are missing from your life.
Denial is another coping mechanism, a means of self-preservation. It is a subconscious way of suspending belief in order to avoid the feelings of being overwhelmed by pain.
This phase takes form in different ways. Some people will deny they are grieving or affected by the loss whilst others will deny their loved one has gone.
A study performed by researchers at Columbia University revealed around 7% of bereaved people suffer from “complicated grief” – a prolonged period of suffering.
This often involves ruminating about the circumstances for the loss, a difficulty in comprehending the finality of the situation, and excessive avoidance of anything that serves as a reminder.
In some circumstances, it is quite normal for the bereaved to feel a sense of guilt during the grieving process, especially if the death was sudden or unnatural.
Researchers at University College London found that shame and feelings of being stigmatised is a common response to unnatural and violent deaths. The report published in The Lancet Psychiatry reads:
“…there were many similarities in the mental health problems experienced after bereavement by sudden unnatural causes and by suicide.”
Thoughts and feelings may arise that you are to blame, even when you know deep down that you are not. It is common for survivor’s guilt to surface with expressions of what might have been “if only I had/hadn’t…”
4. Anger and Bargaining
Stage four is the turning point in how people respond to grief and one of the most important to understand. Feelings of loss, disbelief and guilt can later arise as anger and frustration. It is a sign that you need an emotional release.
Some people also negotiate with themselves in an attempt to work out what could have been done differently. This is a necessary process to overcome guilt.
During this stage, it is important to find a healthy way to deal with your anger and during the bargaining process, acknowledge there is nothing you could have done to change the outcome.
5. Depression, Loneliness, Reflection
Once the bereaved acknowledges the certainty of the loss, a period of depression will follow. This is often accompanied by reflection and feelings of loneliness as you realise those times are gone.
In most cases, this stage involves an acute sadness, but can also demobilise people to the point where you do not have the energy or willingness to leave the house.
During this stage, grieving is not about feeling the pain of loss, but a fear of the change in your life. This is particularly the case for people that have lost a loved one with whom they spent a lot of time.
6. Reconstruction of Working Through
The final turn on the road to recovery begins to emerge in the sixth stage. This is the point in which the bereaved realises the situation cannot be changed and you need to move on.
This does not mean you will forget about what you have lost. It’s normal to feel lonely from time to time even after many years. The important factor is that whatever grievances a person experiences, the only way to actually overcome loss is to move forward and find a way to enjoy life again.
The acceptance stage is when a grieving person makes a conscious decision to move on and actively starts restructuring their life. This may involve a cleansing process of clearing out the possession of a loved one or moving them out of sight. It’s also quite natural to seek out old relationships, start a new hobby or join a social club.
After a significant loss, it can be difficult to adjust to your new circumstances. The goal is to reach the acceptance stage, look beyond the present and focus on the future.
Whilst some people struggle to overcome grief, understanding the stages we need to go through during the recovery process, can act as an incentive and encourage you to push yourself towards the next stage.