Understanding the Stages of Grief can help us as we process through them. It can help make sense of what we’re feeling and experiencing, help us to not get stuck as we move through it, and help us to heal more quickly. It’s important to understand that, although they are listed in a specific order, we don’t usually experience them fully in that order. At the beginning there is a whole lot of shock and very little acceptance, and at the end there is a whole lot of acceptance and very little shock, and the rest of the process is a mess of all six.
One of my favorite examples of the grief cycle comes from an episode of a TV show from the 90’s. One of the characters, named Lowell, finds out someone he knows has died. He expresses all five of the stages of grief (the traditional model of the stages only has five – I added one) within a minute or two. It sounds something like “What! No! It can’t be! I’m so mad – how could this have happened? Man, this is really depressing. If only I’d spent more time with her! Oh, well. It’s all for the best.” Outside of that scene, I’ve never seen anyone go through the grief process that quickly, but it’s a fairly accurate summary of the general emotional path.
The first stage of grief is shock. The traditional model of grief calls it denial, but I believe the word denial means deliberate avoidance of a topic, and this stage of grief isn’t deliberate avoidance. It’s more like emotional shock. If we are in an accident and are severely hurt, our bodies can go into physical shock. Our heart rate and breathing slows drastically so we need less resources to survive and increase our chance of staying alive. When we experience significant emotional trauma, we go into emotional shock. It prevents us from feeling the whole weight of the pain because if we felt all the pain, we couldn’t survive it. This first stage of grief helps us stay alive and not go crazy from the pain, even though it can feel like we are going crazy sometimes. Often, I’ll hear clients say “This can’t be real!” or “This can’t be my life!” or “Did this really happen???”
The second stage of grief is anger. Anger is the energy behind the emotion. As a general emotion, anger tells us that something is wrong and either we are being hurt or someone else is being hurt. It helps us know that there is damage that needs to be healed or changes that need to be made. The anger we feel might be pointed towards ourselves. It might be pointed towards someone else. It might be pointed towards God/the Universe/our Higher Power. It gives us the power to move forward and make changes so we can heal and minimize the chance of being hurt again.
The traditional model of grief calls the third stage of grief “depression”. I think it’s more than depression. It’s the raw emotions connected to the experience. It’s the pain, the anguish, the despair, the ache. It might be sobbing on the floor or curling up in a ball in a chair. It might be hurting so badly you feel like you can’t breathe. It might be an ache strong enough that you feel like you can’t get out of bed in the morning. This stage of grief helps you process the experience. It honors the loss of what you had, or possibly what you thought you had. It expresses the depth of the loss.
The fourth stage of grief is bargaining. I find that many of my clients don’t really know what this means. It basically means trying to figure out how to change the story, so it has a different ending, so you don’t have to hurt. It sounds like “if only…” or “what if….”. I find it’s very easy for people to get stuck in this stage (you can get stuck in any stage, but I see that often with this stage in particular). There is an episode of the TV show “Scrubs” that I use to help process this stage. It’s called “My Butterfly” in reference to “the Butterfly Effect”, which is part of Chaos Theory. The episode is split into two realities. In one, a butterfly in the ER waiting room lands on a male patient. In the other, the butterfly lands on a female patient. Each half goes through the same day, but there are changes based on who the butterfly landed on. The interesting thing to me is that the same people die in both halves. There are changes that happen – in one half, a child’s stuffed animal is found so she can hold it before surgery, in the other half, it isn’t found before her surgery. In one, one of the characters’ lucky “doo-rag” is found before he goes in to perform a surgery, in the other, it isn’t. There are other changes, but the same people die. Many of my clients connect to that concept – that we have the ability to elicit change, but for life-or-death situations, the ending would have been the same. We can only learn and move forward. The point of this stage of grief is to figure out what changes we can make in the future. Sometimes that is changing boundaries around our connection with someone, sometimes it is changing how we do things.
The fifth stage of grief is one I added to the original model. It’s making meaning. Originally, I called this stage “recognizing the good”, but that doesn’t quite cover it. This stage is about taking our power back. It helps us figure out how we are going to use what we are going through or have gone through to change us and/or the world. It might mean taking good things we lost and incorporating them into our lives moving forward – for example, if someone we loves dies and they always made chocolate chip cookies, we might decide to make cookies on their birthday each year to remind us of them and the connection we had to them. It might mean deciding what we are going to do with ourselves despite what someone else put us through – for example, realizing that dealing with a betrayal deepened our emotional capacity and empathy for others, because that is what we chose to do with the pain someone else caused us.
The final stage of grief is acceptance. This doesn’t mean “I’m ok with this”. It means “this is what it is, and this is how I’m moving forward”. It happens as the shock wears off, as you use the anger to give you the energy to make changes in your life, as you process through the pain, as you figure out what you are going to change, and as you take your power and/or your life back. Your life will never be exactly the same again. There will be things you’ve lost for good. There will also be things you gained throughout the healing process. Acceptance is shifting into seeing your life as it is now and moving forward with it.