There’s no correct way to feel when you’re grieving. Bereavement and loss affect people in different ways and cause different emotions, feelings and symptoms.
The five stages of grief is a model developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist who specialised in near-death studies, to describe how someone might go through a journey of grief. While it originally reflected experiences of people who were dying from terminal illness, it can be applied more generally to grief and loss.
Some people don’t agree with this model, or don’t feel that it reflects the grieving process. But others find it helpful in understanding the different stages of grief – although each stage is different for everyone and you might not experience every stage.
What are the five stages of grief?
“Everyone’s experience is unique to them but I feel that these five stages map well onto most people’s journeys,” says our member Jen Mak.
“The stages can each be felt broadly week to week or month to month, but also within a day and in any order as different memories and events can trigger different feelings of loss.”
After a bereavement or a loss, you can be overwhelmed by your emotions. Pretending that it hasn’t happened can be a defence mechanism that can help you cope as you struggle to process events or continue as normal.
It’s normal and natural to feel angry after being bereaved. Death can be cruel, and anger allows us to release some of our emotions about our loss. We may feel angry with ourselves for what we did or didn’t do. Or we may be angry at the person who has died or at the circumstances around their death.
You may find yourself negotiating with yourself, with your fate, or with your god if you’re religious, to try to undo or change the loss. You may go over things that happened and want to go back and change them to prevent the loss.
As we process our grief we start to focus on the present and the reality of our loss. We may have strong, painful and frightening feelings of sadness, loss and yearning. We might withdraw and avoid situations or others.
These emotions can last a short time or for years, and they may come and go. But as time passes, most people find they ease, leading to the fifth stage.
This is when your emotions begin to stabilise and you learn to live with your loss. You may still feel sadness and regret, and you may never get over your loss, but you can learn to live with it. You can start to accept your new reality, move on and find enjoyment again.
Who can experience the five stages of grief?
Jen says anyone who experiences a loss may be affected in this way. “It could be the loss of people, a relationship, things that we had like a job, or what we hoped for such as good health,” she says.
But the experience is different for each person.
“It’s complicated because our loss can be layered,” she adds. “For example, the loss of a partner can cause ripples of loss within our day-to-day, shared friendships and activities.”
What can you do if you’re experiencing one of the stages of grief?
Allow yourself time and space to feel your emotions, says Jen.
“The stages don’t necessarily progress in a linear way that guarantees recovery,” she says. “The feelings and thoughts that come can be messy, ugly and uncomfortable. Sometimes they surface when we don’t want them to, and sometimes we feel bad because we can’t seem to feel the loss in the way that we or others expected.”
Anger in particular can be challenging as it can be a very uncomfortable feeling to hold.
“Be kind to yourself with how and when experiences of loss happen,” says Jen. “Some people find value in listening to music, reading books or watching films that have a story that resonates with them, that helps them to tap into their own experience.”
How can counselling help with grief?
When you experience bereavement or loss, it’s normal to go through a range of emotions, including anger, sadness, loneliness and guilt. Counselling can help you deal with them.
Jen says: “Counselling offers a space for the messiness of loss to unfurl.
“I often compare it to having to pack a suitcase very quickly. You choose the largest suitcase you’ve got and chuck everything in it. You don’t have time to fold things neatly, you just need to pack.
“In counselling, you bring that suitcase in and you take bits out as and when you’re ready. You choose what you don’t need any more and what things you want to keep. Some things can be neatly folded, and over time you can pack things into a smaller suitcase.
“Memories that were once painful can become cherished.”
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