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How to apply 5 stages of grief to your grieving process

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A new look at the stages of grief model can make the pathway to healing less rocky when you're mourning a loved one.

You’ve probably heard the term “stages of grief.” Maybe you never gave the concept much thought — until now, when you’re grieving someone dear yourself. The original five stages of grief theory rose to prominence in 1969, when psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published “On Death and Dying.” Her model of the five stages of grief, developed from her work with terminally ill patients, was: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance.

Dr. Kübler-Ross’ theory was so widely embraced that it started being used as a template for loss in all its forms. Soon, though, the model had challengers, who noted that a theory based on the dying themselves wouldn’t translate so neatly to those left behind to mourn. A later work by Dr. Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler, “On Grief and Grieving,” published in 2007, presented a framework for the bereaved. It casts the original five stages of grief into the context of loss for those needing grief support.

Still, these stages of grief and loss are not meant as a map to what the grieving process will look like, but what it could look like. Many people experience something similar, while plenty of others don’t. Not everyone goes through the stages in that order, or even experiences all five. For example, the last one, acceptance, is sometimes never reached due to getting stuck in anger or depression.

There is no right way to mourn the loss of a cherished loved one. While you’ll never stop missing him or her, the most acute pain will almost certainly subside with time. For some people that takes months; for others, it’s years.

With that said, here are some suggestions for applying the stages of grief and loss to your grieving process:

1. Denial

This stage, akin to shock, is an immediate coping mechanism. Refusing to allow yourself to believe the terrible news is a tool of biology that stems the wave of pain. Denial naturally fades as you become stronger.

2. Anger

Most of us have a habit of trying to suppress anger, but now is not the time for that. The key is to allow yourself to feel your anger, even though it may seem scary. The more you push yourself through it, rather than around it, the more it fades. Letting yourself feel anger can be a life-preserver of sorts. It’s something to cling to, for a short time, to help you get through the sea of grief and back onto land.

Writing about your feelings in a journal can be a productive way to express your anger and process it. You also may want to pick up one of the many grief books available that offer a variety of advice for the healing process.

3. Bargaining

After raging at God and anything else in your path, you may change your approach and attempt to negotiate your way out of the pain of the loss. “I just want things to be OK again. Maybe if I devote my life to charity ... this will all go away.”

Be aware that this stage is commonly where the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” mindset can creep in. As you think of actions that might change your present reality, you may recall what you did in the past, which can lead down a rabbit hole of bereavement guilt.

Friends undoubtedly want to support you. Reach out to them if you feel you need help, either in practical ways, like grocery shopping or housework, or emotional ones, like keeping you company for an hour. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to friends, grief support groups, either in-person or online, can help you feel connected to others in similar situations. 

4. Depression

Depression is an appropriate grieving response. It shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign of mental illness. Yet, too often, well-meaning friends and relatives may try to get you to “snap out of it” or encourage you to “get on with your life.” Try to understand that they want to help but may not know what else to say. Thank them for their concern while explaining that depression is part of the natural healing process.

While you allow your mind and spirit to mend, take care of your body. Eat healthy foods as much as possible, and try to get a little exercise every day, even if it’s just a walk around the block.

Remember, this is a notoriously bad time to make big decisions, even those that seem positive. Your judgment, understandably, is not as sharp as usual. Hold off on ideas like adopting a dog or putting your house up for sale.

5. Acceptance

The final stage of grief can be misconceived. Reaching a state of acceptance doesn’t mean you wake up one day and feel just fine about losing your loved one. It means you’ve come to terms with the fact that your life has changed, and you can work with your new reality rather than fighting it.

You may have the urge to reach out to friends, look for simple ways to be helpful to others, or start to notice the simple pleasures in life again. While you’ll still wish your loved one was enjoying a grandbaby’s giggle, a colorful garden, or a hot cup of cocoa on a snowy day with you, reaching acceptance means you’ll be able to enjoy those activities nonetheless — and more often than not.

Photo credit: iStock

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