Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/8/2023
Whether you’ve lost a friend, a family member or a relationship recently, it’s normal to be curious about the stages of grief.
The grief process is different for everyone. Some people may sprint their way through deep emotional experiences, while others may take longer to numbly work their way through all of the stages. You, meanwhile, may have an entirely different process.
Understanding what to expect is important, because while grief varies from person to person, it does tend to follow a particular path. What changes from case to case is the intensity and the pace at which someone navigates through the stages of grief.
Whether you’re at week zero or coming up on the end of year one, losing someone important in your life is something that you and everyone who cares about you should take seriously. The best support you can get from them (or give to yourself) comes from an informed, educated perspective.
How long you’ll be grieving depends on several factors — before we get to these factors, however, you need to understand the grieving process itself. So let’s start with the top-line question: What is grief?
There are a few common misconceptions about grief, which means many of us have formed an incomplete understanding of what grief actually is. So, before we move forward, we need to debunk these ideas.
Grief, first of all, is not an emotional state or a feeling, but a process. That process is made up of several defined stages (we’ll get to those in a moment) that together characterize the grieving process.
The grieving process is initiated by the loss of a loved one. Typically, that means a death in the family or the death of a close friend or loved one, but the stages of grieving can also occur when a relationship comes to a permanent end, like when a friend or partner breaks things off with us (or vice versa).
Some common signs and symptoms of grief include tearfulness, sadness and insomnia. More serious symptoms may include physical health problems like myocardial infarction — more commonly known as a heart attack.
In addition to symptoms, grief also has stages, which were originally defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. These stages of grief are expressed similarly from person to person but not always in the same order.
Let’s look at them.
According to the National Library of Medicine and the Kubler-Ross Model, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You may already have heard of these, but let’s take a more detailed look at each of them:
Denial (also frequently described as denial and isolation) is sort of a refusal to accept that the grief process is beginning. Numbness, disbelief and essentially shutting down mentally are common reactions within this first stage of grief. You might find yourself doing chores, focusing on your work or leaning into hobbies as distraction or avoidance behaviors while in denial.
When the denial stage is over, many people start to feel a sudden lack of control over their circumstances because their loved one is gone. Frustration and resentment can play out in all aspects of your life, and you might even experience rage during this period. Lashing out, becoming cynical and behaving recklessly are also trademarks of the anger phase of grief.
In the bargaining phase, anger turns to guilt and shame. You take on a sense of responsibility for the loss — and for what you never got to do before the loss occurred. Ultimately, the bargaining phase is about wanting to get back what we lost, so people in this phase can get stuck in the past, ruminating and generally trying to avoid the hurt of the present.
The depression stage of grief takes on the classic depression symptoms: fatigue, sadness, lack of motivation and indifference. You might not care about hobbies, eat more, eat less, gain weight, lose weight, feel deep despair or feel nothing at all. It’s all normal — and it’s normal to bounce around from one emotion to the next as you try and sort out the sadness and emptiness that come with loss.
Of the stages of loss, acceptance is arguably most misunderstood. Most people don’t ever “accept” loss, so arguably the acceptance phase is poorly named. Instead, it might make more sense to call this the “recognition” or “reality” phase, when we accept that the new reality isn’t something we can change.
Missing a loved one is still normal. Wishing they were still with you is normal. Not being “over it” is normal. The definition of the acceptance phase is about making meaning of the emotions that come with grief. It involves learning to integrate those feelings into life and returning to or arriving at some version of a new normal.
The whole grieving process can vary greatly in length from person to person, so telling you which day of which month you’ll be “over it” is well beyond our — or anyone’s — expertise. However, there are common expectations about the length of your grieving period.
For instance, in cases of so-called “normal grief,” the process generally lasts between six months and two years.
The condition known as “complicated grief” is a bit more… erm… complicated. Complicated grief occurs when the grieving process is extended, elongated or stuck, and a person moves more slowly through the grieving process. Also known as prolonged grief disorder, complicated grief is often very intense, raises your risk of cardiovascular problems and can last for more than two years.
At this point, the grief experience is no longer considered normal. In fact, it’s considered a separate disorder in need of additional support from a mental health professional.
So how does complicated grief become so complicated? Oftentimes, it’s because the event that led to the grief experience in question is more “tragic” or severe than grief experiences we all expect, like the death of an elderly relative.
Complicated grief commonly occurs in situations where the loss is unexpected. While losses like those due to terminal illness are never “less painful” to grieve, situations like a parent losing a child suddenly or a sudden death of a spouse is the perfect set of conditions for complicated grief to occur.
Experts are still in the process of defining more of the details of the complicated grief process, but they generally agree that three things are true about this type of grief:
It lasts well beyond socially accepted parameters for grieving — essentially becoming its own chronic illness.
It impairs function — in other words, it keeps you from living and behaving normally.
When it comes to complicated grief, psychotherapy, specifically grief therapy, is the most common and effective treatment. However, one caveat is to talk to a medical professional about whether you may also have a condition like clinical depression, which is sometimes misdiagnosed as complicated grief.
Empathy and, in some cases, medicinal support are effective parts of a treatment plan. If you are trying to help someone who is grieving, your goal is to be supportive and understanding while guiding the grieving person to adapt to their loss. If you’re the one grieving, finding someone to do the same for you can help a lot. And getting that support from day one is so important.
But know that in many cases, it’s a hard job getting someone to adapt. Regardless of your dedication to a person who is grieving and how much support you can give, complicated grief takes professional support in most cases.
Whether you’re grieving a loss of your own or watching someone you love do so, grief is a personal experience — one that’s hard to sit with. It makes us uncomfortable, and it makes us want to take action. Unfortunately, sometimes those instincts can lead us astray.
Well-intentioned statements like “it’s time to move on” and other variations on that theme may sound supportive in our heads, but they can either fall on deaf ears or cause harm in unexpected ways when spoken to a bereaved person.
The best way to support someone who is going through a grief journey — whether they’re a parent, friend, partner or child — is to listen, support and guide them to the right help if need be.
You can’t bring someone back from the dead, and you can’t wave a magic wand to make grief go away, no matter how much you’d like to have that power. All you can do is be there, show them you care and be with them through the process so they know they’re not alone.
Any other treatments — therapy, medication and other supports — are the responsibility of a healthcare professional. If someone you love (or yourself) needs more than you can offer, it’s time to point them to those resources.
Not sure where to start? Our mental health resources are a great place to begin your journey, and our online therapy platform is convenient and available 24/7. It’s not going to take their pain away, but it can start them on the path to adapting, moving forward and living life again.
And that’s what matters. It’s what any of us would wish for those we leave behind.