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Whether you’re dealing with the death of a beloved pet, the loss of a job or are mourning the end of a this-was-the-one relationship, grief is a normal process when you endure any kind of significant loss. And like most things in life, people experience grief differently.
It’s important to know not only that there are different types of grief, but also that grief isn’t just a feeling –– it’s a process. And as you go through the grief cycle, you’re likely to confront all sorts of emotions, some of which may feel unexpected and maybe even confusing.
Whether you’re at the beginning of your own grief journey or want to be more helpful to someone you know on theirs, we get it. Below, we’ll look into each of the 5 stages of grief, the feelings that accompany them and how long you can expect this journey to last.
Spoiler alert: This too shall pass.
Let’s dig in.
When grieving, you might feel symptoms like sadness, irritability and insomnia. In some cases, these symptoms can worsen, causing clinical depression or even, in rare cases, myocardial infarction (a heart attack).
Thanks to Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, we have a helpful model that breaks down the five stages of grief to better help us navigate the process. Because whether you’re going through your first major loss or you’ve been grieving for years, learning more is a powerful first step in getting the support you deserve.
So what are the five stages of grief? Let’s unpack them.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
The denial stage can feel like disbelief, numbness or mentally shutting down. If you’re in this stage, you might find yourself engaging in mindless activities — like working long hours or incessantly cleaning your home — to stay distracted from the loss or push it away from your mind entirely.
Denial is also a common defensive mechanism used to decrease the intensity of a situation. For example, if a friend or loved one is suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, you might say to yourself, “They’re not actually sick. Their test results were just wrong.”
In short, denial gives you the time to start to process difficult information before reality sets in and other emotions begin to surface.
For many people, anger begins to set in as a defense mechanism once feelings of denial subside. You might feel frustrated and resentful, potentially projecting your anger on those who aren’t to blame, like a medical professional (e.g., “That doctor was clueless!”), family member or friend.
The anger stage doesn’t necessarily look like rage though. Instead, it can feel more quiet or bitter. The point is, anger feels differently for everyone and will last longer for some than others.
The bargaining stage of grief can feel a lot like the “shoulda-woulda-couldas.” Grief has a tendency to make people feel vulnerable and helpless, so it’s a natural response for many to try to find ways to regain control in times of discomfort and uncertainty. While in this phase, words like “what if'' and “if only” might pop into your brain.
For a terminal illness, this may sound like: “If only we had gone to the doctor sooner, we could’ve caught the cancer in time.”
For something like a job loss, this could be: “What if I had only come into the office earlier? Would my boss have kept me?”
This sort of worrying about what you could have done might also lead you to start feeling symptoms of anxiety. Depending on the circumstance, a loss might trigger worries about losing another person in your life or cause general concerns for the future. For more grief and anxiety tips, check out our guide.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the depression stage of grief resembles classic depressive symptoms like anxiety, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and irritability, among others. During this time, you may have a lack of interest in activities or hobbies you typically enjoy, experience weight fluctuation or maybe feel nothing at all. There is no “right” way to feel.
Grief comes in waves, whereas depression is more of a constant negative mood.
With grief, self-esteem is usually preserved, while depression is commonly associated with feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing.
If you find yourself sinking into a deeper depression beyond what’s defined in this particular stage, the best thing you can do is consult a healthcare provider to come up with a treatment plan.
The fifth and final stage of grief is acceptance. The acceptance stage feels different in that it entails a sense of clarity: You have come to understand what this loss means in your life.
For instance, if you’re going through a breakup or divorce, acceptance could sound like: “I may still feel sad, but I made the best choice for my relationship.”
If you’re grieving the death of a loved one, you might think to yourself: “I’m happy they’re no longer in pain and grateful for our memories together.”
Even after reaching the acceptance stage, you may still have rough moments ahead. Some days you might bound out of bed with the enthusiasm of a golden retriever puppy and other days, it might take all the energy you can muster to brush your teeth. What matters most is that you’re generous to yourself and take each day one at a time.
Ultimately, acceptance is like sharing a home with a roommate you don’t like but make the choice to accept and coexist with anyway. If you’re still struggling with your feelings, grief journaling can be a powerful tool for expressing your emotion and working through your grief.
There is no official timeline when it comes to the grieving process. Some people take weeks to grieve a significant loss and others take years. Every grieving person is different. That said, the “normal grief” process tends to last between six months and two years. When grief is intense and persistent, this is referred to as prolonged grief disorder.
On the other side of the spectrum is “complicated grief,” which, as you might’ve guessed, is slightly more complicated. As many as seven percent of bereaved individuals experience complicated grief, and while the precise criteria is still yet to be determined by the medical community, it’s commonly classified as:
Longer-lasting, well beyond socially acceptable norms for grieving
Impairing day-to-day functioning
The truth is, there is no “hardest” stage. Everyone moves through grief differently. Some might linger in specific stages for months, while others skip certain stages entirely — and that’s perfectly normal.
Wait, there’s two more stages?
Here’s the deal: Kubler-Ross originally came up with the five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying. Later, Kubler-Ross and a co-author expanded on this model to include two additional ones. The seven stages are:
Shock has been added as the first stage of the grief process. Whether it comes as a surprise (like a freak car accident) or you’re expecting it (such as a loved one’s terminal illness), it’s natural to feel taken aback when processing any type of devastating information. You might feel numb, paralyzed or just a general sense of being overwhelmed.
Testing has also now entered the chat, right after depression but before acceptance. Think of this stage as the “experimentation” one, as you might test different ways to deal with your grief.
For example, if you’re going through a bad breakup, you might consider going to therapy. If you are experiencing the death of a pet, you might volunteer at an animal shelter or find other ways to fill the void.
The major difference between testing and bargaining is that testing is focused on taking action, whereas you’re still battling with your emotions when you’re bargaining.
This new seven-stage model hasn’t been as well-researched as the original five stages, and has even been criticized. And while these new stages may be useful for many, grief experts say that these stages are not sequential (unlike the original five-stage model) and a person can go through them in any order.
Again, there is no “correct” way to grieve.
So you’re familiar with the grieving process — now what?
That’s entirely dependent upon the person. Grief is personal for everybody and so is self-care. Some people may want to be surrounded by friends and loved ones when they’re bereaved, while others may only want the comfort from their favorite reality TV shows.
What you do during this grieving period to help you cope is ultimately up to you.
And if someone close to you is grieving, the best thing you can do for them is to listen, be patient and keep showing up, whether that’s literally at their doorstep with chicken noodle soup or by sending weekly text check-ins.
Equally important, you should know that there are always mental health services available if you or someone you know is grieving. Here are few options to consider during the healing process:
Get help online.
If you’re struggling and want to open up to someone, a therapy provider is always a great option. With the help of online therapy, you can access professional help from wherever is most convenient for you, no trip to the doctor’s office required. There’s also anonymous support groups if you’re craving support but with a layer of privacy.
Find a local mental health professional.
Of course, you can always meet with a mental health professional in-person to talk through your grief. There’s even providers who specialize in grief therapy or grief counseling, if you’re interested.
Reach out to your primary care provider.
If you already have a primary care provider, they can also help you find the right next steps. Based on your symptoms, they can make medical diagnoses and help develop an effective treatment plan, which may include depression or anxiety medication.
If you need additional support as you navigate your new reality, check out our other mental health resources and guide for specific ways to cope with grief. And if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, remember to take things one day at a time and be gentle with yourself. You’ll come out on the other side.
Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and oversees the therapy platform at Hims & Hers.
Prior to Hims & Hers, Beth worked in senior roles at several behavioral healthcare startups focused on the digital delivery of emotional support and treatment through both conventional and innovative approaches.
Her experience prior to working in telebehavioral health includes over 15 years as a Clinical Administrator and provider in diverse clinical settings. In her clinical work, she primarily focused on anxiety, depression and relationships.
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