Grief looks so different from person to person and situation to situation, so it would be overly simplistic to suggest that I could describe exactly what grief feels like. That being said, it’s my hope to share a few ideas that will help you understand grief—things like the commonalities that many people share in their types of grief and signs that grief may turn into something even more serious.
The 5 Stages of Grief
The 5 Stages of Grief were originally developed for people who were dying. However, it quickly became clear that the stages also apply to people who survived a loved one.
The stages do not have to occur in any specific order. The way they are listed here may be the most common order, but it can differ for different people. You can go through more than one stage at the same time; for example, you can feel angry and depressed at the same time.
The stages do not have to happen within a specific time frame, especially not with a definite end date, and not everyone experiences all stages. You may just experience denial, bargaining, and acceptance, for example.
Remember they can come and go; you may not experience any of the stages for a while, but then, during the holidays, for example, you may find yourself in the depression stage all over again.
This is a defense mechanism, which can be an effective coping mechanism (except if overused or used for too long), especially immediately after the death of a loved one. Losing someone can be so overwhelming that, initially, being in a state of disbelief can be a good thing. It allows the bereaved to feel numb, so they can pace the grief. The suppressed feelings can come to the surface a little bit at a time, as opposed to intense feelings flooding them with emotions they are unable to tolerate. During this time, the bereaved live in a made-up reality, maybe by pretending that the deceased is on a trip, which may buy the bereaved enough time to help prepare funeral arrangements.
This stage occurs once reality hits: the bereaved now realize that their loved one is not coming back. They may feel angry about many things, like the unfairness of the loss: Why did their husband, at the height of his life, and a complete health nut, have to die? Why could it not have been someone else’s husband, someone much older who led a full life, or someone who made poor life choices drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and doing drugs all the time (bargaining / life swapping)?
Another reason the bereaved may feel angry is due to feeling abandoned—the deceased “deserted” their partner who is now forced to fend for herself—a single parent left to raise their fatherless, grieving children all by herself.
I once worked with a client who, without me prompting her, wrote several letters to her deceased husband, one was a “fuck you letter” and another one was an “I love you letter.” Her husband died suddenly at the age of 40 and left her with two little boys, the youngest being just 2-years-old. It is understandable and completely normal to feel angry. Anger helps bring back the bereaved into the real world, so the actual grieving can begin.
In this stage, there is “life swapping”—I remember my uncle doing this when his granddaughter, a senior in high school, lost one of her best friends in a bicycle accident on their way home from school. My uncle, in his late 70s, had spent several years on an oxygen tank 24/7 due to breathing issues caused by lung disease; his years of cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure got the best of him. He cried when he told me that, without giving it a second thought, he would have traded his life if he’d been given the chance so that the young high schooler could have kept on living.
Then there is the “time machine”—what if the teenager had left school to bike home a few minutes later than he did; the truck that ran him over would have been on a different road by then, and the accident would have never happened; he would still be with us today.
Finally, there is also “regret and guilt”—if only I had driven him to school that day (the high schooler’s mom). It was raining that morning and he asked me if I would give him a ride, but I told him he’d be fine. I even said that a little rain has never hurt anyone and that it would help build character.
In this stage, the bereaved can have some or all of the following feelings or symptoms:
- Emptiness, numbness, detachment
- Overstimulation by the world’s sensory output
- Isolation and loneliness
- Little to no energy and motivation
- Hopelessness and lack of purpose in life
- Sadness and crying spells
- Worry and anxiety
- Regret and guilt
- Difficulty sleeping and extreme fatigue
- Decreased or loss of appetite
- Aches and pains, such as headaches
In this stage, the bereaved have come to terms with their new reality. They have made the necessary adjustments to function in a world without their loved one. This means that they have taken on part of the responsibilities of the person who has passed on and delegated the other part to various other people. It is unlikely that the different roles will all go to one and the same person—the different roles will go to different cups. In grief counseling, I refer to this process as “cups and roles.”
Is It Grief or Prolonged Grief Disorder or Depression?
Part of understanding grief is realizing there is a difference between Prolonged Grief Disorder and clinical depression, which is called “Major Depressive Disorder.”
It can be tricky to distinguish grief from depression, yet it is important to make the distinction. If grief turns into a major depressive disorder, the grieving person needs a different and a higher level of care:
Criteria for PGD—Prolonged Grief Disorder
Differences Between Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
3 Forms of Grief
No matter if you are experiencing acute grief, prolonged grief disorder, or major depressive disorder, reaching out to a local therapist is always a good idea. They can help you process and integrate your grief.
(Related: Coping Techniques)
- Book Recommendation: On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler
- Mantra: I AM SURRENDER // repeat with diaphragmatic breathing
- Yin Yoga Asana: Corpse Pose (also called Shavasana)
This page includes Amazon Associate affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase a product I suggest. I only recommend products I believe in. Learn more HERE.