What Are the 7 Stages of Grief?
- Although everyone mourns differently, the seven stages of grief provide an understanding of the general grieving experience that many people go through.
Perhaps no concept related to mourning is more ingrained in the public consciousness than the stages of grief. In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, the Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed a theory of grief with five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Kubler-Ross originally applied her model to those who were experiencing terminal illness themselves. Her grief model, however, has come to apply as well to friends and family who experience stages of grief when processing a loved one's illness and death.
While generally thought of in relation to the illness and death of a loved one, the stages of grief can also apply to how someone feels about something like a divorce, losing their job or any other number of unfortunate situations. Although Kubler-Ross wrote of five stages of grief in On Death and Dying, in the decades since, most people have come to think Kubler-Ross's grief model as having two additional steps, for a total of seven stages of grief.
What Are the 7 Stages of Grief?
Shock and Disbelief
Upon hearing that a loved one is sick or has died, it is common to experience disbelief — a feeling of "how could this awful thing be happening?" Even given the inevitability that everyone will succumb to illness and death at some point, it often seems unlikely when such an unfortunate situation visits upon a loved one, especially if the illness or death is sudden.
A common thought at this state is, "But they were just with me yesterday. How could they be gone today?" During this stage, a person's overwhelming feeling may be numbness due to the intensity of the situation, an inability to process the bad news and a sense of feeling detached from the reality of the situation.
This stage can dovetail somewhat seamlessly from the "disbelief" of the first stage, going from a feeling of "this can't be happening" to "this is not happening." This is generally a brief stage, as most people come to accept the reality of a situation after the initial shock has worn off.
Another aspect to this stage is sometimes not just denial of illness or death, but denial about your feelings about what is happening, such as shutting down and insisting "I'm fine" when asked about the unfortunate situation.
Anger and frustration over learning that a loved one is sick or dying is not uncommon, but it is not universal — not everyone manifests grief as anger. For those who do, thinking that the situation is not fair or should not be happening may lead someone to behave with anger toward friends, family and medical staff — and even toward themselves.
In this stage, someone who is grieving attempts to make a deal, usually with a higher being, to change the situation. The person may make an appeal to God and say that, for instance, if God will spare their spouse's life, they promise to be a better person and treat everyone with kindness. Or they may even make an appeal to a higher being along the lines of, "Take my life instead of my loved one's."
This stage is an attempt for a person to try and take control of an uncontrollable situation, and it is not uncommon for even nonreligious people to make such appeals to a higher being in this stage.
When a loved one becomes sick or dies, people are often filled with regrets about their behavior toward that person. Thoughts during this stage might be, "Did I tell them I loved them often enough?" or "Should I have done more to repair our relationship?"
Such thoughts often take the form of guilt, such as, "I could have done more." This thinking can lead someone to believe that they are somehow at fault for the unfortunate situation.
Feeling powerless about a bad situation can lead to depression. At this stage, someone has accepted the illness or death of their loved one but doesn't feel able to deal with it. It can lead to a feeling of "why bother?" Someone in this stage may become lonely, sullen and quiet, and they may retreat inward. They may also not want to talk with or see other people.
Depression that makes life unmanageable can be a sign of clinical depression; anyone who suspects they are experiencing clinical depression should seek the assistance of a doctor or therapist.
Acceptance and Hope
In this stage, someone experiencing grief accepts the situation — and accepts that they cannot change it. The emotional roller coaster of the other six steps should now hit a straight, relatively smooth piece of the track.
Accepting the situation for what it is may even lead to a calmness in the ill person or the person grieving for them. It may also lead a grieving person to feel relief if they believe that their loved one is going to a better place or relief that the pain and suffering is coming to an end. This may be when making immediate, necessary preparations for someone's death starts to occur.
The acceptance and hope stage doesn't mean that someone has "gotten over" the death of their loved one; there is not necessarily ever "getting over" a loved one's death, and that is not the goal. Instead, there is hopefully a feeling that someone has come to terms with the death of their loved one and that the pain over it is no longer unbearable.
How Long Does It Take to Go Through the 7 Stages of Grief?
There is no set duration for the seven stages of grief — it could last weeks, years or even a lifetime. That's because everyone processes grief differently and for a different amount of time. There are many factors that play into someone's experience of grief, including how well they knew the sick or dying person, the stability of their own life and mental health and how suddenly the unfortunate situation came about.
Is There a Set Order to the 7 Stages of Grief?
Just as there is no set duration for how long the seven stages of grief will last, there is also the possibility that someone grieving does not go through all the stages of grief.
In some sense, the concept of there being "stages" of grief is something of a misnomer because it implies that someone goes from one stage to the next in a line. In reality, many people don't process the seven stages of grief in a linear fashion; some will experience certain stages repeatedly, sometimes even within the space of a single day. It is not as though everyone who goes through the denial stage will "finish" that and graduate on to the next stage of anger. And in fact, someone may never go through the anger stage at all.