Grief is a natural human response to loss. We often connect the term to a loved one’s death, but grief is an emotional response to having something or someone you love taken away. Often, those suffering loss can feel overwhelming pain and sadness. However, the expression of grief comes in many forms, including shock, rage, disbelief, guilt, worry, fear, and disassociation.
Grief can present itself in various circumstances ranging in severity from a missed or lost opportunity to extreme trauma-related events. It’s important to note that there are five typical stages of grief we tend to cycle through when faced with these situations. Though the length of time to process grief can range from days to years, it rarely occurs linearly and can also return long after we assume that we’ve processed and moved on from the initial triggering event.
It’s essential for those who wish to heal and cope with grief to understand its stages. This information further helps us to recognize how to build tools to address it and when we may need additional support.
The 5 stages of grief and how to recognize them
The stages of grief all have distinct purposes and manifestations. People often assume we move from one stage to the next and eventually recover. While this is possible, it’s also natural to jump around and even revisit stages as we adapt to our circumstances.
Here are some examples of what we might expect from each stage:
This is a form of self-preservation. It can present as avoidance, mindlessness or numbness, distraction, forgetfulness, and convincing yourself and others that you are “fine.”
We may experience shock, confusion, or emotional shut-down.
Anger generally presents in three ways: passive aggression, open aggression, and assertive anger. That can look like physical aggression or verbally lashing out, having a short fuse and being easily irritated, having a cynical or pessimistic outlook, and reacting with sarcasm and contempt.
We may feel frustrated, full of rage, embarrassed, resentful, impatient, or like we lack control over our emotions.
During this stage, we often run through alternate versions of events. We get stuck obsessing over past and future events, thinking events would have been or will be different ” If only ….”.
We might feel judgemental of ourselves and others, insecure or worried about the present and future. We might compare ourselves to others, feel fear, shame, blame, or guilt, and have heightened anxiety and fixation on events.
This is the stage most easily recognized as part of the grieving process. It includes feelings of sadness, despair, and hopelessness.
We may recognize ourselves experiencing sleep and appetite changes, lack of energy, loss of interest in activities or socialization, decreased motivation, crying, and loss of concern for our well-being.
Experiencing acceptance does NOT mean we stop experiencing the negative emotions related to grief. It is the point in the grieving process where we can build coping mechanisms to orient ourselves in the present moment and help guide ourselves out of the other stages as they occur and recur.
People in the acceptance stage feel more compassion and grace toward themselves. They tend to be open to adopting mindfulness techniques and are willing to be vulnerable, honest, and responsive to outreach from others without feeling defensive.
Strategies to work through the stages of grief
The stages of grief are our defense mechanisms to protect ourselves, disconnect, or avoid the reality of loss. Once we reach the acceptance stage, we accept our new reality and set goals to help ourselves adjust to it. The initial 4 stages prevent us from making adjustments, and we may experience a range of complicated behaviors that we’ll need to address once we reach acceptance. These include increased alcohol or drug use, sleep and appetite changes, increased anxiety and depression symptoms, hyperfocus on external responsibilities and the needs of others while neglecting our own, seeking persistent distraction, and other activities that affect our well-being.
Sufferers also experience physical effects of grief that may have a long-term impact on health if steps aren’t taken to resolve them.
By acknowledging the problems and struggles created by grief, we can reflect on them and identify small changes and priority shifts to address them beneficially. Using self-talk strategies to notice the root cause of your behavior helps us to change or have acceptance for them. For instance, if a grieving person acknowledges that they are sleeping too much, they can set achievable goals to wake up earlier or develop a more concrete schedule. In the same vein, if one recognizes that they are feeling angry, it’s also appropriate to show grace, validate those feelings, and handle them better next time.
When you need more support
Grief can create powerful, all-consuming, and complex emotional and physical responses. While it is a natural process, sufferers may need help guiding themselves out of a specific stage. Often our loved ones and community can be a great support system to help us see our way through our grief, but there are many instances where one may need additional support.
The dedicated team at Hudson Psychiatric Associates offers clinical and therapeutic support for individuals seeking trained, experienced, compassionate, and empathic mental health professionals. Contact us today to get help addressing grief and developing better tools to handle it.