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  • 1 February 2023
  • 1 year

The Five Stages of Grief

Kouser Chowdrai

MBACP Senior Accredited Counselor

James Sussex

Clinical Team Lead

Grief is an overwhelming emotional reaction to loss. It is natural for people to feel a deep sense of sadness when they lose someone or something they loved. Grief is caused by losing people, pets, jobs, or homes – and in fact, about loss in a broad sense, as well as bereavement. Regardless of the reason, all sorrowful feelings are valid, and those affected are encouraged to embrace them.

When we say grief, we may think of death, but ultimately grieving applies to all significant losses. The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to process grief in the manner we are used to. In these unusual times, grief through the impact of the pandemic is not limited to bereavements experienced directly or vicariously. Instead, it is important to recognize that in some way or another, our lives have changed and, in some cases, permanently. The presence of COVID-19 in our way of life may have challenged our assumptions and beliefs about the security of the world around us, but the pace at which the global pandemic took hold left us with little room for reflection. Many people have lost loved ones – directly or indirectly through the pandemic, and many more have had their lives changed by the ripple effect this has caused. For many it is only now that grief is catching up: from those who were unable to give their loved ones the goodbye they wanted, to those whose job roles changed unexpectedly.

During the past two years, we have had to learn new ways to adjust to life around us. This meant finding different ways to navigate funerals. Due to the restrictions of the number of people who could attend a funeral, some individuals found creative ways to remember and honor their loved ones such as giving out packets of “forget me not” seeds or arranging for family and friends to line up along the route of the procession.

Responses to grief can manifest as feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations. A grieving person can feel numb and dissociated; in bereavement, they may find themselves unable to imagine life without their loved ones, more so if they had planned it together. Other feelings related to loss include helplessness and despair, especially when the grieving person does not know how – or have the language or tools – to move on after the loss. Other feelings include sadness, denial, anxiety, anger, guilt, loneliness, and depression. Although grief describes an emotional state, it may manifest as a physical sensation. A person can feel tightness in the chest or suffocating pressure as if a weight has been placed over them, given that grief can entice a stress response.

The more commonly known five stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages are helpful in understanding and coping with heartache, but it is important to note that this is one model of grief that helps us to provide a framework of understanding around the grief process. Denial is associated with feeling numb and dissociated from the loss. The bereaved person refuses to accept that they lost their loved one and carry on with life as if nothing happened. They may say that they are fine and act as though they are still alive. It is a survival instinct that allows people to separate themselves from the overwhelming sadness. However, the sorrow cannot stay buried for too long and eventually surfaces – whether or not this is weeks, months, or even years after the experienced loss.

Anger is an acceptable and natural reaction to loss. Self-directed anger can be commonplace when someone feels as if they could have done something to prevent the loss. In bereavement, they may get angry at the person that died because they feel abandoned. Likewise, they may become frustrated and angry at the world around them, blaming other members of society – such as hospitals and doctors – for not doing more to prevent death particularly when it pertains to an illness. Recognizing anger in grief is vital; anger – a “doing” emotion – can become red hot, and destructive in various different ways, given time and the pressure of suppression.

Bargaining is a means of coping with hopelessness and vulnerability of grief. It is an attempt to regain control to avoid feeling helpless and defenseless. The bargaining stage is characterized by the need to do anything to make the pain go away rather than feel it. People in the bargaining stage use many “what if” and “if only” statements. For instance, those who lost their loved ones during the pandemic may find themselves asking, “What if we had gotten tested sooner?” Bargaining stems from the need to restore life to what it used to be before, but leans more towards acceptance than anger in the sense that the outcome of loss is generally more received – albeit with threads of hope around explaining the experienced loss.

Depression, the next stage, makes one feel that there is nothing else they can do about the loss but are overwhelmed by the emotion. Individuals may feel like the sadness is going to last forever. They start to wonder if there is a point to live or the need to keep living. It is important to remind grieving people in this stage that it is normal and expected to go through depression following a loss. It is an appropriate response and an essential stage in the healing process because it is understandably depressing that someone’s beloved is gone, never to return. Although it feels never-ending, depression eventually passes as the person heals.

The acceptance stage is about recognizing that a major trauma occurred and that life has to move on regardless. It is about readjusting routines and enjoying life without feeling that we have betrayed those who are gone. It may be hard to go back to life as it was before the loss, but gradually people learn to continue living while cherishing the good memories.

Going through the stages of grief is important before moving on with life. The grieving period allows people to slowly come to terms with life’s new and permanent reality. Journaling and recognizing the memory of the person are ways of acknowledging the loss. Self-compassion is essential when grieving in terms of allowing time to experience the mixed feelings associated with loss. Ultimately, grief can make simple tasks like self-care and exercise seem impossible. To avoid getting stuck in grief, people should walk for a few minutes each day, do light exercises, eat healthily, and stay hydrated. The light forms of exercise improve physical health and provide much-needed relaxation from the strain of grief. Additionally, people can seek professional help such as psychotherapy when grief becomes too profound.

Ultimately, grief is a transitive process that may last from months to several years. The pain of loss lessens as time passes, which is why embracing self-compassion in grief is crucial. Self-care, exercise, and seeking grief therapy are ways of coping – but understanding the components of grief arms us with the knowledge of at least some of what we can expect after a huge loss. We hold the theory lightly; every grief story is a different tale of what was loved and lost, and while we describe grief as a process, this process is not a linear one.

Some individuals find it very difficult to “sit with grief”, as they do not know what to do with themselves when people around them are talking about grief. This may be because they are very private people and grieve behind closed doors. It may also be that it is the first loss they have experienced and unsure of what emotions to expect.

Allowing time and space to reflect on a loss is important, as it helps us to remember the good memories and move beyond a sense of being stuck. Giving ourselves time to learn, develop coping strategies, new hobbies, and even talking to someone who is completely independent of our family or circle of friends, could help rebuild our confidence. Losing someone can also mean that we have to find a new way of living and rediscover who we are. Reflecting on grief invites us “to be still.”

A staged model helps us to define and provide structure to grief, but each journey into acceptance takes its own turns. Over time, grief changes shape, and it’s possible for us to heal, grow and move forward. As the pendulum of grief takes deep, and often erratic swings after loss, eventually it can come to rest somewhere in the middle – and with this notion an awareness: there is no going back, but maybe things can be okay again.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more email us at

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.


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