The Five Stages of Grieving

An outline of Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory of grief

Last updated: 2 February 2017

The Five Stages of Grief is one of the most widely known theories of how the grieving process works. Friends and family may refer to it, or you might have heard the term on TV.

After working with terminally ill patients, pioneering psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the five stages as a way of describing how people deal with their loss. As the name suggests, this theory divides the grieving process into five different stages. They are:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These five stages are just a basic outline of the emotions that are common after a loss – they are not meant to be used as a set of rules on how to grieve. Coping with grief is often more complicated than just working through these stages, one by one. You may experience them in a different order, or not notice experiencing certain stages at all.

Some people find Dr Kubler-Ross’s five steps of grief to be a helpful way of talking about grief in general. However, some therapists and psychologists believe that this theory is too rigid and does not allow for individual differences.

Some people find the stages of grief she identified to be a helpful way of talking about grief in general. However, some therapists and psychologists believe that the theory is too rigid and does not allow for individual differences.

Stage 1: Denial

Put simply, denial is not being able to accept that your loss is real. When you first heard of your loved one’s death, you may have said or thought things like “This can’t be happening”, “I don’t believe it”, or “This must be a mistake.” It can also be accompanied by feelings of numbness; a person who is experiencing denial might not seem very sad.

The denial stage occurs because we are unable to process the information that someone we love has gone. In some ways, denial is a natural defense mechanism to help you cope with the extreme emotions of grief. Denial is our mind’s way of ‘softening the blow’, of stopping us from feeling too much at once.

Moving past denial is, for the most part, a matter of time. As you gradually become more emotionally ‘aware’ of what has happened, the denial will start to wear away. There is no set time for moving past denial, and you may still have moments months and years after the loss when you think, “It can’t be true.”

Stage 2: Anger

Anger can occur at any time after the loss of a loved one, and you may still experience moments of anger years afterwards. You may feel angry at the world or God, at yourself, or even at your loved one for leaving you.

Even if you think this anger is ‘irrational’ or ‘illogical’, that does not mean that these feelings are stupid or that they can reasoned away. They are a very common feature of grief.

Some people find that they can deal with the anger stage of grief as it occurs, by using basic anger management techniques. Others find that they need bereavement counselling to fully understand and work through their anger.

If you feel you are so angry you may physically hurt yourself or those around you, it is essential that you seek support immediately.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Bargaining is when you wish, pray, or hope that your loved one will be saved in exchange for something, usually you changing your behavior. It can happen before a loss, if you know that your loved one is very ill, or after a loss, in an attempt to save them. You might think or say thing such as:

  • “I swear, if I could just get them back, I’ll never drink again.”
  • “God, if you bring them back, I promise I will do anything you ask.”
  • “If I hadn’t gone to the shops, I would have found her sooner.”
  • “Please, doctor, you have to help him. I’ll do anything.”

Bargaining is your attempt to have more time with your loved one. Even though you know, logically, that this cannot happen, the depth of your love for them causes you to try anything to save them, even pray to a god you’ve never prayed to before, or plead with the universe to bring them back.

Dr Kubler-Ross also argued that bargaining is a sign that you may be feeling guilty. The implication is that if you had already completed your end of the bargain, your loved one would still be with you.

Stage 4: Depression

Depression is when reality hits, when you start to really face the prospect of life without your loved one. That reality is painful and causes a deep, indescribable sadness. You may feel completely overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, cry all the time, or feel unable to do basic tasks like washing and getting dressed.

Kubler-Ross’s use of the word ‘depression’ is not the same thing as clinical depression. However grief can lead to clinical depression, which may require therapy and, or, medication. Be aware of these symptoms, which could be a sign that grief has developed into clinical depression:

  • Constant feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Noticeably slow speech or body movements
  • Loss of appetite or sudden weight loss
  • Having thoughts of suicide or obsessively thinking about death. In an emergency, call 911. If you are in crisis and need to talk, you can call the National Suicide Prevention or call them on 1-800-273-8255, or speak to your family physician.

Be aware that you may experience moments of feelings of depression many years after your loss. This could happen around significant dates such as birthdays, Christmas or other special occasions and holidays. This is perfectly normal and you do not need to feel ashamed that your loss is still having an effect on you.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Acceptance is sometimes seen as the ‘final stage’ of grief, where you get better and life becomes okay again. However, it is not this simple. Acceptance does not mean forgetting your loved one or not being sad about your loss anymore.

Acceptance comes from working through the disbelief, the anger, the sadness, and reaching a place where you understand your loss is real. In this way, the other stages of grief are important to experience, because they can help lead you to acceptance. Acceptance eventually happens because you have processed painful truths and the difficult reality that you have lost a part of your life.

You will still experience sadness because your loved one has passed away. The other stages of emotion, such as anger and depression, may resurface again, even a long time after your loss. This doesn’t mean that you have moved backwards, or are ‘failing’ at acceptance. This is perfectly natural. Acceptance is not a finish line that you cross, it’s an ongoing process that you have to work through as you rediscover ways to enjoy life.