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Understanding the five stages of grief and loss

Grief is one of the most complex human experiences. Your grief journey may include unexpected emotions, or you may find your feelings are more or less intense than you thought they would be. Grief is difficult to predict, and there’s a wide range of experiences that are considered normal. Still, many people want to know what to expect when they’re grieving. The five stages of grief can be useful to shed some light on what the grieving process may look like — understanding that grief looks different for everyone.

"The stages of grief are not meant to be prescriptive but rather descriptive. They are meant to give more detail and context about grief to help normalize the experience for the individual griever,” says Jaymie Byron, LMFT and grief therapist.

The guidance below was reviewed by Jaymie Byron, LMFT, and Community & Education Director at Kara Grief

What are the five stages of grief and loss?

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They were first published in a 1969 book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and are also known as the Kübler-Ross model of grief. As the model gained popularity, the experts behind the book clarified that the stages of grief are not prescriptive — everyone experiences them differently.

“A key misnomer in the understanding of grief is that it is sequential,” says Jaymie. “The five stages of grief aren’t intended to imply linearity or sequencing, but a collection of experiences that can take place within one’s grief journey.” 

Several other experts have published other models of the stages of grief after a death that expand on the Kübler-Ross model. Many experts add a stage of guilt as well as a stage called reconstruction in which the bereaved begins to rebuild. Author David Kessler added a sixth stage to the traditional five-stage model called finding meaning: turning your loss into more love than pain. 

How long do the five stages of grief last?

The five stages of grief and loss can vary widely, including how long they last. Some stages can last longer than others, and there’s no set length of time for grief in general. The stages don’t necessarily occur in the same order or at the same time for everyone. You can experience the stages in any order, repeat stages, and even experience multiple stages at the same time. 

"Grief is a reflection of the depth of one’s relationship. It’s not bound by the construct of time; instead, it exists beyond time, as the griever has the option of continuing the bond even after death,” says Jaymie. 

What is the hardest stage of grief?

There’s no way to tell which stage of grief will be the most difficult. Each grief journey is unique and a myriad of factors can play into how you process your loss. If you feel that you’re stuck in a painful stage, such as depression or denial, seek the support of a clinician who can help you process your feelings and teach you coping mechanisms. Support from loved ones and trained professionals is incredibly important during this time. 

Is it possible to skip the stages of grief?

Not everyone grieves in the same way, and you may find that you naturally don’t experience some stages of grief and loss. For example, you might skip the bargaining phase, in which you think that if only you could do something differently or make a deal with a higher power, you could overcome your grief. Or you may skip anger, depending on the circumstances of your loss. 

When you’re dealing with something as personal as grief, there is a wide range of experiences and feelings that are normal. All you need to do is allow yourself to feel. There are also many grief therapy techniques you can try to help you come to terms with your loss.

How do I know if my grief is normal?

Grief is deeply personal, so it’s difficult to predict how long the stages of grief and loss will take. However, it’s possible to tell if your grief is healthy. While grief always involves a number of intense emotions, you should begin to feel like you’re working through them and making progress. And while you’ll never “get over” a painful loss, you should believe that it’s possible to overcome your grief and regain a semblance of normalcy. 

While everyone experiences grief differently, if you ever feel like you’re stuck and are unable to move forward, it may be time to seek help. No matter what you are feeling, it is important to always have hope. The pain of this loss will someday subside and hopefully encourage you to live a life that would make them proud.