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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Are the Stages of Grief?

Published:
September 14, 2023
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19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 14, 2023
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19 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 14, 2023
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19 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 14, 2023
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19 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 14, 2023
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19 min read

You just went through a breakup. You lost your job. You’re unable to attain the goal you’ve been working toward. Believe it or not, all of these are some form of grief — or the experience of coping with loss. As we work our way through experiences like these, we’re likely to go through different stages or emotions — from denial and anger to sadness and resentment. 

In this post, we’ll explore the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We’ll also look at common misconceptions about grief and tips for managing loss. Let’s dive in.

What Is Grief?

Before we dive into the five stages of grief, it’s helpful to understand what grief is. Simply put, grief is the experience of coping with loss. And it’s experienced by each person in a uniquely personal way. While we often think about grief as mourning the loss of a loved one, grief can accompany any event that changes or challenges our sense of normalcy or ourselves. For instance, we might grieve the loss of a relationship, our job or career, a dream or goal, or our health. Grief can also come from any changes we experience in life, such as moving to a new city or school or transitioning into a new age group. 

The truth is that we all experience a certain degree of grief throughout our lives. While some losses are more intense than others, they are no less real. And all forms of grief can be incredibly messy and complex, affecting every aspect of our being — mind, body, and spirit.

Understanding the 5 Stages of Grief

Many researchers have dedicated years to studying loss and the emotions that accompany it. One of these experts was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist. She interviewed over 200 people with terminal illnesses and identified five common stages people experience as they grapple with the realities of their impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. 

She published her results in 1969 in her book On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families, which today remains the most well-known resource for understanding the grieving process. Although Kubler-Ross’s work focused on grief responses from people who are dying, many of these stages can be applied to grief across any type of loss. 

It’s important to note that these stages are not linear, and they’re not a prescription. Not everyone experiences every stage, and that’s okay. We might not experience all of these stages in the order listed, and we could bounce back and forth from one stage to another multiple times. We might feel like we accept the loss at times and then move to another stage of grief again. This back and forth is natural and all part of the healing process. 

Similarly, how much time we spend navigating these stages varies from person to person. It might take us hours, months, or longer to process and heal from a loss. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the five stages of grief:

1. Denial

For many people, denial — or pretending the loss or change isn’t happening — is often the first response to loss. For instance, if we’re facing the death of a loved one, we might deny that they’re actually gone. Or if we’re dealing with a break up, we might convince ourselves that our partner will regret leaving and come back to us.  

Denial is a common defense or coping mechanism that helps numb us to the reality of our new situation. We might even start to feel like nothing really matters anymore. By going numb, we’re giving ourselves more time to gradually absorb the loss and begin to process it. But denial is often a temporary response that serves as a buffer between us and the shock or pain of a loss or change. Eventually, when we’re grieving, we can start the healing process by allowing the feelings and emotions we’ve denied to resurface. 

2. Anger

Many people will also experience anger as part of their grief. According to Kubler-Ross, pain from a loss is often redirected and expressed as anger. In other words, anger is a way to hide the many emotions and pain that we’re carrying as a result of the loss or change.

It’s not uncommon for people in this stage to ask questions: “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” We might become angry at the person we lost, resenting them for causing us pain or leaving us. Even though our rational brain understands they’re not to blame, our emotions are intense and can easily override rational thinking. 

We also might lash out at inanimate objects, strangers, friends, or family members. We might feel angry at life itself. Even if we’re not exhibiting obvious displays of fury or rage, anger sometimes masks itself in feelings of bitterness, resentment, impatience, and irritability. 

While we often think that anger is a negative emotion and something to be avoided at all costs, it actually serves a purpose and is a necessary part of healing. In fact, suppressing any feelings — including anger — is never healthy; we have to express our feelings in order to move past them. 

3. Bargaining

Bargaining is a stage of grief that helps us hold onto hope during intense emotional pain. It’s an attempt to help us regain control of a situation that has made us feel incredibly vulnerable and helpless. It’s also another way to help us postpone having to deal directly with the sadness, confusion, or hurt. 

People in this stage typically think in terms of “what if” or “if only” statements. For instance, someone grieving the loss of a loved one might think, “If only I had called her that night, she wouldn’t be gone.” Or someone grieving a divorce might believe, “If only I had spent more time with him, he would have stayed.” If we’re religious and believe in God, we might try to make a deal or promise to God in return for healing or relief from grief and pain.

4. Depression

Depression is often likened to the “quiet” stage of grief, as it’s not as active as the anger and bargaining stages. During this stage, we start facing our present reality and the inevitability of the loss we’ve experienced. This can lead to intense feelings of sadness, despair, and hopelessness. 

Symptoms of depression can manifest themselves in different ways. For instance, we might feel foggy, heavy, fatigued, confused or distracted. We also might lose our appetite, isolate ourselves from others, or not enjoy any activities that we once did. In extreme cases, we might be unable or unwilling to get out of bed in the morning. 

Just like the other stages of grief, depression is experienced in different ways. But it’s not an indication that something is wrong with us. Instead, it’s a natural and appropriate response to grief.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that we are fully healed or have completely moved on from the loss or situation. Rather, acceptance means that we’ve acknowledged the loss we’ve experienced and are readjusting our lives accordingly. For instance, if we’re grieving the death of a loved one, we might be able to express our gratitude for all the wonderful times we spent with them. Or if we’re going through a breakup, we might say something like, “This really was the best thing for me.” 

In this stage, we might become more comfortable reaching out to family and friends, and we might even make new relationships as time goes on. We understand that our loss was real, but we start growing and evolving into our new reality. This doesn’t mean we’ll never have another bad time. But because our emotions are more stable in this stage, we realize that we’re going to be ok in the good days and the bad. 

Common Misconceptions About Grief

Even though these five stages of grief can help us understand the grieving process, there’s no such thing as a right or wrong way of coping with loss. Sometimes people struggle because they feel that their grieving process isn’t “the norm,” but grief is a highly complex experience that varies from person to person. Everyone mourns differently and for different reasons. 

Here are three common misconceptions about grieving that we might believe when we consider our own or someone else’s way of grieving: 

1. “I’m doing it wrong.”

One of the most common misconceptions about grieving is that everyone goes through it in the same way. But as we’ve established, grieving is a unique journey that is different for everyone. It’s not as simple as following a set list of steps or checking off certain boxes. So if you ever find yourself thinking, “I’m doing it wrong,” try reminding yourself that “there’s no right or wrong way of grieving.”

Furthermore, there’s no specific order for the stages of grief. Our first emotional reaction to loss might be anger and depression. This doesn’t mean that we’re not grieving properly. Remember: our grieving journey is unique to us. 

2. “I should be feeling ___.”

Similarly, not everyone experiences the stages of grief or even goes through emotions in the same way. For instance, maybe the depression stage feels more like irritability than sadness. Or maybe denial feels more like a sense of shock and disbelief. Regardless, there are no “should’s” when it comes to grieving; we don’t need to pressure ourselves to feel or not feel a certain way. Keep in mind that we might not even experience all the stages anyway — and that’s ok, too. And our emotions can come in waves of intensity. In the beginning, our emotions can be overwhelming. Over time, the intensity is likely to diminish — although there may be moments when it’s just as fresh and overpowering as it was at first.

3. “It’s taking too long…” 

Many people get frustrated with themselves because they think they’re grieving too long. But again, coping with a loss is a deeply personal experience; some people navigate through grief in a few days, while others take months or years to process the loss. It depends on the person, and it depends on the loss. Try not to set any deadlines for yourself. And keep in mind that there’s never a time when we’re completely “done” with grief; we just learn how to make adjustments to the loss.

What Are Some Treatment Options for Grief? 

The grieving process can be incredibly challenging, but we don’t have to go through it alone. Counseling, along with medication, are typically the most common methods of treating grief. When we first experience a loss, our doctor might prescribe medications — such as sedatives, antidepressants, anti-anxiety meditations, or sleep aids — to help us function and get through the day. 

Counseling can be particularly effective in helping us work through unresolved grief. While therapy doesn’t “cure” us of our loss, it can provide coping strategies to help us deal with grief in a healthy, effective manner. Many support groups or bereavement groups — online and in-person — can help offer support for our healing journey.

If our grief is creating obstacles in our everyday life or we’re having trouble functioning, it’s best to seek professional support. 

The Bottom Line

Grief is a complicated process that varies from person to person. The five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — are a helpful framework for thinking about grief, but it doesn’t mean we’ll go through every stage. Similarly, we can experience these aspects of grief at different times, and they don’t happen in one particular order. If we’re struggling to function or are having difficulty coping with loss, it’s important to reach out to a doctor or therapist for help. 

If you find yourself turning to alcohol to cope with grief, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and process their emotions in healthier ways. 

Summary FAQs

1. What is grief?

Grief is the experience of coping with loss. While we often think about grief as mourning the loss of a loved one, grief can accompany any event that disrupts or challenges our sense of normalcy or ourselves — like a break up, job loss, or health diagnosis.

2. What are the five stages of grief?

The five stages of grief as identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

3. How long does it take to go through each stage of grief?

Grief is different for every person. There’s no exact timeline, schedule, or “right” way to grieve. We might remain in one stage of grief for months, but skip other stages entirely.

4. Do we go through each stage of grief just once? 

We may go through the stages of grief more than once, and we may bounce back and forth between different stages. This is completely normal. 

5. What are treatment options for grief?

Counseling, medications, and support groups are some of the most effective methods of treating grief, especially if we are finding it difficult to function on a daily basis. 

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