Are the 5 Stages of Grief Factual? What Science REALLY Knows

“Grief is a sign that you loved and were loved greatly.” is what Daniel’s aunt told him when he lost his father. During the funeral, he felt numb and like he was living a scene in a movie. He was scared because he didn’t feel anything. Until it all came crashing a few days later, and he couldn’t stop crying. 

Anyone who has had to navigate grief knows how undescribable and raw the feelings are. We grieve in different ways, which is why it can be hard to put a name to all those feelings and condense them into five stages. 

Grief can be overwhelming and traumatic, and sometimes people search for any explanation as to why they must go through this experience. 

The five-stage model of grief is one of the most popular models out there, which helps define and put into words the magnitude of emotions people experience when they’ve had a loss in their life. 

But are these stages real?

To understand the five stages of grief, you must understand that this is a model of a general framework of patterns seen in grieving people. We need to keep in mind that psychology is not an absolute science because it deals with people, individual differences, changes in circumstances, etc. 

You can never accurately predict human behavior. 

So, what this means is that a single model can’t define or classify something as big and complicated as grief. 

So, what does this mean about the five stages of grief? 

These stages can be considered guidelines, used for a general understanding of how the mind tends to cope without considering the many variables that can alter this pattern from one person and situation to the next. 

Not everyone experiences all of the stages, and, commonly, you experience the steps in a different order. 

No one grieves and mourns in the same way. 

Understanding the stages as guidelines suddenly makes the subject much broader. From the many variables that can affect how a person grieves to discoveries and variations of the process to the different forms of coping and treatment, dealing with grief doesn’t come with any clear-cut answers. There are, however, patterns and tried-and-true tools that have been proven to help, and just a bit of insight can lend direction towards a new place of acceptance and happiness.

The Kübler-Ross Model – Five Stages of Grief

The five stages of grief stem from the model first presented in 1969 by the Swiss psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. In this book, she outlines the various stages she saw people go through in the process of dying after spending years working with terminally ill patients. 

However, these stages have since been applied to various situations that can bring grief, including the loss of another, the loss of a limb(s), and even the loss of a job

Kübler-Ross’s model has become the most widely used way of understanding the grieving process.

Denial – I Don’t Believe It! This Did Not Happen!

The stages of the grieving process begin with denial. 

This stage is born out of the initial shock of whatever happened to lead to grief. It is a time when the mind is still attempting to understand this new reality, but if it gets overwhelmed with the many “hows” and “whys” that are bound to be present in any traumatic experience.

 It may begin denying the occurrence altogether as a way of protecting the mind from great stress, anger, and sadness.

Denial is a defense mechanism implemented to keep the feeling of being overwhelmed and overcome with emotions at bay. It helps us reason, if only at times, and it eases reality at a pace that our minds can handle.

Remember Daniel’s story? He felt like he was in a movie during his father’s funeral because he was still in denial about what had happened. 

Anger – How Could This Have Happened!? 

Anger is the second stage of the grieving process, replacing denial as we begin to accept the reality of the situation. 

When the reality of our loss starts to sink in, we are overwhelmed by different colors of emotions, out of which anger is the most dominant for many people. But, underneath the surface, there are several other emotions bubbling up. 

Anger is generally the first of these emotions that have been recognized and fueled as another defense mechanism.

It allows us to create structure in a time since the world as we knew it seems to have flipped upside-down, and our thoughts and emotions feel like a distorting whirlwind. 

However, it must be directed at someone or something for anger to create structure. 

This creates a direct connection, and although it is not positive nor beneficial in that relationship, it is something to hold on to in the middle of the storm.

It is often misdirected when the mind uses anger as a coping mechanism. 

This certainly can cause other issues if those who the anger is being directed to take offense, but it is nothing to fear. 

Bargaining – I Promise to Do X If You Just… 

The third stage of grief is bargaining, in which the mind goes through all of the hypothetical “if only,” “what ifs,” and “maybes.” 

This is when we plead to a higher power to change things and make them as before. And for that, you’re willing to do just about anything. This is one of the most vulnerable times that we experience while grieving. 

You start to feel the sadness of your loss and start wishing that it weren’t true. You may even reminisce the good times–times before this ever happened, when you were innocent and unaware of the pain that you’re now feeling. 

You may start intensely wishing it weren’t so and trying desperately to offer ourselves or our services somehow to undo the situation. It is holding on to the last hope of some other power present that would take pity on you if only you bargained correctly.

Jumping from one hypothetical to the next will often bring about feelings of guilt, making us think that we could have somehow prevented this traumatic incident from happening. This guilt makes it easy for us to offer ourselves up but can also cause more significant stress and anxiety as we convince ourselves it is true. 

It also keeps us stuck in the past as we continue to play through scenarios that never were and can never be, hindering our progress in moving past the trauma and forward in life.

Depression – There’s No Life After This

After bargaining for some time to no avail, a grieving person moves back into the present. 

You begin to feel the sad and empty weight of the new reality. This is the stage when grief truly sets in. 

It is important to remember in this stage that this depression is nothing more than a natural response. Although this stage can seem to suck people in as it may last quite some time, it is an essential step in the process of grieving and overcoming grief. 

Although it may be a step, most of us would love to skip over; being able to truly feel all of our emotions helps us solidify reality, which will help us move forward as emotions begin to subside with time.

Acceptance – Maybe This Happened for a Reason

Acceptance is the 5th and final stage of grief, as laid out by Kessler. It is accepting what has happened and accepting the new reality. 

Although we may never welcome or like any of the things that can cause grief, we can accept that they happened and that sometimes horrible and tragic things happen in life. Acceptance may not immediately make us happy again, but it re-establishes stability and allows us to put our focus on other things and move forward.

Acceptance is, in itself, moving forward. 

By accepting reality, we realize that we can never fully go back to the normal we knew before grief-struck. We realize that there is no choice but to accept and live in the new reality. 

If this realization is looked at as an opportunity, this becomes a time of even greater change, allowing you to shake the past and boldly step forth into the future.

Variations of the Kübler-Ross Model

As discussed before, the 5 Stages of Grief Model is the most popular model that explains grief, but it isn’t the only one. It also went by the name of the DABDA model. 

These five stages help us understand how the mind copes with grief and allow therapists to understand and address grief and its magnitude. 

Although the base model, as Kübler-Ross originally presented, is still in use, it has grown and expanded upon through years of further research. 

David Kessler explains on his website grief.com that these are mere “part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost,” rather than any hard and true chronological process.

Kessler has worked closely with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and co-authored two books with her, and through years of study, they have explained and refined these initial five steps. On his website, Kessler explains more about these stages.

“They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to lose that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.”

The Sixth Stage of Grieving

To better clarify these stages and better understand the process and its many variables, Kessler has added another stage to Kübler-Ross’s initial model, as presented in his book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

Through many years of counseling healthcare workers, frontline workers, and other professionals on loss and grief and his own heartbreaking experiences, Kessler found that finding meaning and ways to honor those lost helped him overcome the great grief he has personally had to deal with. 

Finding meaning as opposed to closure is significant because it brings into the situation hope, something to rejoice about, and something to look forward to. 

It shines a shimmer of light into a dark situation, and sometimes that tiny ray is all that’s needed for someone to keep going.

7 Stages of Grief

Another popular variation is a seven-stage model. 

This framework adds shock and disbelief as the first step before denial. This stage explains the numbness that many experiences when they first find out about the loss they must now deal with. It is a time before the news registers enough for the brain to deny.

Although generally short-lived, this is a notable stage because it can be an odd and unexpected experience to not immediately feel upset, an experience that can carry guilt down the line if not understood as a natural reaction.

This seven-stage model also includes guilt as its step, the fifth step between bargaining and depression. The guilt described in this step is that of regret, born from the things the griever wishes they could have said or done differently before the loss occurred.

Social Work Tech also provides their spin on these seven steps, with their framework including:

  1. Shock and Denial
  2. Pain and Guilt
  3. Anger and Bargaining
  4. Depression, Reflection, and Loneliness
  5. The Upward Turn
  6. Acceptance and Hope
  7. Reconstruction and Working Through

Social Work Tech has provided a well-put-together and printable PDF of these seven stages of grief with further explanations of how someone is likely to think and act in each of them, a useful resource for those dealing with their grief or helping others to do so.

Other Symptoms of the Grieving Process

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross outlined the most commonly seen psychological and emotional steps of someone going through the grieving process. 

However, there are many other side effects and symptoms that can occur throughout the entire process. Some of the most common symptoms of grief can include the following:

  1. Crying
  2. Headaches
  3. Difficulty Sleeping
  4. Questioning the Purpose of Life
  5. Questioning Your Spiritual Beliefs (e.g., your belief in God)
  6. Feelings of Detachment
  7. Isolation from Friends and Family
  8. Abnormal Behavior
  9. Worry
  10. Anxiety
  11. Frustration
  12. Guilt
  13. Fatigue
  14. Anger
  15. Loss of Appetite
  16. Aches and Pains
  17. Stress

These physical symptoms are the body’s responses to the thoughts in our heads. 

While the mind may tune out, distort, re-route, or completely shut off specific thoughts and emotions as a defense mechanism to the stress and pain of grief, so do our bodies react defensively when triggered by difficult experiences.

Although these symptoms are normal, they nevertheless contribute even more stress and negativity to the situation, often drawing out the process to recovery and sometimes pulling the griever down even further before they can come back out on the other side.

Treating Grief

With the many variables and factors that play into each case, grief is best treated on a case-by-case basis. 

Each person may be affected to different degrees, may show different physical symptoms, and may come across help at various stages of the process, all of which must be assessed before any proper treatment can be recommended or prescribed.

The two most common ways of treating grief are prescription medications and counseling. While medications can help stabilize the mind and body when they are feeling in turmoil, counseling can help us work through reasoning out and understanding how to live with our new realities.

Prescription Medication

In some cases, it may be necessary to take prescription medication when dealing with grief--especially if you have experienced mental health issues in life

Grief puts a lot of stress on our bodies and minds, which can cause us to experience mental health struggles while also processing the loss. Most of the medications prescribed to help navigate the waves of grief work by calming us down. 

These types of medications include: 

  • Anti-depressants
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Sleep aids
  • Sedatives

These medications alleviate prominent and difficult symptoms so that you can feel more like yourself and continue to perform day-to-day activities.  

The grieving process is naturally a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions as the mind attempts to understand loss. Although it is not an easy or enjoyable experience, grief is something that everyone will inevitably experience. It is how we learn to overcome and cope with negative experiences.

Counseling and Therapy

Counseling is the other common way of treating grief. 

Speaking with someone, especially a licensed professional who has had experience dealing with situations and symptoms similar to what the griever is going through, can greatly help in reasoning out and understanding the reality of loss.

While sometimes all we need is a sounding board, someone who will sit and listen to us rant as we let every thought and emotion pour out from the depths of our minds, flowing out to take the heavy weight of our chests, professional counselors can offer even more than that. 

Someone trained in the field will be better able to understand the needs of each individual but will also be able to provide personalized strategies, tools, and techniques in coping with the various stages.

Counseling can be found in the traditional one-on-one and group settings, both of which can be highly beneficial depending on what each individual is more comfortable in and what type of grief they are dealing with. 

A support system can be a crucial tool in getting through grief because it creates a bigger pool of people to reach out to when thoughts become overwhelming, and emotions run wild. 

It provides people with insight into the various stages and offers strengths and weaknesses. Seeing someone in a similar situation as our own makes us feel less alone, and seeing someone who is functioning well despite their grief or who is further in the process of acceptance can motivate and reassure us in times of doubt.

Tips and Techniques on Coping with Grief

While professional help is often necessary, we can also often learn some of the strategies they provide on our own. There are three different categories of coping:

Distraction

Distracting yourself from grief creates distance and space. 

It is easy to get sucked into a vortex of thoughts and emotions, so this little bit of space and time away from the grief can better process the situation by bringing us into the present reality. Some healthy forms of distraction include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Hobbies
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Getting into nature
  • Music

When looking for a distraction, be weary of unhealthy ways of numbing such as:

  • Drinking
  • Drugs
  • Gambling

Although these mechanisms may distract you and temporarily make the pain seem to go away, they also numb the emotions to a point at which we can’t correctly process them, and they can also create problems of their own.

Soothing

Soothing can be internal or external, but the premise neutralizes our emotional state. Soothing activities are things that provide joy and comfort. External practices can include activities such as;

  • Listening to music
  • Getting a massage
  • Jogging
  • Gardening

Soothing internal activities can include:

  • Various mental exercises designed to reduce stress and anger
  • Meditation

Balancing

The balancing strategy aims to bring logic and understanding into the situation. Some balancing exercises can include:

  • Making lists or graphs
  • Being honest about your thoughts and emotions, whether it is out loud to a person or written down in a journal or letter
  • Remind yourself of positive times and be grateful that you have those memories
  • Reach out if you feel the need to, whether it is for professional help or just someone to talk to

Finding Help in Dealing with Grief

Although time is the greatest healer, and the pain and sadness of loss will usually lessen on their own, this is not always the case. This occurrence is known as “complicated grief” and can be recognized through symptoms such as:

  • An inability to go about daily tasks and routines
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

There are many resources for dealing with loss and grief, but this wide selection can be overwhelming when the mind is already filled to the rim with all that comes with grief. 

Below are some direct contacts to organizations that can help and some helpful and informative links.

  • Helpguide.org is a great resource for understanding several types of therapy and counseling available. 
  • The Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services has put together a wonderfully diverse list of resources on dealing with grief, from organizations dealing with specific types of loss to meditation and support groups.
  • The Center for Complicated Grief is an excellent resource for both informative articles and finding specialized therapists around the world.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a direct phone number to their helpline, through which they will refer you to therapists, counselors, support groups, or other applicable organizations in your area. This service is free, confidential, and available 24/7
  • The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is another confidential hotline available 24/7 for anyone who feels distressed. There is always someone to talk to on the other line, no matter your circumstances.
  • Talkspace and BetterHelp are two virtual counseling services you can connect to over a computer or smartphone. With just a brief assessment of your needs, they match you with a counselor and will set up your first session without ever having to visit an office.

It is normal to feel lost and alone during the grieving process, but it is essential to remember that you never indeed are. 

There are vast resources and people ready to help, and we are often stronger than we realize in trying times. 

Through tools and information such as those brought around by the Kübler-Ross Method, we can take control of our thoughts and emotions to successfully get through grief and come out stronger on the other side.

When dealing with grief, it is essential to remember to take care of yourself. Although guilt may make you feel as though you don’t deserve it or that you have to put all of your focus and energy into grieving, taking small measures to keep routine and bring joy into your life will help immensely move towards a place of acceptance. 

Remember that taking care of yourself does not take away from who or what was lost but allows the living to keep ongoing.

Written by Kasia Ciszewski, LPC on

Kasia is a licensed professional counselor servicing the Charleston area. She helps individuals heal, better understand their emotions, energize & become more aware of their inner strength. She specializes in helping teens, adults and seniors and has been able to regularly achieve impressive results for her clients throughout South Carolina. Instagram - Facebook - Pinterest - Twitter - Linkedin

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