Is There a Right Way to Grieve a Loss?

Anyone who has experienced a significant loss also has experienced feelings of grief and mourning.  After a loss—the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job—it is common to grieve.  So, what is grief? What does it feel like to experience grief and how do you know if you are grieving properly?

Grief is a strong, often deep feeling of sorrow, triggered by the loss of someone or something that is valued or important. Grief is a natural response to loss, and the experience of grieving or mourning is extremely personal. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.  There is no “right” way to grieve. There also is no timetable on grief.  It takes as long (or as short) as it takes for each individual person.

The 5 Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross named the 5 Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—over 40 years ago in her book On Death and Dying. She observed these stages while working with terminally ill patients who were coming to terms with their deaths. Today, many people use these stages to help them understand and make sense of their own experience of grief.

Awareness of these stages can be very helpful in normalizing or validating the experience of grief.  As these stages communicate, many people go through similar feelings when mourning a loss. Knowing this can be comforting and reassuring, especially in the midst of difficult, painful, and sometimes confusing times.

That said, it is important to remember that everyone experiences grief differently. Kubler-Ross’s stages do not tell you what you should feel or how to grieve correctly.  As mentioned earlier, there is no correct way to grieve. In reality, some people do not experience all of the 5 stages of grief. Other people experience all of the stages, but in a different order. People also may jump around, or back and forth, between the feelings of each stage.

Below is a brief explanation of each stage. Although everyone’s experience is unique, understanding these stages may help explain feelings you or a loved one may be experiencing during the grieving process.

Denial

It is common to experience denial, or difficulty believing or accepting that a loss really has occurred. You may experience this denial as a type of shock or numbness—an inability to really take in the loss. In denial, believing the loss feels too painful.

Anger

During the grieving process, the emergence of anger is common.  Anger can be directed in many different directions. You may feel angry with your loved one for leaving you or with the universe for taking someone or something you love. Or, you may feel angry and irritable with those around you. There also may be a part of you that feels guilty about feeling angry. Remember, that it is OK to feel angry. It is an expression of your intense pain, and a very normal part of grief.

Bargaining

During this stage, you may notice that your thoughts keep going back in time—to things you think you could have done that may have changed the outcome or even prevented the loss from occurring. “What if, we had found the cancer earlier.” “If only I had not been late to work that day.” Bargaining is a common attempt to avoid the pain you are experiencing.

Depression

During the stage of depression, deep feelings of sadness emerge as you consciously feel your loss.  You may even wonder how you can go on or move forward after the loss. You may notice that you have difficulty sleeping or want to sleep more. Your appetite may change. These are normal symptoms of depression, and common during grief.

Acceptance

Acceptance does not mean you are “OK” with the loss. Some losses may never really feel “OK”. Rather, during this stage, a person begins to accept the reality of the loss and perhaps begins to think about moving forward within this new reality. Often, some feelings of calmness accompany acceptance.

Remember, grief is a painful and difficult process. It can be unpredictable and confusing. It can be exhausting, and may feel like it will never end. And, sometimes, even after you believe you have finished grieving, more feelings may emerge. Be kind to yourself through this experience. You will grieve as long as you need to, and through your grief, you will start to heal.