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Guidance through the stages of grief

emma addington white
Emma Addington-White

If you’ve ever experienced the loss of someone that you love and care about, then you understand what it's like to be confronted by what feels like a tsunami of emotions. No matter how big or small a role that person played in your life, they acted as a support. The closer you are to them, the more mental and emotional weight they hold for you. When a loved one passes, it can feel like the ground is shifting beneath you — as if a wall you were leaning on suddenly disappeared. It's an emotional and psychological free fall that requires reorientation in a new reality, and we’re here to provide the most effective ways to navigate through your emotions. 

Denial will likely be the first thing you feel

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross determined that the first feeling most people encounter after the death of a loved one is “denial.” This feeling explains our initial shock and disbelief that the person you love is really gone. For some, this stage manifests itself as something like, 

“I know that my father just passed away but I can’t believe I’ll never have Sunday afternoon phone calls with him again.” 

Maybe the most logical portion of our brain comprehends the loss, but it's likely that the more emotional part of our brain needs to play catch up. It can take a long time before we fully comprehend all the implications of a person’s death. 

In more extreme cases, especially in the very beginning, symptoms of denial can appear as complete disbelief. This is particularly true when the death is unexpected and there was no time beforehand to prepare or say goodbye. This stage, like other stages, can be very difficult to tackle, thus it's important to find support and surround yourself with other loved ones in your life. 

Anger is a perfectly normal feeling

The next phase of grief, according to Kübler-Ross, is “anger.” This occurs once you have processed through your initial disbelief and shock, and come to realize that your loved one is really gone. The thing to understand is that anger is a relative term. For some people it could be,

“Why is this happening to me? This isn’t fair!” 

For others, it could be a more outward reaction, such as lashing out at those close to you. It’s also normal to feel anger toward the person who died, as their passing can leave you feeling abandoned. Though confusing, these are common and normal responses. 

As human beings we often think that every problem can be fixed — Leaking pipe? Call a plumber. Broken arm? Visit a doctor. But when someone dies, we realize that it’s out of our control and irrevocable. This is the true crux of the anger phase and it is born from feelings of helplessness and abandonment. If you are able to recognize yourself going through this phase in the grieving process (which is a very difficult thing to do) it’s best to not judge yourself too harshly, and try to focus on the good memories you shared with that person. 

Bargaining is a common experience

This stage, like anger, is a result of your brain kicking into problem solving mode and trying to compensate for the loss. Typical things you can expect at this point are wanting to bargain with God or another higher power to get more time with your person, or saying things like, 

“I wish I could take her pain from her.” 

As mentioned before, we are always looking for ways to fix our problems in life, but unfortunately, when it comes to death there isn’t anything to “fix.” For many people, this is the hardest thing to come to terms with — We must accept this reality even though we didn’t choose it. 

Pro Tip

Trying to make a lost loved one's final wishes come to life is a very difficult process to navigate amid the fog of grief. To help, Atticus put together this ultimate checklist of "What to do when someone dies."

Depression is a healthy feeling

Depression is often felt during the foggy confrontation of the disruptive and chaotic nature of death. One understands the terrible loss, and accepts their helplessness in the face of it, but hasn't yet figured out how to move forward in life without that person. This state of sadness is normal and even healthy, as it means you have reached a point where you can admit the loss and are allowing yourself to say, 

“This is my new normal, and it’s really hard.” 

During this time it’s OK to want to spend time alone to think and heal. Often individuals begin to question their own mortality after facing a tough loss, and somewhat counter-intuitively, it can be a hard time to face other people. 

Acceptance is the final stage of grief

Eventually, most people begin to realize that they are still alive, and will continue to survive without the person they’ve  lost. People are incredibly resilient, and it’s natural that after some time we begin to adapt to our new situation. This stage in the Kübler-Ross method is called “acceptance.” 

With acceptance we face our own mortality and make the necessary adjustments to start to learn how to survive again after a loss. It’s important to remember that this stage of grief, like all the others, is highly individual, and can vary widely from person to person. This process is also not linear, and even after you think you have gone through every stage it is still totally normal to feel sad, or like part of you can’t believe it. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to others or seek counseling if your emotions feel too overwhelming. The most important thing you can do when facing a loss is to give yourself plenty of time, and be understanding of your own journey through the process of grief.

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