Stages of Grief and Bereavement

by Brent Hall
MFCC Graduate Student

[ What is it? | Some Stages of Grief | Helpful Publications ]

Grief en español.

What is it?
Grief is a natural human emotion that helps people heal after a period of loss in their life. The grieving process can be triggered by many different experiences--from the painful death of a loved one to something as simple as an unexpected poor showing on an exam. Many persons also go through a period of grief when facing an unexpected or sudden move to a distant city or in the aftermath of a romantic break-up. Nearly any event of unexpected change can bring feelings of loss that at first can seem overwhelming.

Many persons find that with some of the minor setbacks in life they need no more than a talk with a good friend or an afternoon shopping at the mall to get through many of their feelings of grief. Sometimes something as simple as a well-timed hot fudge sundae or a mini-vacation from work or school can be monumental in helping re-shape the perceptions of the loss and aid the individual in reorganizing his or her life in a way that atones for the recent loss.

However, in cases of severe loss, such as with death, divorce or terminal illness, persons might find the grieving process much more drawn out and difficult to accept than what they might be used to at other times of loss in their life. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross MD., in her book, On Death and Dying (1970), reports that persons go through similar stages of grief in similar order when coping with catastrophic loss in their life. Her findings show that people's first reaction is denial, following by anger, then bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

Some Stages of Grief
Denial: A person's refusal to admit the reality of the impending loss. Divorced persons tell themselves they will one day reunite with their spouses. Persons who have lost their sight or hearing tell themselves their afflicted bodies will heal. Because these self-reassurances bring a temporary peace to the soul of the griever, many persons in this stage wrongly believe they are not grieving at all but instead have accepted the reality of the situation.

Anger: A "Why me?" attitude. Griever might be envious of others health, marriages, etc. depending on the specific type of loss. May express feelings of unfairness and rage at being "cheated."

Bargaining: Many terminally ill persons attempt to bargain with some sort of deity for more time to live. Divorced persons feel guilt of their actions that led to the divorce and wish for another chance with their ex-spouse. Grievers fantasize about making deals with God or others where they give up something of value to them for more time or another opportunity depending on the situation.

Depression: The most well-known and most effective stage of healing for the griever. In this stage the person admits the reality of their loss and grieves for the individual or themselves, whichever is appropriate. Many persons report it is not until this stage that they first cry out of genuine sadness for the loss.

Acceptance: Griever acknowledges that the death, separation, health problem etc. will forever be a part of their normal life. Any unfinished business is taken care of in this stage and the griever ends up at peace with her or himself and the world.

The time each griever spends in each stage varies tremendously depending on the type of loss and each unique individual. Some persons might find themselves in one particular stage of grief one day and on to the next stage soon after. Some grievers might spend weeks or months in a stage. With catastrophic loss, such as with the loss or death of a spouse or sudden blindness or loss of one's limbs, a person might spend years in a particular stage. Kubler-Ross found that 2-3 years of grieving is not uncommon for survivors after the sudden loss of a loved one.

The methods of grieving also vary between the genders and among different cultures. Some persons might find they enter and exit one or more of the stages very quickly or skip a stage all together. Men tend to focus their grief inward more than women, so they tend to be more prone to longer periods in the earlier stages since it isn't as "manly" to feel or express pain. Some cultures acknowledge losses like death for a period of weeks and months rather than the usual few days of public mourning most Americans are used to. Such activities promote a wide variance of reactions to the grieving process among different cultures.

Kubler-Ross's five stages provide a framework to help a grieving individual assess her or his own grieving process. Persons can determine where they are in the stages and anticipate feelings that might come in the future as they complete the grieving process. While it is not uncommon to spend weeks and months in a period of bereavement after suffering a loss, some persons get stuck in one of the stages and could benefit from professional help with a counselor to help sort out their feelings regarding their loss.

Helpful publications about grief:
Many of these books can be found at your local public library or bookstore. We hope you will find these suggestions helpful. But, remember, sometimes you may need more help to get where you want to be in life. So, please, if you feel like you need more help, check out the resource pages to find a professional helper.

On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Md. (1970).

Coping with the Final Tragedy: Cultural Variation in Dying and Grieving by David R. Counts, (1991).

Death in the Midst of Life: Social and Cultural Influences on Death, Grief, and Mourning by Jack B. Kamerman, (1988).

Please feel free to email Amigos questions or comments about this topic.

[ Amigos | Dr. Carmen Guanipa ]

Last revised January 13, 1999.
Edited by Dr. Carmen Guanipa,
Dept. of Counseling and School Psychology,
San Diego State University.
Copyright © 1999 -- All Rights Reserved -- Dr. Carmen Guanipa