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The 5 Stages of Grief and Ways to Cope With Each Stage

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If you are reading this article, it’s because you’ve experienced some kind of loss. First, I want to send you my sincere condolences. Grieving is an individual experience that can be shared with others, even though you go through it on a personal level. No one grieves in the same way or at the same pace. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. I’d like to make note of a few important things to keep in mind as you are moving through the grieving process:

  1. Grief is not linear. No one starts and ends at each level of grief, and you may move backwards, then forwards, then backwards again. That’s OK and it’s normal.
  2. You may not know where you are in your grieving process, or you may be between stages.
  3. Although grief feels like a lonely process, you are never truly alone.

Stage 1: Denial

This stage happens when you learn of your loss. You can’t believe you’ve lost the person or pet, and you are telling yourself they will be back. You can experience shock and sometimes panic. In the denial stage, you have a hard time believing life can go on. You can become numb and the world can seem as if it is in a dense fog where you can only see 2 feet in front of you. When in denial, you can feel overwhelming emotions, no emotions at all, or somewhere in between. Wherever you fall on that spectrum of emotions is normal and OK.

Ways to cope with denial:

  • Talk to someone about your loss. A friend, a family member, a school counselor, a therapist, or someone you trust are all great resources to go to.
  • Ground yourself. Check in with yourself several times a day. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling in this moment right now?” and “What do I need to get done today?”
  • Write. This can be journaling or something as simple as making a list of things you need to do or people to you need to call.
  • Get out. It’s so easy to curl up in bed and not get some fresh air. It’s okay to curl up in bed and cry- crying is a healthy and natural release of emotions. Make sure you get some fresh air to help clear your head- even if it’s for 5 minutes or the length of your favorite song.

Stage 2: Anger

As you come out from the fog of denial, you may find yourself entangled with many emotions. The most prevalent emotion is typically anger. You may not know who or what your anger is geared towards. Is it the person who died? Is it the hospital or doctors? Is it your family or how other people reacted to the death of your loved one? Is it at your higher power (if you have a higher power)? Is it at yourself? No matter who or what your anger is directed towards, it’s a healthy step in the healing and grieving process. Anger is such a common emotion, and most people know how to cope with their anger.

Ways to cope with anger:

  • Cry! Just like in denial, crying is a natural and healthy release of emotions—even anger. Go ahead and give yourself permission to spend some time crying.
  • Scream it out. If you can, scream it out loud as loud as you can. If you don’t want anyone to hear you, or you don’t feel comfortable letting it all out, scream into a pillow. The pillow will muffle your sound and you can still get that release.
  • Go for a walk or exercise. Work that anger right out of your body even if it’s temporary. Put on some music that gets you moving and move. Exercise releases healthy endorphins which give us the warm fuzzies. Release those endorphins. You deserve them.
  • I know I said it before, but I’m going to say it again. Write. Write everything that you are thinking and/or feeling. I would even recommend drawing or painting. You don’t have to be an artist to draw or paint for yourself. It can be colors and shapes that don’t make sense. They will make sense to you. Each color might represent an emotion you are feeling, or a specific shape might represent what you are thinking. Go ahead and get creative with this.
  • Join a support group. Most hospice companies have grief support groups.

Stage 3: Bargaining

This stage happens when you start to long to see, speak to, or hear your loved one just one more time. You think, “If I clean my house every day this week, my loved one will be back and this will all be a horrible dream.” You might even bargain with your higher power. “If I promise to wake up on time every day and be ready for my day, can you please send my loved one back?” You may also bargain with your loved one. “Show me one sign that you are with me and I promise I’ll make you proud.” You might find yourself making negotiations with yourself or someone else to have that one last opportunity with your loved one. Bargaining comes out when you are dealing with feelings of guilt. It gives you that temporary escape into remembering life with your lost loved one.

Ways to cope with bargaining:

  • Find your outlet. Get yourself back into something that brings you joy.
  • Do things that remind you of your loved one. Honor your loved one by doing things they enjoyed or things you enjoyed doing together.
  • Volunteer. Find an organization that meant something to your loved one and see if you can volunteer with them.

Stage 4: Depression

Depression is an inevitable stage of grief. Feelings of emptiness start to set in and you might not feel like you can go on. You can. It’s OK and normal to feel immense sadness and despair.

Ways to cope with depression:

  • Set alarms for yourself so you can make sure you get things done on time.
  • Talk to someone. Talk to a friend, a family member, a school counselor, or therapist They can help you sort through your feelings.
  • Self-care! While self-care is important all the time and in all stages of grief, it is especially important in this stage.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Acceptance happens when you are at peace with the knowledge that your loved one is not coming home tonight. You understand they have moved on, and life seems to be molding itself into a new place. This stage does not mean you’ve forgotten about your loss. It’s when reality sets in and you’ve recognized the show must go on. In this stage, life begins again.

Ways to cope with acceptance:

  • Honor your loved one. Write to them when you think of them or jot down memories as they pop into your head.
  • Be patient with this stage. Give yourself some slack and time to set into your new life.
  • Talk about your loved one when you can. If you do this, their memory will not only live on with you, but also those you talk with about them.

Keep in mind that these stages are not meant to happen one after another. Grief can last anywhere from two to seven years, and beyond. That’s a long time. Try not to push yourself through each stage. Give your body and your mind time to be in each stage of grief. You may go back to different stages too. If you are in acceptance, you may find yourself back in bargaining one day and then depression the next. This is normal and it’s OK! Everyone grieves at different paces and at different intensities. Your grief will not look like someone else’s grief, and we all cope differently. The way you cope, as long as it is healthy, works for you and that’s all that matters.

Image via Getty by Antonio Guillem.

Originally published: October 1, 2018
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