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What are the Stages of Loss and Grief?

When someone dies, it can trigger a range of emotions among those left behind. This grieving process is personal and unpredictable, as the bereaved struggle to come to terms with their loss. That’s often complicated by simply not knowing what to do when someone dies.

This post considers the stages of loss and grief and outlines a few formal theories relating to bereavement. It also provides some sources of support for anyone feeling overwhelmed by the grieving process.

People Comforting Each Other

What factors can influence grieving?

The emotional response to a death can be influenced by several factors, including our relationship to the deceased. This doesn’t necessarily mean a familial relationship. Indeed, the death of a close friend, mentor, beloved pet, or long-time work colleague might also trigger a long grieving process.

The age of the deceased and manner of their death might also be relevant to the stages of grief and the emotions experienced. For instance, learning of a very elderly relative dying peacefully in their sleep might evoke a different emotional response than the sudden death of a friend in an accident.

It is important to recognise that grief doesn’t always follow a death. Seeing a loved one struggle with a terminal illness can be its own form of grieving, with their death then marking an end to their suffering and, often, an understandable sense of relief.

The grieving process might also be affected by how we view our own mortality. For example, the unexpected death of someone relatively young can act as a reminder of the fragility of life.

The Five Stages of Grief theory

For some, having a framework within which to understand the process of grieving can be useful. One such framework is Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ well-known Five Stages of Grief theory. This defines the following stages, which can be experienced during the grieving process:

  1. Denial: The bereaved minimises and even denies the loss. This detachment from reality provides distance from what has happened, allowing time to absorb the loss.
  2. Anger: During this adjustment stage, the mind struggles with the reality of the loss. It can exhibit as an outward anger that keeps others at a distance.
  3. Bargaining: The grieving person seeks to bargain with the universe or a deity to spare them further pain. It is also common to ask, “what if?” and wonder what you could have done differently. As such, this stage is about trying to get back control in a situation that feels helpless.
  4. Depression: The loss is felt most deeply, as the denial, anger and bargaining subside, and are replaced by the reality of life without the deceased. This can lead to isolation, as the bereaved person withdraws from the world.
  5. Acceptance: Reaching this stage means the grieving person still feels pain over the loss but has accepted their situation and begins to consider how to rebuild their life.

The Five Stages theory is only one of several models that have been developed to help people understand their emotions following a loss. Another such model is Dr. J. William Worden’s Four Tasks of Grieving. Similar to the Five Stages, this theory sets out a defined process, comprising:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss
  • Processing the pain of grief
  • Adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is gone
  • Establishing a lasting connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life

Other theories are less rigid. For example, Dr Lois Tonkin’s Model of Grief centres on the idea that we “grow around” grief. It always remains a part of us, but over time, becomes a less dominant feature of our lives as we adapt to the loss.

A further theory is Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut’s Dual Process Model. This separates grief into loss-orientated and restoration-orientated, with the bereaved switching between them. In the loss-orientated stage, we focus on the grief and pain of the loss, while in the restoration-orientated phase, we distract ourselves with activities that offer a break from the grief.

What if I don’t experience all (or any) of the stages?

If these theories don’t align with how you are feeling, that is absolutely fine. Ultimately, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to experience grief. It can be sudden and overwhelming or take time to manifest. Often, the day of the funeral is when the loss becomes “real”, unlocking the grieving process. Reaching out to family and friends to share your grief and your memories of the deceased can help with the process, which is why many eulogies focus on happy memories.

What is the appropriate length of time to grieve?

There is no recommended time frame for grief. The process can last for weeks, months, or years. It could even last a lifetime, especially if the loss involved a child, parent, or long-term partner. Over time, the pain usually lessens to the point where the bereaved person can move on with their life in a positive way, while retaining warm memories of the deceased. However, an inability to grieve at all or a deep pain that shows no signs of easing can indicate that professional help should be sought.

Sources of support

If you are struggling with the stages of grief and loss, there are organisations that can support you in getting through the process, in your own way and in your own time. Here are just a few:

  • Child Bereavement UK: Dedicated to the grieving process surrounding children, whether helping a child with bereavement or a parent facing the loss of a child.
  • Cruse Bereavement Support: The UK’s leading bereavement charity offers a telephone support line and online chat service, staffed with volunteers.
  • Marie Curie: Offers support for the different stages of grief and loss, with a focus on bereavement following a terminal illness.
  • Mind: Features a section on bereavement, with resources and suggestions for further support, including for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
  • NHS: This section on the NHS website offers resources related to bereavement, loss, and grief, with links to further support.

Bespoke funeral services in Bristol

A meaningful funeral that celebrates the life of the deceased can be an important step in the grieving process. With over 75 years of experience, Bristol funeral directors F. Woodruff, can help with all aspects of arranging a bespoke funeral.

Contact us today to discuss your requirements with our compassionate team.

Member of the National Association of Funeral Directors The national society of allied and independent funeral directors

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