What Are the Stages of Grief & Supporting Someone Through Them
It's common to hear that "grief is a journey." When you lose someone you love dearly, it's not something that takes a day or a week to get over, and healing isn't always linear.
Instead, it's common to move through different phases of grief where you alternately experience emotions like anger, denial, and depression.
While every journey to heal from loss is unique, there's some universal element to mourning at the same time. This is reflected through the well-known five stages of grief.
What Does "The 5 Stages of Grief" Mean?
There's a good chance that you've heard people talking about "the five stages of grief" by Kubler-Ross before.
The five stages of grief is a psychological model created by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. It outlines the different processes of grief that someone experiences when approaching death themselves, though it's also used to explain the different parts of grief others will face when mourning a loss.
What Are the 5 Stages?
These are the five stages people experience when grieving:
- Denial. This is a defense mechanism that can cause you to feel shock. You can't believe that the person is gone.
- Anger. Anger is common throughout grief. You might be angry at yourself for not doing something that you worry could have prevented the loss, someone else that you blame, or even the universe for taking someone you love. Some are even angry at others who get to keep their loved ones.
- Bargaining. You think "I'd do anything to get them back," bargaining with the universe.
- Depression. You feel numb, empty, devastated. You might lose interest in things that you love to do, and may not want to get out of bed.
- Acceptance. You accept that you have experienced a loss, and that the person is not coming back. Your emotions can stabilize, and you start to find ways to be okay again.
The Kubler-Ross model details five different stages of grief, but it's important to note that they aren't necessarily guaranteed to be linear. Some may be depressed before they get angry, or experience any of the stages repeatedly while grieving.
If you're going through the five stages of grief, know that it's normal for different emotions to come and go. To help you navigate this, we strongly recommend considering grief counseling and grief support groups. These can be valuable resources that can help you with this challenging time.
How to Support a Friend Through The Five Stages
Grief is a roller coaster, taking you on highs and lows through the five stages. If you're supporting a friend through their journey with grief, it can take you on your own ups and downs, too.
Let's take a look at how to support someone through each stage.
- Know that denial is normal. Even weeks or months after the loss, sometimes the bereaved will wake up thinking they'll find their spouse next to them.
- Share your own shock. Let them know that you still can't believe it yourself, but if they start to wonder if there was somehow a mistake, try to ground them with leading questions.
- Encourage them to attend grief counseling or therapy. If they're unable to move past the initial stage of shock and aren't able to function, offer to help them find counseling for support.
- Expect the unexpected. The person may be angry at their deceased loved one, at other relatives, at themselves, at friends, or even at God. If they direct anger at you, give them time and grace.
- Talk through the anger with them. Let them know that it's normal to feel this way. Agree that it's not fair, that the world was cruel. Letting someone vent can be a crucial part in processing the anger and moving forward.
- Do physical activities together. Take a kickboxing class, do strength training together, or even go for a run. Hard, physical exercise can be a positive outlet for anger.
- Remind people that "what if" doesn't change anything and that no one is at fault. The bereaved may wonder "what if I had told him to go to the doctor sooner," or "if only I could see him again." Remind them not to place guilt on themselves.
- Be prepared for the realization that the bargain won't work. The hope that we sometimes feel when thinking of a bargain can be devastating when brought back to reality. Know that this can be crushing, and offer support and company when you can.
- Tell your loved one that this is normal. It's horrible, but it's part of the process. There's nothing wrong with them, and the worst of the pain will pass, so hang on.
- Watch out for risky behaviors. When depressed, some people may be prone to abusing alcohol, substances, or even gambling. If your loved one is exhibiting concerning behavior, reach out and offer alternatives to keep them company. People sometimes fall into addictions when grieving that are difficult to recover from later.
- Offer company and routine. Can you go to yoga together once a week? Or if you have a neighbor who lost a spouse, ask if they'd like to go on daily walks together. Something routine and together can be valuable at this stage when everything can be overwhelming.
- Be proactive about grief triggers. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries are all common triggers, but even songs, smells, and catching site of something that belonged to the deceased can all cause a new wave of depression. Try to take note of big days, and check in around holidays and their anniversary without them asking.
Share a sympathy gift to honor the loss. This can be given at any stage, but it can be particularly powerful here. You can give gifts like personalized wind chimes, comfort blankets, and memorial jewelry.
- Continue to support your loved one. Even once they've fully accepted the loss and even have adapted their life accordingly, know that waves of grief can still come back, especially around significant dates or events.
- Share memories of the person lost. Keeping them alive in memory and spirit by sharing your favorite stories can bring great comfort to those who are grieving the loss, even at the acceptance stage. They want to share those memories, too.
We say it a lot on this blog, but every loss truly is unique, which means every journey through grief will be unique. Some people will move back and forth through the different stages of grief; some will experience a few stages longer than others, or never experience one or more stage at all.
Be patient with yourself and your loved ones who are grieving during this time, and remember that grief counseling and therapy can be invaluable resources and sources of community.
Are you looking to give a sympathy gift to someone who has recently experienced a loss? Take a look at our personalized sympathy gifts for something particularly meaningful.