The Five Stages of Grief and How Counseling Can Help
Dana Backstrom, LMFT LPCC
Grief comes to all of us at some point in our lives.
Although grief is usually caused by the loss of a loved one, it can occur just as easily as a result of a separation, disablement, miscarriage, or other major life changes such as the loss of a job, an illness, a natural disaster, and even aging.
The terms grief and loss are commonly used in conjunction, as grief is a natural reaction to loss. However, the grief process is not only natural but a healthy part of the healing process when we’ve suffered a serious loss.
That having been said, just because something is healthy doesn’t make it easy. The process of grieving often involves a good deal of anguish and can even cause extreme emotional distress.
While the amount of time spent grieving varies from greatly from one individual to another depending on the nature of the loss, many people find it difficult to accept loss, incorporate it into their lives, and move forward again. This is especially true when the loss involves the death of a loved one.
In these instances, the grieving process can become unnecessarily protracted and even debilitating for the person suffering its effects. Fortunately, professional grief counseling is available for anyone who’s experiencing difficulty working through their grief or who lacks the necessary support network to effectively cope with the grief process.
The Stages of Grief and How Grief Counseling Can Help
According to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ book On Death & Dying, the grief process consists of five basic stages. These five stages are known collectively as the Grief Cycle. However, despite the name, these stages need not occur in sequential order and every person goes through them at their own time and pace.
- Denial – Denial is, more often than not, the first stage of the grief process. A person who’s grieving and in denial is likely to disbelieve the loss has occurred and may carry on with their daily routine as if nothing has happened for weeks or even months. It is not uncommon for someone in denial to become socially isolated as a way not to be reminded of their loss. If the cause of grief is the death a loved one, an individual in denial may even continue to act as if the person who died is still alive. Although individuals in denial rarely seek assistance, professional grief counseling can help people in denial acknowledge their loss so they can move forward with the grief and healing process.
- Anger – Denial is often followed by intense anger. This anger may be directed at an external source, such as the person who died, family members or friends, or even at a higher power, or the anger may be directed inward, which leads to feelings of self-loathing and guilt. A professional grief counselor can help someone at this stage of the grief process cope with their feelings and find constructive outlets for their anger so they don’t strain their professional and personal relationships.
- Bargaining – Once their anger subsides, people in grief may begin bargaining with a higher power or other party in an attempt to turn back time and undue the loss. For example, if the loss is due to a separation or divorce, the bargaining may involve calls to “still be friends” or “give us one more chance.” If the loss involves the death of someone close, bargaining is likely to involve promises to a higher power to reform one’s life or perform some task in order to have their loved one returned. Regardless of the nature of the loss, bargaining is unlikely to bring any long-term solutions and grief counseling can help us express our need to bargain without getting stuck in expectations of results.
- Depression – Depression is the first sign that the loss is starting to sink in. While the depression accompanying grief can be mild or severe, it often involves feelings of numbness, hopelessness, fear, uncertainty and regret as well as changes in sleeping patterns and loss of appetite. Again, depression is a normal and necessary part of the grief process and should not be avoided. However, a grief support group or professional counselor can help you work through your depression so it does not overwhelm your ability to function.
- Acceptance – This is the final stage of the grieving process and it is during this stage that we begin to accept the loss, incorporate it into our lives, and move forward again. While depression and anger may still occur from time to time during the acceptance stage, they become less frequent as we move forward, and grief counseling can help provide you the coping skills and support you need to rebuild your life.
Many people go through the various stages of grief without seeking professional help. And, if you have a strong support network around you, there is nothing inherently wrong with doing so.
However, if you or someone you know lacks a support network or seems to be struggling on and on with grief with no apparent end in sight, professional grief counseling or a grief support group can be extremely beneficial. A professional grief counselor can help you work through your feelings at each stage of the grief process, express any unresolved emotions, and provide the objective, compassionate support we all need when grieving and to help us move forward again in life with confidence.