How to Navigate the Five Primary Grief Stages

How to Navigate the Five Primary Grief Stages

Grief is an incredibly difficult thing to go through. At some point, we are all likely to experience it in some form – whether through the loss of a loved one, the breakdown of a relationship, or even a personal failure. You may have heard of the “stages” of grief.

These are often used to try and define the different coping mechanisms we employ in response to grief, as we come to terms with loss and heartache. But they are by no means one-size-fits-all – people will experience grief in very individual ways.

Simply put, there is no one right path of grief, and you should never feel under pressure to conform to one particular way. David Kessler, an expert on grief, writes that the stages of grief “are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.”

He suggests that they are not merely some sort of “stations of the cross” to be performed in order. In fact, not everyone experiences every one of them, or if they do, it is not in a set order. He hopes the stages of grief will provide a knowledge of the landscape of grief, better helping us to handle the loss. Grief will be as unique as the individual experiencing it.

Grief can be incredibly lonely. Despite your best efforts, you may not be able to fully explain how you feel, making it an extraordinarily isolated place to be. That said, there are some recognizable elements of the grieving process that can be common to many people.

Indeed, it is important to become familiar with these, so that you are prepared for when they hit. Again, it is vital to stress that there is no “right” way to grieve, and each person will develop their own individual methods of coping.

Christian Hope for the Grieving

While it might feel as if no one truly understands what you are going through, the Lord knows everything there is to know about it. Indeed, not only does God promise to come close to us in our pain and heartache, but he also declares, in Revelation 21:4, that “He will wipe every tear from [your] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

Christ knew the depths of earthly grief and can identify with our deepest pain. At the grave of Lazarus, the Bible says that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Of course, Jesus went on to resurrect Lazarus, demonstrating his ultimate power over the “final enemy” of death.

The Longterm Process of Grief

Grief is a process and should be viewed in the long-term. Too often, we look for a “quick fix” or the ability to rush through the prescribed “stages of grief,” failing to give ourselves ample time. It is important to note, however, that even with all the time in the world, the pain may never fully leave you.

Grief can be a long process, and though the pain may ease over time and as you deal with it alongside friends, family and a trained counselor, it may always be with you.

It is worth looking at the latest version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is used by mental health professionals to analyze and diagnose their patients. In the part about depressive disorders, it has a caveat that demonstrates how important it is to distinguish between grief and actual mental disorders:

“Careful consideration is given to the delineation of normal sadness and grief from a major depressive episode. Bereavement may induce great suffering, but it does not typically induce an episode of major depressive disorder.”

Death is an Amputation

So, with this in mind, it is important to point out that there should never be an “end goal” for grief – it is a process that must be managed carefully and sensitively. A trained counselor will assist you to move forward in your life while always honoring the person lost.

Theologian and writer C.S. Lewis, who lost his beloved wife, wrote that “the death of a beloved is an amputation.” He also wrote of how no-one ever truly “gets over” a loss like that, but that they learn to adapt to their new life without having the person around.

In his book, A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote: “He will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones, and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off.”

Grief and love are intimately related. You only grieve someone so much because you loved them so much.

Grief is Not Just About Death

When we think of grief, our minds often jump to the aching loss of someone we love. But as we mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other life events that can cause you to experience a season of grieving.

Examples could include:

  • Loss of a pet
  • Loss of employment
  • Loss of physical or mental capabilities
  • Separation from someone you love
  • End of a friendship or relationship
  • Infidelity
  • Divorce

These are highly emotional events and may evoke a reaction of grief similar to the death of someone close to you.

The Five Grief Stages

With that being said, it is worth looking at a few of the more prominent aspects of grief to gain a more general understanding of the grieving process and what it usually looks like.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of death from her book “Of Death and Dying serves as the most significant work in this area. Though somewhat trivialized through the years, these aspects are still incredibly helpful to understand when exploring the topic of grief. She defined the five grief stages as:

1. Denial

Denial is a typical reaction to the immediate shock that hits you when something emotionally devastating occurs. It can be a way of coping that can help us to get through a loss during those painful and traumatic moments.

2. Anger

Though it may seem counterintuitive, anger may at times be helpful because it helps us release our emotions, instead of merely turning numb. Though the anger may be directed at any number of different things, it is always rooted in pain.

3. Bargaining

This reaction is likely to be an initial attempt to rationalize what has happened. Of course, that is impossible to do – what has happened cannot be undone. Nevertheless, our human nature will try its very best to do something to rectify the situation. We cling to any hope that tells us the situation could possibly be reversed.

4. Depression

When some time has passed, depression often sets in. The initial shock has worn off, and you are left feeling bewildered, sad and hopeless at the devastating loss.

5. Acceptance

Acceptance doesn’t mean that we have forgotten about what happened and have totally moved on with our lives. Instead, acceptance comes when we face the stark reality of the loss and figure out how to live with what happened.

Focusing on the Four Tasks of Mourning

Another helpful model for understanding grief stages comes from William J. Worden. In his Four Tasks of Mourning, he sees a more active role for the person who is grieving, rather than merely floating passively through the grief process.

This model can assist people in moving beyond the denial that is frequently experienced in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one. Worden believes that intentionally trying to work through the four tasks is absolutely essential in order for “equilibrium to be reestablished.”

The four key tasks are:

1. Accepting the reality of the loss

2. Working through the pain of the grief

3. Adjusting to life without the deceased

4. Finding a lasting connection to the deceased while also moving on with your life

Getting Help

If you or someone you know is facing grief, contact a Christian counselor guidance, support, and reassurance as you process your pain. Counseling is a protected and confidential space in which you can express your grief whatever way you feel. A good counselor will both honor the profound depth of your grief while also providing support as your process your loss.

“A Private Grief”, Courtesy of Nicholas Bui,; CC0 License; “The Road Ahead”, Courtesy of Johannes Plenio,; CC0 License; “Grieving Man”, Courtesy of Tom Pumford,; CC0 License; “Lightning Storm”, Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop,; CC0 License


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