It's hard to go through life without losing someone or something important to us.
"Beyond death, loss can include relationship breakups, job loss, health challenges and significant financial setbacks," says Dr. Elisabeth Crain, Psy.D., a psychologist who treats couples, families and people coping with trauma. "People grieve these losses because they involve significant changes to their life or routine, requiring adaptation, identity reevaluation and the need to navigate new realities."
People often talk about grief in stages. The stages popularized by Swiss-American Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1969 book On Death and Dying are denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. But Dr. Crain says the stages aren't like steps on a to-do list. In fact, they may not even occur in a neat and tidy order.
"For many, grief occurs in a non-linear fashion and can ebb and flow depending on the moment, day or time," Dr. Crain says. "It can also show up for people when they least expect it and, for some, grief can have an unpredictable nature to it."
Still, Dr. Crain having an idea of what to expect during grief can help people better understand their emotions. It can also let you know that your feelings are normal and that you're not alone—two truths that can be hard to come by during a process not talked about enough.
The 5 Stages of Grief, According to a Trauma Therapist
Dr. Crain says this stage may present as shock or feeling like the loss isn't real.
"Denial acts as a defense mechanism to protect us, so when we feel denial, it can be because the emotion is too big to process at the time," she explains. "The shock needs time to settle before other emotions can be experienced."
Dr. Crain says anger often—but doesn't always—comes once the initial shock of a loss wears off. Who or what might you be angry at? That depends on you and the loss you're grieving.
"For some individuals, this may look like feeling really upset about the loss or situation, while some may experience feelings of abandonment or expressing sentiments like 'You left me,'" Dr. Crain explains.
Grief is complicated and uncomfortable. In an attempt to "get out of feeling it," you may find yourself trying to strike a deal internally or with the powers that be.
"People create scenarios in their minds, such as imagining that if a certain event or aspect of the loss didn't happen, everything would be OK," Dr. Crain says. "Bargaining is a way to mentally negotiate hypothetical situations in an attempt to regain what has been lost."
Once someone realizes that no deal will reverse a loss, Dr. Crain says they may experience profound sadness (understandably). But remember, you may experience multiple emotions at once, which can be hard to sit with.
"For some, depression can be anger turned inward, and so more anger may come up during this time," Dr. Crain says. "However, sadness is typically the primary emotion during this stage. People in the depression phase really feel the loss for what it is and work through the difficult emotions of what has happened."
Considered the final phase, a person usually eventually reaches the point of acceptance.
"Acceptance often resembles peace and surrender and allows for the integration of the loss into one's life," Dr. Crain explains. "During acceptance, positive emotions may emerge, such as honoring the person, sharing positive memories and holding a special place for the lost individual in their heart."
Dr. Crain says a person can typically move on from the loss after acceptance. However, that doesn't mean that your grief has officially ended.
"It doesn't mean that the grief won't still show up from time to time after acceptance has been reached, but there is a sense of completion that comes with acceptance that allows people to move on with their lives after the loss," Dr. Crain says.
What is the Hardest Stage of Grief?
This question is common, but Dr. Crain says giving a one-size-fits-all answer is impossible. "The hardest stage of grief is different for every person," Dr. Crain says. Still, she says acceptance is generally the most challenging stage to reach.
"Reaching acceptance involves working through the other emotional stages, and there is a sense of finality to acceptance that is hard for some to reach," Dr. Crain says. "It can take a long time."
That doesn't mean grief will play out in this way for you or someone else, even if you're grieving the loss of the same person.
"It's important to note that the stages of grief are processed — often in a non-linear fashion — and show up differently for each person," Dr. Crain says. "We do not all grieve the same way."
For instance, Dr. Crain says some people will show more outward emotions while others might internalize more.
"It's a good reminder not to judge people during their grief if their process doesn't look similar to yours," Dr. Crain says. "It doesn't mean they aren't feeling the emotions. Grief is just showing up for them differently."
What Can You Do if You're Struggling With Grief?
Grief can be isolating, but Dr. Crain stresses: "People do not need to suffer in silence."
"Grieving is helpful when done in a therapeutic setting with a grief counselor, but it can also be talking to a family member or friend," she adds.
A primary care physician can recommend a therapist. If you have health insurance, you can get listings from your provider of mental health professionals who accept your plan. Other websites, like Psychology Today, also have listings.
"Grieving is helpful when done in a therapeutic setting with a grief counselor, but it can also be talking to a family member or friend," Dr. Crain says. "What's most important for people who are grieving to know is they are not alone. Others care and support is out there."
Dr. Elisabeth Crain, Psy.D., psychologist who treats couples, families and people coping with trauma