The Stages of Grief

Most everyone is at least a little bit familiar with the concept of the stages of grief. Regardless, a lot of us need to hear this again. Most of us need it right now, more than ever. I know I do. For so many people, this past year has just been tragedy after tragedy.

Sure, many of them happened in parts of the world we’ve never even been to. But if you are a compassionate, caring person, you probably feel the pain that others go through, almost as intensely as you feel your own.

Unless you’ve been living in an alternate reality, you have almost certainly had some personal setbacks or tragedies. You have at least watched helplessly as some friends or loved ones went through such things. If you’re anything like me, you experienced virtually every known emotion, stuffed into a one-year-sized container.

Like myself, you’ve likely had big plans (and small ones) put on the back burner. You’ve had friends, family and acquaintances get sick, die, lose jobs, lose their residences, health insurance and even go hungry.

Siege of the Capital Building ​
Siege of the Capital Building

You and people you care about have been forced to make decisions that were never on the table until recently. You’ve probably been somewhere between concerned and terrified, about the things going on at the national level of government.

Events of yesterday… literally yesterday

You have probably watched the news and seen more heartbreak than ever, from police killing unarmed minorities to natural disasters and foreign powers, hacking into our systems (both governmental and social media sites).

We’ve seen manmade disasters like the explosion in Libya and natural ones, like wildfires raging at home and abroad. There’s the hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 victims here in the USA and the nearly two million, worldwide. People are losing jobs and homes, every day.

Whether you had the year from hell, people who you regularly interact with did… or both, chances are that it’s a good time to bone up on the Stages of Grief.

Everyone processes grief in their own way.
Each of us processes grief in our own time.

The Stages

The phases are traditionally known as The Five Stages of Grief. They are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

It’s often shortened as DABDA. That acronym can help you remember the stages and keep track of where you are, as you go through them.

But you really want to let this happen as organically as possible. Resist the temptation to treat this list as a type of race. It’s not a to-do list. Take as much time as you need with each one.

Trying to check off the stages as quickly as possible might seem smart, like you’re getting back to normal, only faster. But it doesn’t work like that. The hurried approach can do some really rough, even permanent, psychological damage.

If you are shoulder deep in one stage today (or this week or period of days), then be gentle with yourself and just say “It’s ok… this is what I am doing, right now. Later, I will do one of the other ones. This is where I’m at and there’s a reason for it. I don’t need to make it stop, it will stop on its own, after it has run its course.”

As you probably already know, this order in which they’re presented is only the most commonly experienced one. But for literally billions of people, these stages occur out of order and it’s very common to go through one or more of them several times. It’s also common to get stuck in one or more of them.

The work of healing is not finished until you have had the full brunt of each of them, so resist the temptation to push any of them away. Most of them will feel uncomfortable and will seem “impractical” at the time. As in, “I have to go to work, I don’t have time to feel angry or be depressed.”

While you might need to take a leave of absence from work or school, to deal with a severe loss, you aren’t giving up when you do that. You’re healing, the same way that you wouldn’t go to work if you were sick with the flu or Covid. You would resume your normal schedule only after you felt mostly better and you were no longer in the contagious phase.

Just try to remember that you are an incredibly resourceful creature and you can, in fact, do all of it.

Denial – Shock, in either the medical sense of the word or in the psychological sense. Can also be a refusal to acknowledge that something awful has happened. Denial is a primal defense mechanism, protecting the mind against what is unconsciously perceived as an unbearable pain. The unconscious mind believes it will break entirely, cease to exist and therefore rejects the facts.

Anger – You may lash out, say things you later regret or harm yourself, others or break things.

Bargaining – This is (usually) promising or pleading with God or a higher power to undo whatever tragedy occurred. Also, to give you (and/or someone else) relief from the pain. For atheists and agnostics, it can be more of an internal struggle, bartering or negotiating with the self or with other people.

Depression – May involve isolation or retreating from activities one normally enjoys or at least keeps up with. Feelings of loneliness, sadness and despondency arise. Often there’s a seeming inability to get away from the hurt for more than a few seconds at a time.

Side Note: This phase can, in some cases, become rather extreme and might require counseling, coaching, medication or other means of treatment.

It’s normal to find yourself stuck in the depression stage for more than a few days at a time, for small events. It can be weeks, for big stuff like losing a job or a residence, etc. It can even be months, for big losses, like the death of a friend, spouse, family members or pets.

If you find you cannot function on basic levels, have thoughts of suicide or you just aren’t bouncing back, even though plenty of time has passed, then get help.

You may find some useful thoughts on this in a post I did, called The Thing About Depression.

Don’t suffer needlessly. Get help.

And if you do need to take medication for depression and you decide to stop taking it later on, please, please, please… taper off of it incredibly slowly, like snail’s pace slowly.

Acceptance – The tragedy or loss is finally accepted as an unchangeable reality. At this point, some of the more useful lessons become clearer, the “upsides” of the painful experience begin to appear. This sometimes can trigger the earlier feelings of guilt and loss but it’s a good and necessary progression.

Creating Space

It’s important to note that if you’re experiencing grief, then it almost always means that someone close to you is, as well. Especially during a rough year like this one. It’s a safe bet that everyone you interact with has been adversely affected by several different heartbreaks and they’re probably struggling too.

Support systems matter

Some of them will have had it easier than you but will still be stuck in the anger phase. Try to be patient, if you can. If you can’t (which is understandable), at least try to back away without saying something that can’t be taken back.

Some people will have had a much rougher go of things than you but they’re not letting you know. People have varying reasons for why they don’t share their problems with others. Don’t assume that because someone seems perfectly ok that they actually are ok. Consider the words of the following poem:


Richard Cory

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.


You don’t need to press them to share, that can go badly. Just lovingly let them know that they can share, if they need to and reinforce that by following up on it now and then. By all means, if someone does share, resist the urge to give them unsolicited advice.

It’s not your job to fix them. Gently suggest, in a nonjudgmental way, that if things get too bad, they should seek solutions through a doctor, counseling, a psychiatrist, etc. All you need to do is listen and share space, providing you have enough emotional energy and resources, yourself, to do so.

Matching Styles

Also, you don’t always know your audience. The way you typically choose to provide emotional support may or may not be the best way to reach a particular person. It’s not one size fits all.

For example, it’s typical of men to tease each other, as a means of trying to help. It’s odd but it’s a male way of saying “I hate that you are going through this but I will affirm your strength and ability to get through it by making a joke that sounds like I’m cutting you down to size.”

In many cases, this works. In others, it can be disastrous. It depends on who you’re talking to, what they’ve been through and which stage of grief they’re currently in. It’s usually better to simply listen and affirm “Yeah, that’s gotta be brutal” and once you get some sort of feedback, you can then ascertain whether or not a joke might be appropriate.

Even though good ol’ Robert has always been the toughest sumbitch you’ve ever known, you may not know where he’s at, right now.

The fact that you cheered him up and made him laugh last week, by teasing him doesn’t mean that it will work now, when he’s taken three, major hits in one year and he happens to be in the anger stage. It could backfire on you.

When in doubt, ask how someone is doing. Wait and listen. If you get a response that seems polite but might be covering up pain, ask again… “How are you really doing?” Say this with real love in your eyes and in your voice. Most of all, if they choose not to open up and share, respect that.

Just say something like “I understand and I don’t want to press you. Just know that you always have a friend in me and I will do whatever I can to help, even if it’s only listening.” Then let them respond. They might share, they might change the subject. Either way, follow their lead and don’t bring it up again.

A genuine smile usually indicates that you’re helping in some way. But the lack of one does not mean you’re not helping. Sometimes just being heard is enough to begin a person’s healing process.

Variations

Some variations that you might encounter are below. The DABDA model is the most well-known and easiest to remember.

People are always trying to improve or expand models. Sometimes it ends up muddying the waters, more than providing elucidation of the ideas. But, I’ve seen a few that you might find helpful, so I have included them, below:

Pain/Guilt – A tremendous, even crushing sense of loss, that seems unbearable. You might feel you’re a burden to others or that you’re somehow to blame for what happened.

Up Turn – When the more uncomfortable stages, like anger or depression have somewhat subsided and you begin to sense some possibility of hope for the future.

Reconstruction – Beginning to put the pieces of your life back together. Having periods of hours, days and even weeks, during which you are not haunted by the event(s) that took place.

End Game

We all want to be happy. We all want those we care about to be happy. But none of us are all-powerful. Sometimes, the best and only thing you can do for someone (including yourself) is to step back and let pain, anger, confusion and other negative emotions run their natural course.

You just give a few offers of easy conversation or assistance. Maybe you need to ask for help with meeting your own needs.

We create space for each other, as best as we can. We try to make things just a little bit easier and we try not to make them worse. Usually, when people are hurting, that’s the best we can do.

You don’t have to be someone’s doormat, if they’re lashing out at you through their grief. But if they are a true friend, then later on, they’ll apologize and that behavior will cease. If it doesn’t, then they’re not someone who you should invest your time and energy into.

If they’re just hurting, it’s better to say nothing. In the meantime, just know that it’s not about you. It’s about them, trying to mitigate their own pain.

Be as kind as you possibly can, to yourself and to others. It’s rough out there.

© 2021 Kevin Trent Boswell

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