5 Stages of Mourning Explained.
Mourning is an intimate and unique experience for each of us. There’s no manual on how to cope with loss and certainly no right or wrong way to go through the stages of grief that might come from it.
If you or someone you love are going through a loss, the new emotions may feel overwhelming and confusing.
Feeling this way is natural and even necessary. These emotions are forward steps in the healing journey, even when it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.
Healing from a loss is possible, but it does take time and patience. Even if you’re having a particularly hard time with it, resources like counselling and support groups can help you cope.
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The Kübler-Ross model on grieving
In an effort to better understand the grieving process, many mental health experts and researchers have dedicated years to studying loss and the emotions that come with it.
One of these experts was Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss American psychiatrist. She created the Kübler-Ross model, the theory of the five stages of grief and loss.
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In her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” Kübler-Ross examined the five most common emotional reactions to loss:
Originally, Kübler-Ross referred to them as the “five stages of death.” This was because she was working with terminally ill patients at the time, and these were the common emotions they had regarding their own mortality.
Years after her first book, Kübler-Ross adapted and extended her model to include other kinds of loss. The five stages of death became the five stages of grief.
This grief can come in many forms and from different reasons. Everyone, from all walks of life and across cultures, experiences loss and grief at some point.
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Mourning doesn’t come only from dealing with your own death or the death of a loved one. Mourning can also come as a result of an illness, the end of a close relationship, or even the end of a project or dream.
Grief can similarly come from a perceived or real change in your life. For example, moving to a new city, school, or job, transitioning into a new age group, or staying in isolation because of a pandemic.
Going through the 5 stages of grief
Exploring the five stages of grief and loss could help you understand and put into context where you are in your own grieving process and what you feel.
Similarly, if you’re concerned or want to understand someone else’s grieving process, remember that there’s no one way of going through it. Everyone mourns differently.
You could go through many intense emotions, or you could seemingly not react at all. Both responses are valid and not uncommon.
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How much time you spend navigating the stages of grief also varies from person to person. It might take you hours, months, or longer to process a loss and heal from it.
You might not experience all these stages of grief or in the order listed above. You could go back and forth from one stage to another.
You may even skip all these emotions and process your loss differently altogether. The five stages of grief are supposed to serve you as a reference, not as a rule.
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For some people, this may be the first response to loss.
Denial is a common defence mechanism. It may help you buffer the immediate shock of the hurtful situation.
As an immediate reaction, you might doubt the reality of the loss at first.
A few examples of this type of denial are:
- If you’re facing the death of a loved one, you might find yourself fantasizing someone will call to say there’s been a mistake and nothing really happened.
- If you’re dealing with a breakup, you might convince yourself your partner will soon regret leaving and come back to you.
- If you lost your job, you might feel your former boss will offer you the position back after they realize they’ve made a mistake.
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After this first reaction of shock and denial, you may go numb for a while.
At some point, you could feel like nothing matters to you anymore. Life as you once knew it has changed. It might be difficult to feel you can move on.
This is a natural reaction that helps you process the loss in your own time. By going numb, you’re giving yourself time to explore at your own pace the changes you’re going through.
Denial is a temporary response that carries you through the first wave of pain. Eventually, when you’re ready, the feelings and emotions you have denied will resurface, and your healing journey will continue.
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Sometimes pain takes other forms. According to Kübler-Ross, pain from a loss is often redirected and expressed as anger.
Feeling intensely angry might surprise you or your loved ones, but it’s not uncommon. This anger serves a purpose.
It might be particularly overwhelming for some people to feel anger because, in many cultures, anger is feared or rejected emotion. You might be more used to avoiding it than confronting it.
During the anger stage of grief, you might start asking questions like “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?”
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You could also feel suddenly angry at inanimate objects, strangers, friends, or family members. You might feel angry at life itself.
It’s not rare to also feel anger toward the situation or person you lost. Rationally, you might understand the person isn’t to blame. Emotionally, however, you may resent them for causing you pain or for leaving you.
At some point, you might also feel guilty for being angry. This could make you angrier.
Try reminding yourself that underneath your anger is pain. And even if it might not feel like it, this anger is necessary for healing.
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Anger might also be a way to reconnect to the world after isolating yourself from it during the denial stage. When you’re numb, you disconnect from everyone. When you’re angry, you connect, even if through this emotion.
But anger isn’t the only emotion you might experience during this stage. Irritability, bitterness, anxiety, rage, and impatience are just some other ways you might cope with your loss. It’s all part of the same process.
Bargaining is a way to hold on to hope in a situation of intense pain.
You might think to yourself that you’re willing to do anything and sacrifice everything if your life is restored to how it was before the loss.
During this internal negotiation, you could find yourself thinking in terms of “what if” or “if only”: what if I did XYZ, then everything will go back to normal; if only I had done something differently to prevent the loss.
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Guilt might be an accompanying emotion during this stage as you inadvertently might be trying to regain some control, even if at your own expense.
All these emotions and thoughts aren’t uncommon. As hard as it might feel, this helps you heal as you confront the reality of your loss.
Just as in all the other stages of grief, depression is experienced in different ways. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it, nor is there a deadline to overcome it.
In this instance, depression isn’t a sign of a mental health condition. Instead, it’s a natural and appropriate response to grief.
During the depression stage, you start facing your present reality and the inevitability of the loss you’ve experienced. Understandably, this realization may lead you to feel intense sadness and despair.
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This intense sadness could cause you to feel different in other aspects too. You could feel:
- confused and distracted
- not wanting to move on
- not hungry or wanting to eat
- not able or willing to get ready in the morning
- not able to enjoy what you once did
This is all typically temporary and a direct response to your grieving process.
As overwhelming as it may feel at this point, this stage is a necessary part of your healing journey.
Reaching acceptance isn’t necessarily about being OK with what happened. Depending on your experience, it might be understandable if you don’t ever feel this way.
Acceptance is more about how you acknowledge the losses you’ve experienced, how you learn to live with them, and how you readjust your life accordingly.
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You might feel more comfortable reaching out to friends and family during this stage, but it’s also natural to feel you prefer to withdraw at times.
You may also feel like you accept the loss at times and then move to another stage of grief again. This back-and-forth between stages is natural and a part of the healing process.
In time, you may eventually find yourself stationed at this stage for long periods of time.
That doesn’t mean you’ll never feel sadness or anger again toward your loss, but your long-term perspective about it and how you live with this reality will be different.
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Other possible stages of grief
The five stages of grief proposed by Kübler-Ross have served as a framework for many mental health professionals working with the grief process.
Some of these professionals, such as British psychiatrist John Bowlby, have developed their own work around the emotional responses to loss. Others, including Kübler-Ross herself, have adapted and extended the original five-stage model.
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This adaptation is usually known as the Kübler-Ross Change Curve. It extends the five core stages of grief to seven overlapping stages:
- Shock. Intense and sometimes paralyzing surprise at the loss.
- Denial. Disbelief and the need to look for evidence to confirm the loss.
- Anger and frustration. A mix between acknowledgement that some things have changed and anger toward this change.
- Depression. Lack of energy and intense sadness.
- Testing. Experimenting with the new situation to discover what it actually means in your life.
- Decision. Rising optimism about learning how to manage the new situation.
- Integration. Acceptance of the new reality, reflection on what you learned, and stepping out in the world as a renewed person.
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