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grief stages

The stages of grief after a death suddenly became more relevant to me, unfortunately. I was notified that one of my friends on Facebook died at age 24 of what appears to be kidney failure. Combined with the recent All Souls Day service at church, this has made me think about the stages of grieving and recovery after a sudden death. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,1 there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They don’t always go in this order, and they don’t always happen to everyone. But this is a general road map to grief.

Grief and Recovery Stage One: Denial

This is the initial shock of the death. We can’t believe they’re gone. I still expect my friend to post things, such as that someone hacked his account as a sick joke and he’s alive and well. This is normal, especially when the death is unexpected. Denial is a simple inability to accept reality. It is only when it begins to interfere with our lives that it is a problem.

So how does one move on from denial? One forces oneself to face the reality of the person’s death. Read the obituary. Get a copy of the death certificate. Attend the funeral. Eventually, it will sink in and you’ll learn to move on. Acknowledge your emotions, but don’t let them control you.
Occasionally it happens that a person is simply unable to accept the death. If this is the case, find a therapist experienced in bereavement counseling. You deserve to be free from denial–you deserve to integrate the loss.

Grief and Recovery Stage Two: Anger

It is normal to feel anger after a death–including anger at God or other intangible forces. For example, you can be angry at a war, where “everyone was responsible, but no one was responsible,” as one Vietnam veteran observed. You can be angry at the person for dying. You can be angry at the disease. You can be angry at God for not healing the person. There’s plenty of anger to go around when in mourning.

Moving on from the anger stage of grief and recovery takes time and acceptance. Allow yourself that time. Find a way to channel your rage. For example, you may volunteer for fundraisers such as Extra Life (a video game marathon that raises money for Children’s Miracle Network). One friend of mine mourns her stillborn baby by hosting an annual “Day of Kindness” to encourage people not to take life for granted. Physical activity is also good–a long bike ride or kickboxing session might help. The important thing is to find what works for you.

Anger eats at the soul. Face it, acknowledge it, and conquer it.

Grief and Recovery Stage Three: Bargaining

I’ll borrow from the experts at on this one:
Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one would be spared. “Please God, ” you bargain, “I will never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others. Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?” We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.

So how do we recover? We move on from bargaining by realizing that life played out the way it did. There was very little we could have done differently. We learn we live in an imperfect world, that we are imperfect people, and that life is imperfect. That’s about the best advice I can give–accept imperfection. If you were perfect, you’d be God, and you’d have a whole new slew of problems.

Grief and Recovery Stage Four: Depression

After bargaining fails, we enter the depression stage of grieving. We’re severely sad because reality has set it. The person is dead and we’re not. People often want us to “snap out of it,” but this is a natural part of mourning. It is important to allow yourself to feel the sadness. In many cultures, mourners are not expected to do much for the year after the death–sadly, American culture is not one of them. We’re allowed to grieve at the funeral, but after that everyone wants us to be happy.

It is important to remember the depression will not last forever. If it interferes with your life, especially via thoughts of harming yourself or anyone else, get help immediately. There are many grief support groups out there–and even in isolated areas you can find grief and depression support online. Keep looking. Don’t give up. You deserve to laugh again.

Grief and Recovery Stage Five: Acceptance

In some cultures (such as Native American), coming out of mourning is cause for a celebration, complete with gift-giving. I have found this ritual to be comforting. But it is important to remember “acceptance” does not equal “okay with it.” I have a friend who was murdered and I will never be okay with that, but I have accepted it. I have adjusted to the reality that she’s not here anymore. And I have moved on with my life, despite being shaken. And so will you.

There are many stages of grieving and recovery after a sudden death, but the five best-known are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They are more of a cycle than a linear progression. But the good news is recovery from grief after a sudden death is possible if we allow ourselves to feel the emotions.

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