The 5 Stages of Grief, Explained

Photo: Wassily Kandinsky/Wikimedia Commons

If you’re grieving right now, you’re not alone: Whether you’ve been personally impacted by death or illness, or whether you’re grieving on a broader, more systemic level, it’s normal to not feel normal about the coronavirus pandemic and all its tragic consequences. Grief doesn’t always look the same, either; sometimes it’s expressed through crying, sometimes it means sleeping a lot, and sometimes it might not look like sadness at all. To make sense of the different ways humans process and experience grief, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed what are known as the “five stages of grief,” first explored in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families.

Kübler-Ross died in 2004, but her model — also known as the Kübler-Ross model — has proven hugely influential and helpful for people trying to understand their own range of emotional responses to tragedy and suffering. Below, each of these five stages is defined and explained. Important to note is that the five stages do not necessarily occur in the order listed.

1. Denial

In this stage, someone learning terrible news is unable to process or understand the information, and may choose to believe that it’s incorrect or somehow mistaken — that a loved one’s diagnosis is a clerical error, or the name they’ve heard on the news is wrong, or that it isn’t really their house that was broken into. This state is also characterized by shock and numbness; someone in denial may feel life no longer makes sense.

2. Anger

Typically, though not always, this stage follows denial: Once the person understands that previously rejected information really is true, they’re frustrated and angry, often lashing out at those they may perceive as responsible for their grief — which is not to say that they’re necessarily unjustified in their anger. People in the anger stage may ask themselves, “Why me?” David Kessler, who co-authored two later books on grief with Kübler-Ross, calls this stage an “indication of the intensity of your love” for the subject of your grief.

3. Bargaining

In the bargaining stage, we may seek out reasons to believe we can avoid our grief. One prominent cultural example of the bargaining stage can be found in A Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer Scrooge promises to be a better person if he can live longer than the Ghost of Christmas Future indicates is likely. People in this stage may plead with God, or the universe, or may obsess over alternate “what if” scenarios that could prevent (or could have prevented) whatever is causing their grief.

4. Depression

The depression stage typically marks the beginning of a deeper, more realized grief, in which the grieving party realizes that the precipitating event is real, and may be irreversible. In this stage, people tend to believe these feelings will last forever — they may become fixated on their own mortality, and assume the stance that life itself is meaningless. This is likely to be a lonely stage; many people in the depression stage will refuse help from friends and family, choosing instead to spend time alone.

5. Acceptance

In the fifth (and usually final) stage of grief, we are able to understand our new reality, accepting the loss of a loved one, or an illness, or another difficult life event. This does not mean that we are “okay” with it, or that we won’t still feel sad about what happened — the grief stages can repeat themselves several times over. Still, this stage usually involves a stabilizing of one’s emotions, and some lightened perspective toward the future. Here, finally, is the sense that things will one day be okay again.

The 5 Stages of Grief, Explained