coping with the loss of a loved one

The Grief Process: Why I Believe There Are 6 Stages, Not 5

Did you recently lose a loved one?

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” ― Anne Lamott

When was the last time you felt grief? Not just your run of the mill, a friend flaked on you type of sad. But real soul-shattering grief?

The grief process looks different for everyone. Some people spend a lot of time crying. Some remain stoic and continue plowing through their to-do list.

Despite these differences, there is a common principle underlying all of them. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s the 5 Stages of Grief. Read on to see why I believe there should be an additional stage, and read how you can move forward and not loss yourself in the grief process.

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My experiences with loss

I’ve experienced significant seasons of grief a few times in my life. The first was when my cousin was killed in 1995. It was a complete shock, and it shook us to our core. In some ways, it brought my immediate family closer together. In other ways, it drove us apart, as we all grieved in different ways.

When my grandfather died in 2004, I was old enough to really understand how short the human lifespan actually is. He was a kind and loving man. The world’s light glows a little dimmer without him.

In 2017, my grandmother passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Her and I were especially close. In fact, I’ve rarely let myself be so close to another person. I tend to put up walls but she had a way of breaking them down. She made me feel at ease.

Losing a loved one is never easy, and you never stop missing them. My hope is, with the tips in this post, you will be able to at least find peace.

the grief process, grief, mental health, 5 stages of grief

The grief process: How many stages are there?

This 5 stage model for grieving was developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. She published a book on it called On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross was inspired by her work with terminal patients.

She is well known for this, but long after the fact, said she regretted it. That grief was so complex that these steps are often taken out of order, and experienced by people in different ways.

On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families

Denial

Traditionally, denial is the first stage in the 5 step model. Denial, simply, is the act of not being able to acknowledge, or choosing not to acknowledge, a specific situation.

I started to grieve for my grandmother for years before her death. As the days passed, I felt her slowly slipping away as she forgot names and stories she used to tell.

We all have that grandparent who has 4 stories and tells them on repeat. Rather than annoyances, they become building blocks for our families history, more valuable than diamonds. And away they went.

At first, I tried so hard to convince my brain that she wasn’t losing her memory. Or if she was, that she would eventually get it back.

It was unconscionable that this woman who always remembered all of her ten grandchildren’s birthdays (and sent heartfelt cards) would one day not even know who we were. Unconscionable and unfair.

Denial.

Anger

Alzheimer’s makes me angry. Maybe it feels so raw because I watched it rob me of a relationship I cherished above almost any other. I watched the sparkle fade from my grandmother’s eyes.

If there is one word I could use to describe my grandmother, it would be vivacious. I heard later on from my mom (I think) that my grandmother considered herself shy. I never had that impression for even a moment.

She wore bold colors (favoring green and other jewel tones). Her house was covered nearly floor to ceiling in either beautiful paintings or kitschy knick-knacks. She owned more jewelry than the Queen of England.

And she was a storyteller. Granted, she had a tendency to tell the same ones over and over again. But what I wouldn’t give to hear one of them again.

I have never felt hate like the hate I feel for Alzheimer’s. The last time I saw her in person was 2012. I visited her in her assisted living community with my mom, sister, and brother in law. She had no clue who I was, but around bedtime, she still came out of her room and tucked me in. Like she had countless times when I slept over at her house.

For a second it felt like she was back to me, but then I realized it was just one of those random muscle memory/association type of things.

Anger.

Bargaining

This was a season of life I existed in for longer than I care to admit. It’s a tangled web we weave around ourselves, each strand another promise.

If You allow her to get well, I’ll…

I made hundreds of these statements, promising the kingdom of my soul to whoever is up there, if only he or she would allow my grandmother to be well.

If only she could talk with me again. Really talk.

If only I could see a glimmer of recognition in her eyes when someone says my name to her.

If/then becomes the thing that keeps us up at night as we wait to get THAT phone call.

Bargaining.

losing a loved one, loss, grief, 5 stages of grief

Depression

I cried so many tears for my grandmother. Grandmommy is what I called her. It broke my heart that I would never hear her voice on the other end of the phone. I would never unwrap Christmas presents in her family room.

That was her favorite time of year, us all being together. Her offering a kind word about every present someone opened. “Oh, that’s nice!”

It sucks. The sadness sucks. And I felt it. With every breath I took. She wasn’t around anymore. There wasn’t a blanket fort in the world that was big enough for my sorrow.

Depression seems like it might possibly be the longest stage people go through. The sadness of missing someone never really ends. You just get better at hiding it.

Depression.

Acceptance

We recently passed the 2nd anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, and I still struggle with this one. Especially now that I’m a mom, knowing she will never know her great grandchildren.

She lived for the holidays. A house full of people. Beautiful place settings. Homemade cranberry jello. Stockings for each of her children and grandchildren hung above the fireplace.

She sent the best birthday cards ever. We always felt so loved.

She named her dog after a wine she loved.

Her house was permanently set in 1960s kitsch. It was warm, and comfortable, and filled with memories.

It is my task, as I move through my grief, to accept that I never get to see her light up at those experiences again. And that she will never light the rest of us up in the process.

One day I will accept that.

Resources I recommend

It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand

Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through Grief

Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief

6th stage of grief: WHY

I’m not sure where this stage falls in the grief process. For me it is somewhere in between bargaining and acceptance. We reach a certain point in our grief that we often ask WHY.

This stage can share similarities with other stages. It is also distinct in many ways. But I really think it ought to be included in this list. It is in the WHY, in the question asking, that we often find peace.

Why did this happen to us? can bring a family closer together.

How could my God let this happen? can strengthen a person’s spirituality. (Although that was not the case for me.)

How will we live without her? creates meaningful new traditions that you allow yourself to cherish.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve asked WHY, my husband and I could retire today.

Tips for coping with grief

No matter what stage of grief you are currently in, it is helpful to find coping strategies to make it more manageable.

I fully believe that just because we suffer from the loss of a loved one does not mean we need to live in suffering.

Now, that is much easier said than done. Grief is a pit, and yes, you can climb out of it. But it takes time, and effort, and the right tools.

Journaling

Writing is incredibly therapeutic. Many people begin journaling when they experience major life changes or seasons of depression.

Journaling is so powerful that it allows us to purge ourselves of thoughts that take root. It allows us to say goodbye to ideas that hold us captive.

Not sure what to write about? Here are some ideas:

  • Your favorite memory
  • Your favorite recipe
  • Their life story
  • A letter to them
  • A letter from them to you

Talk about them

I know its hard. It’s really, really hard sometimes. When we talk about our lost loved ones, it feels like we’re letting the negative thoughts win.

But I really don’t think that’s true. Queen Elizabeth II once said, Grief is the price we pay for love. We love so deeply in our lifetime, that loss feels insurmountable. It feels all-encompassing.

But that love defines us. It needs to be spoken of so that it stays alive in our loved one’s absence. It needs to be nurtured and well kept. Your love is meaningful and deserves that.

Join an online/local support group

In today’s digital world, it is easy to find online access to community. Whether it is comprised of complete strangers or people you know. You can even start your own group.

If the internet isn’t really your thing, you can find a local church or moms’ group. They might be able to connect you with people who offer the support you are looking for.

Distract yourself

I don’t know if experts really recommend this, but I find staying busy really helps. Try taking up a new hobby, one that is not only distracting but also beneficial for your mental health.

Here are some ideas:

*Sign up for a yoga class

*Work your way through a recommended reading list

*Take up painting

*Start a play group

To be clear, none of these things are meant to be replacements for your loved one. But every moment you spend doing them is probably a moment you aren’t sad about your loss. That’s a win, right?

Accept death as a reality

This. This feels damn near impossible. But remember: death is inevitable. Besides birth it is the one thing that unites us. We are all born and we all die.

It’s kind of scary in its foreignness. We have no way of conclusively knowing what lies on the other side. But as a wise man named Albus Dumbledore once said: “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

6 stages of grief, the grief process, death of a loved one

Not all of these tips will resonate with you. Maybe you find one you like, it works for a while, then it becomes ineffective. Maybe none of these work. The grief process is unique to everyone.

What matters is that you find something that speaks to you and you allow it to guide you through this difficult season. Let it wrap its arms around you. Let it heal you.

I will never forget my grandmother. But I can wake up each morning grateful for the years in which she made the world a better place, and feeling lucky that she was mine.

Losing a loved one does not have to be the end of the world.

I would love to hear about your experiences with the 5 stages of grief. Share your story in the story. And please, share this article if you found it useful.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” – Thomas Campbell


Related articles about caring for yourself after loss:

Ideas for Self Care

What Self Care Really Is

What is Hygge

Reading and mental health

How to recognize the physical symptoms of depression and anxiety

18 thoughts on “The Grief Process: Why I Believe There Are 6 Stages, Not 5”

  1. This is a really great post. Grief is so very different for everyone and some people might have ten stages that they go through while others might just go through three.
    It is a very personal journey.

  2. This was an incredibly eye-opening and relatable post. I’m lucky to have only lost one person relatively close to me in my adult life and I’m not sure how it affected me, even looking at the steps I can’t pinpoint my own grief process. I suppose I’m grateful really that I may not have gone through an entire grieving process yet. Thanks for writing this for those who may lose someone during and after this difficult time.

  3. Grief is definitely something I think we have all endured at one point or another. I appreciate all of the great book resources you included!

  4. Felt all this in 2007 when I lost my mom to Cancer. It was heartwrenching but through time it gets better. No more crying but the feeling of what ifs and wishing they were here is always present. Thanks for sharing. For sure, many people can relate here.

  5. For me I’d say the why stage started after the denial and… hasn’t really ever gone away. If I think about losing my mother when I did I am still filled with so many whys. Why didn’t she do this, why didn’t she do that, why didn’t she tell us she had this issue when we were kids? My whole relationship with her would’ve been so different had she only been honest with me. But almost five years later I just have to accept that I won’t know why till I meet her again and I should just use it as a lesson in how I want to parent my kids.

    1. That sounds so hard. It’s challenging to look back at the negative aspects of your relationship with someone after they pass. Hopefully you come to a place a peace some time soon.

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