The Six Stages of Grief and How to Move Through Them

Recent events in the United States, and the world, have been wearing heavily on my heart.  I know that I’m not alone in this.  A pandemic where the death toll in the country has exceeded 100,000 people, combined with horrific civil rights violations, followed by demonstrations, rioting and looting made for an overwhelming week.  While I knew that the anxiety of the past few months had increased, I also knew there was another emotion waiting for me to recognize it.  So, I sat with myself  for a while feeling into the ache in my chest asking ‘what am I feeling?’ and slowly it came to me that it was grief.

  • Grief for the 2020 that I thought I was going to have.
  • Grief for months without seeing my friends and family.
  • Grief for the deprivation of almost zero physical touch since March.
  • Grief for a country divided along multiple ideological lines.
  • Grief for George Floyd, a black man that I never met who was brutally killed by police.  The video of his murder breaks my heart.
  • Grief for police brutality toward peaceful protesters.
  • Grief for only being able to see people’s faces on computer screens because they’re all covered by masks in public.  I miss smiles.

And there is so much more to grieve over.  While talking with clients this week, I helped several people identify the grief that is weighing them down.  Naming the grief is the first step, and helpful in itself, but there is more work to do to process the grief.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief in her work with the dying:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

These stages can happen in any order, each one can happen more than once during the grieving process, and they take different amounts of time for different people.  There is no right way to grieve, and there is no appropriate length of time.

When people lose a loved one in the US, they receive 5 days off of work, and then they’re expected to go back to work and act like nothing happened.  They receive condolences one time from friends and family, and then, strangely, it’s never mentioned again, and people think it’s over.

Months later when people say that they are still grieving, they get mixed responses.  Sometimes people who have had difficult losses in their lives will sympathize with how lonely and difficult it is to grieve a loss in this culture.  However, grievers also hear things like, “Oh.  It’s been months.  Aren’t you over it yet?”

The message that they’re grieving wrong shuts people down, leaving them even more alone in their grief, and grieving is not something to be done alone.  Grief is something to be witnessed.

If you identify with the existential grief that I’m talking about, or if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, whether by death or by leaving, please find people who can bear the weight of your grief enough to witness it.  If that’s not a loved one, please find a grief support group or a therapist who can be with you while you process your emotions.

Grief is not logical.  It cannot be reasoned with and you can’t think your way out of it, no matter how hard you try.  It lives in the body and must be physically worked through.  Ways to move grief out of your body include yoga, body work, journaling, and letting go rituals.

Ritual is a beautiful and powerful way to move grief, and here are a few of my favorite letting go rituals:

  • Write a letter to the person, or the situation, that you are grieving that you never mean to send.  Put all of your emotion into the letter.  Don’t be shy.  Swearing is totally OK.  Nobody’s going to read it anyway.  Once you feel complete, burn, bury or shred the letter in order to release the emotion.
  • Take a bath in Epsom salts, and imagine the warm water and the salt drawing all of the grief and pain out of your body.  When you feel complete, pull the plug and watch the grief go down the drain.
  • Hold a coconut in your hands and direct all of the grief, pain, anger and sadness into the coconut.  When you feel complete, go outside and smash the coconut against a wall.  (This is incredibly satisfying).  Be sure to throw the coconut away afterwards.  Please don’t eat it and re-ingest all of that grief.
  • Put some music on that speaks to your grief, and then give your body permission to move any way that it likes.  Don’t be shy.  Your body will know what it needs.  Keep moving until you feel complete.
  • Repeat as needed.  It often takes more than one time to release all of the grief.

Recently I read Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler, who worked with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.  He maintains that there is one more stage in the process of grieving, and that is making meaning from the experience.  That doesn’t mean that you go around saying platitudes like “everything happens for a reason,” which I hate.  It means that while it still hurts, and it may never be OK, you find a way to make the loss mean something.  For instance, David Kessler made his son’s death mean something by writing his book, and by teaching others about grief.  I’m making meaning from my illness by writing a book as well.  Many other people make meaning by volunteering, or by donating to charities.  However is right for you to find meaning is perfect, but do look for it as it’s an important part of the grieving process.

Please be patient with yourself and with those around you who may be grieving differently.  If you’re in the denial phase and a friend or family member is in the anger phase, you may have difficulty relating.  Be kind to each other about this.  There’s no right way or wrong way to grieve, and pressuring either yourself or others to grieve differently is a great way to prolong the process.

For those of you who feel as weighted down as I do by the grief of this moment in time, I am witnessing you.

Please see the following links for more information on grief and grieving:

The Sixth Stage of Grief Website

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief Model



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