The Ocean of Grief: Stages and Coping

Written by: Melissa Leeth, M.A., Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Clinical Research and Content Specialist at Psych Hub

Melissa (she/her) is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) with care delivery, volunteer, teaching, and research experience within the field of psychology. Melissa’s passion for aiding others first ignited when she began volunteer work at a domestic violence shelter during her undergraduate years at Indiana University. Since that time, Melissa has earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of Indianapolis, gained clinical experience as a mental health therapist in both inpatient and outpatient settings, and taught introductory psychology courses at the community college level.

This blog is not a substitute for professional mental health services. If you or your loved one is struggling with mental health concerns, please contact a mental health provider for consultation.

The Ocean of Grief: Stages and Coping

At times, in the ocean of grief, the waters may be calm. You are able to look at old photos and reminisce on past memories with a smile. 

At other times, the waters are rough and overwhelming. This sense of overwhelm may heighten during the holidays or on the anniversary of the death of your loved one. You may feel consumed by loneliness, feeling the emptiness of the space they once filled in your world. 

During difficult times in your grieving journey, coping strategies can serve as a life jacket, helping you to stay afloat. A life jacket is not one size fits all; your coping strategies may be very different from someone else’s. 

Your life jacket may be spending quality time with supportive friends and family, taking deep breaths, exercising, writing in a journal, participating in therapy sessions, or joining a grief support group.  

The stages of grief can also be a useful tool to gain language and understanding of the varied experiences of grief. Read on to learn more about the topic of grief, the stages of grief, various coping strategies, and when and how to seek professional help.

What is Grief?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, grief is defined as “a normal response to loss during or after a disaster or other traumatic event.” Grief can happen in response to the death of a loved one or in response to significant changes to your daily routine or lifestyle that provided you with a sense of comfort and stability.

Grief reactions may include:

  • Feelings of shock, disbelief, or denial
  • Emotional distress (e.g. anxiety, anger, periods of sadness) 
  • Changes in sleep and appetite

Stages of Grief

The stages of grief are “responses to loss that many people have.” The stages provide a framework to identify what you may be feeling and experiencing after the loss of a loved one. 

It is important to keep in mind that there is no typical or “correct” way to grieve. After the death of a loved one, you may experience none, a few, or all of these stages. The stages do not need to be completed in a linear or straightforward way; there is no particular order for experiencing any of these stages. Stages may be revisited. 

Psychiatrist (a doctor that specializes in mental health) Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed five stages of grief. The sixth stage of grief was proposed by David Kessler. 

The following definitions for each of the six stages are adapted from  On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss and Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

Denial 

If you have experienced the loss of a loved one, the denial stage is more symbolic than literal. You likely do not deny the actual death happened, but have difficulty thinking of life continuing on without the person you love. 

The denial response may include shock, disbelief, and numbness that the loss has occurred. You may question how and why the death happened. 

Anger 

Anger is an emotion that can be experienced in response to the loss of a loved one. Your feelings of anger may be directed towards yourself, friends, family, the medical professionals that cared for the loved one that died, etc. 

If you have religious or spiritual beliefs, there may be feelings of anger directed towards God or a higher power for the death of your loved one. 

Bargaining 

Bargaining is an attempt to negotiate a deal with God, a higher power, or fate to delay, prevent, or undo the death of a loved one. This stage may include asking “What if…?” questions or making “If only…” statements. 

Bargaining can be thought of as your mind focusing on past events to make sense of or to avoid the realities of the present.  

Depression 

Depression is a feeling of deep sadness after the death of a loved one. Life may feel pointless and empty without your loved one. You may find it difficult to get out of bed or engage in basic daily activities. 

Depression is a natural response to losing a loved one; however, depressive symptoms may continue long-term or worsen. Continue reading to learn ways to gain additional support. 

Acceptance 

Acceptance is acknowledging the reality of the death of a loved one. It is important to note this does not mean you feel okay with the loss, no longer experience pain, or the grieving process is over. 

Finding Meaning 

Finding meaning after the death of a loved one looks different for every person. It may be expressing gratitude for your time spent with your loved one while they were living or celebrating and honoring their life in some way. For example, you may participate in a walk or run to support cancer research after the person you loved died from cancer.

Ways to Cope with Grief 

Adapted from the Mayo Clinic, here are various ways to cope with grief: 

  • Plan ahead 
    • Be aware of upcoming triggering events (e.g. death date anniversary, holidays, or other events related to the person) 
    • Plan ahead ways in which you can care for yourself during those events 
  • Schedule self-care time 
    • When you know you will feel alone or be reminded of your loved one’s death, schedule time with family and friends or spend the day at your favorite coffee shop or restaurant 
  • Reflect on the positive aspects of the relationship 
    • Rather than reflecting solely on the loss of a loved one, focus on the positive memories you shared with your loved one while they were living
    • Write a gratitude letter to your loved one or make a note of all your favorite memories 
  • Start new traditions 
    • Make a donation to a charitable organization in your loved one’s name on birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, or other meaningful dates 
    • Plant a tree, make a recipe, play a favorite game, or watch a movie in honor of your loved one 
  • Strengthen social connections 
    • Schedule time to be with family and friends, especially those that have a connection to the loved one that died 
      • You can reminisce together on past memories 
    • Seek social support systems such as social groups and bereavement support groups to have a place to process your pain 
  • Allow all emotions  
    • It is okay and normal to feel a range of emotions after a loss
      • There may be moments in which you cry, laugh, feel sad or angry, and experience joy or happiness 

Seek Professional Support

At any point in your grief journey, mental health services may be beneficial. 

It is especially important to seek mental health services when grief is long-term and impacts your ability to function at home, school, or work. Mental health services such as counseling and/or medication may help you to cope with the loss of a loved one. 

If you or your loved one are in crisis, 911 can be contacted for medical emergencies and 988 can be contacted for mental health emergencies. For a non-emergency situation, it is best to seek professional mental health care. 

If you have a positive relationship with your primary care physician or other physicians, ask them for a referral for mental health services. If you are interested in seeking professional support for your child, discuss your concerns with their pediatrician. It may also be helpful to consult with your insurance provider to determine which mental health services are in-network. 


References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 6). https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/stress-coping/grief-loss/ 

Kessler, D. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Simon and Schuster. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Finding-Meaning/David-Kessler/9781501192746

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon and Schuster. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/On-Grief-and-Grieving/Elisabeth-Kubler-Ross/9781476775555

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2020, November 14). Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/end-of-life/in-depth/grief/art-20045340

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/bargaining-stage

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. https://988lifeline.org/current-events/the-lifeline-and-988/

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