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Understanding the stages of grief

stages of grief

After the death of someone you know, you might expect to feel intensely sad. But the truth is, grief can produce more complex feelings than this. Bereavement can be devastating and overwhelming, and it’s common for your thoughts and feelings to be all over the place. This might feel alarming, but grief is a very personal experience and this isn’t usually anything to worry about. However, if anything is troubling you, speak to your GP. Independent Age shares its advice on how to cope with your feelings of grief.


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The stages of grief

The five stages of grief according to renowned psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and death and grief expert, David Kessler, are:


1. Denial - a coping mechanism that helps us to survive the death of a loved one.

2. Anger - an emotion that gives you a sense of structure, albeit temporary, during the 'nothingness' of loss.

3. Bargaining - a way for us to try to negotiate ourselves out of feeling pain or hurt.

4. Depression - a feeling of emptiness or sadness following a death, not linked to mental illness.

5. Acceptance - accepting the reality that someone has died.


What you might feel when you're grieving


You don’t know how you’re going to feel until it happens to you. Shock, guilt, heartbreak: all those things. It’s quite nice to know that those feelings are perfectly normal.


Here are some of the feelings that many people say they experience - bear in mind that your own may be different, and that's okay. Let yourself grieve in your own way.


I don’t think I feel anything. I can’t really believe it’s happened.

You might feel shock or numbness, and this is especially common immediately after the death. This can happen even if the death was expected. You may experience a sense of unreality and disconnection, which might last for a few weeks. These feelings don’t usually persist, but if they do you might benefit from talking to someone about it.


I feel so guilty that I’m still here. I never thought I’d outlive him.

Guilt is a normal reaction but can be very upsetting and preoccupying. You may feel guilty that you're alive when someone has died. Or you may feel guilty for not doing more for them when they were alive. It might help to talk about your guilt with friends or a support group, and remind yourself of all you did for the person who died.

I felt I’d already lost my husband when he became ill. Part of me is relieved he isn’t suffering anymore.

You may feel relief, especially if the person who died was ill for a long time. You might also feel you have already grieved for the loss of the person, perhaps if they had a degenerative illness, such as dementia. Feeling relieved can also lead to feelings of guilt.


I can’t stop crying and thinking about how much I’ll miss her. I don’t believe it will ever get better.

Sadness is very common and can become more pronounced when the initial shock subsides. You might think you’re coping well to start with, only to find yourself struggling a few weeks later. You might not be able to imagine it now, but intense sadness often eases over time although you may still miss the person. If you or your family are worried about how long you’ve been feeling like this, speak to your GP.

I’m so worried about my own health now. I keep thinking I’ll die like Dad did.

Anxiety can range from feeling insecure to panic attacks. You may worry you won't be able to take care of yourself, or that you or someone else will die. This is often part of the grieving process, but speak to your GP if it continues or you’re finding it hard to deal with.


I keep snapping at other people. I know they’re just trying to help me but I can’t seem to stop.

Many people experience anger or irritation, and family rows are not uncommon. Everyone is dealing with their grief in their own way, and having to organise practical matters, like the funeral, can add to the pressure-cooker atmosphere. Unexpected arguments can be upsetting, but are normal in a stressful situation.


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Physical symptoms of grief

People are sometimes less aware of this, but grief can also affect you physically. This can be related to the stress or trauma of the situation. Some common symptoms include:


  • Exhaustion
  • Breathlessness
  • Aches and pains, such as chest pain and headaches
  • Loss of appetite or comfort eating
  • Shaking and heart racing
  • Feeling sick
  • Disturbed sleep or nightmares
  • Finding it hard to concentrate


"It's strange. I said to my GP, 'This couldn’t be related to the bereavement, could it?"
And she said, 'Oh yes it could – you’d be surprised what stress can do.'"


Grief can also make you more susceptible to illness generally, so try to take care of yourself. These physical effects can be unexpected and can add to worries about your own health and mortality that many people experience after a death. If you’re worried about any physical symptoms, or they seem to be persisting, speak to your GP.


What can I do?

It's good to talk to others and draw on their support if you can. Family, friends, GPs and counsellors can all help when you're feeling vulnerable, and bottling up your feelings may make things harder in the long run.

Give yourself the time you need to grieve – you can't force yourself to feel better. There are, however, a few simple things can make this period easier:


  • Try to get enough sleep
  • Eat healthily
  • Be kind to yourself - don’t put pressure on yourself to feel better before you really
  • Avoid numbing the pain with alcohol
  • Try to keep to a routine – having structure and purpose in your day and keeping in touch with people can help.


Over time, many people find their feelings of grief become less intense and you will find hope and ways to adapt to life without the person you lost.

For more information, read Independent Age's new free guide, Coping With Bereavement. It looks at how you might be thinking and feeling after a death, and tells you where you can find sources of comfort and support. Order it from the Independent Age website or call 0800 319 6789 for a copy. Independent Age wants us all to talk about death. Find out more here.


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