The five stages of grief: How to cope with loss

Woman looking sadly out of window as if in grief
The five stages of grief are a useful guide that can help us make sense of our feelings of loss. (Getty Images)

The five stages of grief are described as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – and right now the Queen's family and friends are all likely to be experiencing the acute first and second stages of the mourning period.

This model of the typical psychological response to loss has helped millions of people worldwide to make sense of their feelings after a bereavement. However you're feeling about the Queen's death, you may have experienced these painful stages of grief yourself when experiencing the loss of your own family member.

"The five stages of grief are thought of as a kind of road map that helps us recognise the types of feelings that we have when we're grieving and the purpose of all these feelings," says leading psychotherapist and bestselling author Julia Samuel. "Many people find these five stages very helpful because they recognise themselves in them."

This theory of grief was first developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to describe people with terminal illness facing their own death, but it was soon adapted as a way of thinking about grief in general.

"These stages are part of a natural adaptive process," explains Samuel. "By allowing ourselves to really feel the grief in all these different ways – missing the person, yearning, being sad or being angry – we are adaptive and grief when it's healthy is also adaptive."

You might experience the stages in a different order, go back and forth from one stage to another, or you may not even go through all of these stages of grief.

Each of the five stages represents our attempt to process change and protect ourselves while we adjust to a new reality. Mourning is, of course, an intimate and unique experience for each of us and how much time you spend in each stage of grief varies from person to person.

Watch: 5 Strategies for Coping With Grief

Even if you haven't suffered the loss of a loved one, you can still go through the five stages of grief in response to other life events. A form of 'grief' can come from a significant change in your life such as moving to a new city, being made redundant/leaving a job, or even when a close relationship ends.

The five stages of grief are supposed to serve you as a reference, not as a rule though, explains the Cruse Bereavement Support website, as everyone processes loss differently.

1. Denial

Denial is the first stage of grief that helps us cope with new circumstances. Although we can never deny reality, we can choose not to believe it. In the denial stage, you're not living in ‘actual reality,’ but a ‘preferable’ reality.

This first stage of grief is important as it helps us so we don’t become overwhelmed with emotion, states Cruse. Instead, we deny, choose not to accept, and stagger its full impact on us all at once. When the denial and shock starts to fade, the start of the healing process can begin.

Woman looking sad and in grief
The first stage of grief: 'denial' can actually be our mind's way of trying to protect ourselves from the harsh reality of our loss. (Getty Images)

2. Anger

Anger is a very natural emotion after someone dies. We all know that death is inevitable, but it still can – and often does – feel cruel and unfair, particularly if someone has died well before their time. This feeling might be less acute for surviving relatives and friends, if the person had led a long life, such as the Queen.

According to the charity Cruse, in other circumstances, we may feel angry about the thought that someone is gone, or even feel regret and resentment when we think about the things we did or didn’t get to do with them, or the things we said or didn't say.

3. Bargaining

When we're in pain, it’s sometimes hard to come to terms with reality, advises Cruse. We might find it difficult to accept that there’s nothing we can do to change things. The third stage of grief often leaves us ‘bargaining’ – trying to make deals with ourselves in order to feel better.

We may ask a lot of ‘what ifs’, and even make up different scenarios, wishing we could go back and change things in search of a different outcome. For instance, in some cases, we might start to torment ourselves with the idea of, 'If I hadn't done X, maybe X would still be alive.'

4. Depression

Depression is often the longest stage of grieving. During that time we may find it difficult to sleep, have changes in our appetite, avoid engaging in activities with others, lack energy, have overwhelming feelings of sadness, cry a lot, and a time even feel hopeless.

Ironically though, "when we allow ourselves to experience our very deepest sadness, we also allow ourselves to come to terms with reality," explains Samuel, "so sadness is a healthy and normal response to loss."

Young sad man sitting by the window
Depression is the longest stage of grieving but help is out there so it's important that people don't bottle up their feelings or suffer alone. (Getty Images)

5. Acceptance

It sounds a cliché, but with time comes acceptance. Gradually, one day we'll learn to live with our changed circumstances and maybe even 'accept' that we've lost our loved one. "That doesn’t mean we ‘get over’ it – it just means that we learn to live and love again," says Samuel.

Healing from a major life change is possible, but it does take time and patience. Whether the Queen's death has brought back painful memories or you've recently suffered a personal loss, counselling and support groups can help you cope. Visit The Grief Trust to find support near you.

Watch: Remembering the late Queen Elizabeth II