• The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
  • Most people will not experience the grieving process in these exact stages, but they can provide a helpful framework for dealing with and working through grief or loss.
  • It helps to acknowledge and share your grief with others, and through this process, you may be able to find meaning in loss.
  • This article was medically reviewed by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Grief is an emotional response to loss. It is often prolonged and more complicated than feeling only worried, stressed, or sad, says Elisa Robyn, PhD, and the grieving process can encompass all these emotions in different ways.

“We can more easily deal with worry and stress, and even sadness, with a shift in our perspective or activities,” Robyn says. “Grief, however, has an intense physical response and is not easily mitigated.”

The death of a loved one is a profound source of grief, but people can also experience grief as a result of job loss, the end of a relationship, and even a major, depressing world event like the coronavirus pandemic.

Health care professionals have developed a framework for working through the grieving process, commonly known as the five stages of grief. Here’s what you need to know about these stages and how you can deal with grief.

The stages of grief

Grief has been thought of in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In fact, the five stages of grief were an observational concept introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 in her book, "On Death and Dying."

Though the five stages can be valuable in normalizing loss and working through grief, not everyone will experience the grieving process in this way. Some people may only experience parts of these emotions, and it may be in cycles or a different order, rather than a straight line.

"Exploring grief as a journey, a non-linear process, is a more helpful and realistic way to approach and understand grief," says Ajita Robinson, PhD, a counselor who has written about grief.

However, the five stages outlined a framework for how some might process grief. They may indicate the following emotions or behaviors:

  • Denial. Thinking "this can't be happening," or refusing to accept the severity of the situation.
  • Anger. Looking for someone to blame or raging at the unfairness of the situation.
  • Bargaining. Trying to exert control to change the situation, even if it's generally out of your control.
  • Depression. Withdrawing, disconnecting, or experiencing low motivation and having trouble going on as normal.
  • Acceptance. Understanding you can't change the situation and resolving to live within the reality of your grief or loss.

How to deal with grief

Regardless of how you experience it, there are a few proven strategies to help yourself and others process grief, says Regina Koepp, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

These include:

  • Acknowledge that you are grieving. "It helps to bring the unconscious into the conscious, kind of like turning on a light in a dark room," Koepp says. This is where thinking about the stages of grief can be a useful tool, allowing you to verbalize how you are feeling. Grief is painful, so people often want to downplay it or push it away, especially when it's from an unexpected source, like a pandemic. However, acknowledging your grief will help you process it.
  • Share your grief. "Grief is too big to hold on our own, which is why every society and culture has a tradition for bereavement and mourning that typically includes rituals and community and family events," Koepp says. During social distancing, connecting with friends virtually or attending a grief support group online is a good option. It's very powerful to realize other people are experiencing what you are. "It creates a sense of belonging, which helps to stabilize us when our foundation is unstable," Koepp says.
  • Rely on ritual. As Koepp mentioned above, rituals - whether from your religion or culture, or ones you invent yourself - can be important while you're grieving. For example, Robyn says when her mother and husband died just two months apart, she found comfort in the Jewish tradition of shiva, a seven day mourning period, even though she considers herself secular. A 2017 study found that people who were grieving found rituals helpful, even if they didn't lessen the grief people felt.

How long does grief last

Many factors impact the length of time grief will last, says Maureen Keeley, PhD, a professor at Texas State University who studies communication and grief - including whether the loss was unexpected or traumatic, and the support that a person gets during their grieving.

If you find yourself engaging in unhealthy behaviors or experiencing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts because of grief, reach out for professional help immediately. These can be signs of complicated grief, a condition where grief can result in unhealthy behaviors. .

Complicated grief, which Keeley says occurs in 15% to 25% of people, often requires professional help. This could become especially common during the pandemic, as some might feel multiple unexpected losses at once, and have difficulty processing a new reality.

If people feel like they are not "allowed" to grieve, the process can also last longer, Keeley says. "Grieving can last for months or years," Koepp says. "The intensity will likely reduce over time, but we still might experience elements of grief and loss throughout our lives."

Many health care professionals are adding on to the original five stages of grief. In 2019, grief expert David Kessler, who worked with Kübler-Ross, introduced a sixth stage: finding meaning, not in the loss itself, but in its aftermath.

With the coronavirus pandemic, finding meaning could include creating ways to support essential workers, or directing energy and resources to address healthcare inequities. It's about creating a small silver lining, even from the most profound losses. Grief keeps people from envisioning a positive future, but finding meaning can help them move beyond that, Robyn says.

Finding meaning is "a very empowering, positive, and important stage," Keeley says. "It reveals the necessity for looking for the light in the midst of the dark that shrouds death and covers us in a dark veil of grief."

Related stories about mental health: