Emotional Responses to Grief and Loss

Grief and loss can be the result of various circumstances that may include losing a job, ending a significant relationship, or experiencing the death of a loved one.  Even though these circumstances can be specific to an individual and carry different meanings, the experience of grief and loss tends to involve common emotional reactions in us all.  Based on research conducted by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (Death and Dying 1969),  5 common stages or emotional experiences to some form of significant loss were identified.  These stages are better known as DABDA:

Denial: Typically our first reaction to a significant loss involves some form of denial in which we may feel like the loss is not real.  We can feel like we are in shock and that there must be a mistake with what has really happened.

Anger: Once our denial has precipitated and the significant loss becomes more realistic, we tend to experience frustration and anger about why the loss occurred. Our anger and frustration can be expressed through looking for someone or something to blame the loss on, focusing on feeling like the loss is unfair, and seeking a desire to understand the reason(s) that the loss occurred.

Bargaining: This emotional stage involves some form of negotiation or compromise with ourselves or others in order to avoid any additional grief or loss. Typically this negotiation and/or compromise involves some form of lifestyle changes or shift in our perspective on certain areas of life. This reaction highlights our need to feel like we may have some type of control over certain circumstances.

Depression: This stage involves exactly what it is named...depression.  The depression stage mimics what a Major Depressive Episode looks like: sadness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, loss of interest or participation in hobbies/activities, feelings of shame and guilt, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of death.  In normal grief reactions, the depression stage does not last for longer than two months following the grief/loss event.  In the event that these symptoms continue, further assessment is recommended.

Acceptance: We enter the final stage of grief and loss when we are able to recognize that we cannot change what has happened and we possess the mindset that things will be okay.  During this stage, our emotional reactions are more stable and we feel that the loss is no longer significantly affecting our daily functioning.

Although the research has identified these five stages, it is important to understand that everyone grieves differently and that there is no “right or wrong” way to react to a loss.  There is not a set order in which these stages are or should be experienced; it varies from individual to individual. Some people go through all of the stages more than once while others only experience two or three stages.  Many factors can influence our grief experiences such as other stressors we may be experiencing at the time of the loss, our strengths and resiliencies, our support system or lack thereof, and our self-care skills to name a few.   

When we experience a significant loss and are grieving, engaging in self-care is the most crucial action we can engage in.  Consider how you can take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and socially during this time. Seeking therapy for additional support carries multiple benefits as well so if you or someone you know has or is currently grieving, don’t hesitate to take action now.  

~Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT