Navigating the Stages of Grief: Understanding, Supporting, and Empowering Others

Originally introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (“On Death and Dying,” 1969), the stages of grief are recognized as Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While these stages are not experienced predictably and linearly, we use them to better understand how we can navigate the feelings we (and others around us) are experiencing. It is important to note that these stages vary in intensity and are not always experienced, or experienced in the same order, for all. In this blog, we are going to outline what each stage is and how you can support someone who may be experiencing the stage of grief. 


Denial is often defined as the initial reaction to the loss and is a way of coping with the overwhelming emotions of the situation. Individuals might have a hard time believing what happened. They may start to withdraw from those around them.


How can I help? Be a support system. Be patient and remember that the initial shock of losing a loved one can be hard to process. Avoid saying things like “snap out of it” and “don’t be upset”  which may invalidate their feelings. Listening is one of the best things you can do. 


Anger is a common emotion that comes along with loss, and experiencing anger is completely normal. It can be very hard to accept the fact that the person is gone. The anger can be pointed in many directions such as: to themselves, the person who passed away, others, and even the situation itself. Some other emotions that may come with loss could include guilt, relief, confusion, anxiety, and more. 


How can I help? Listen without judgment. Try not to “fix” their anger, but let them express it how they need to. Remember if the person is expressing anger, it is often not towards you. Give them the benefit of the doubt and try to dismiss the anger they may show towards you. Allotting an outlet for anger such as exercise, art, dance, and more can allow the person to release the anger beneficially and in a healthy manner. 


Bargaining is when people try to negotiate with the situation to change the outcome. Unfortunately, we know that we cannot realistically bring back our loved ones when they die, so this stage can be very hard to grapple with. This is the time when many turn to religion or a higher power to reverse the outcome. 


How can I help? Similarly with every stage, offer a nonjudgmental space for the grieving to share their thoughts and feelings. The best thing to do in this stage is to remind the person that what happened is beyond their control. Remind them that they are not responsible for what happened, and limit giving solutions that may invalidate their emotions.


Depression is very hard no matter the circumstance. When it comes to grief, depression is when the loss becomes the most intense, and the feeling of sadness and hopelessness may take over. Depression often comes with many symptoms such as changes in sleep, appetite, interest levels, and more.


How can I help? Be a cheerleader. Support the griever with tasks/responsibilities that they may be having a hard time doing. Avoid saying things like “just get up,” where most people in this stage do not want to be feeling the way they do. Be an emotional support system. Encourage them to seek professional help if their depressive symptoms are severe. If you’re experiencing depression yourself as the griever, try to remember that people are there for you. The best way to help yourself is to reach out to those around you. 


Acceptance is when the individual comes to terms with the reality of the loss and can accept the loss. Accepting what happened does not mean you forget about the person who passed or just “get over it,” but you find a way to move forward with that person in your heart. 


How can I help? Now is the time to share positive memories and stories about the person that they have lost. The grieving is more accepting to hear these stories and share their own as they are coming to terms with the finality of the loss. Encourage the griever to do things that continue to help them move forward. This does not mean we forget about our loved ones, but we move on and honor their memory.


It’s important to remember that grief is an individual response and everyone will likely go through it uniquely. If someone you know is struggling with grief, the best thing you can do is to sit with them through this period and try out some of the techniques listed. The Quell Foundation strives to bring awareness and support to those struggling, and also to those providing support to others.