It is often said that grief is a journey. For many individuals, that journey leads through five distinct stages of emotional expression. These stages of grief are not etched into stone, and all individuals will experience them differently. Contrary to popular belief, these five stages do not necessarily occur in any specific order and you can move backward and forward between the stages over and over. However, the stages do describe the basic journey that many mourners take, across cultures and walks of life.
The first stage of grief is denial. When you learn that a close loved one has died, you may try to make yourself believe that it isn't real ... that it isn't happening. This is a defense mechanism, and it's meant to help you weather the immediate shock of losing someone.
Once the initial wave of denial wanes, the next stage is anger. In this stage, you may find yourself feeling outraged toward the deceased, irrational though that may be. Or, you may be angry at yourself or even at God.
The third stage is bargaining, which is typically characterized by "if only" sentiments. For example, you might think things like "if only we had sought care sooner," or "if only I could have been there for him." This phase is often accompanied by guilt; you make yourself think that maybe there's something you could have done to prevent this loss from happening.
The fourth stage is depression, which can impact different people to varying degrees. Depression can ultimately help prepare you to say final goodbyes to the person you've lost.
Finally, there is acceptance. You can still feel sad during the acceptance stage, but you're able to accept what's happened more objectively and start thinking about healthy ways to grieve and to move on with your life.
Knowing the five phases of grief can help you make sense of your own journey through bereavement and to be empathetic to others who are on a journey of their own.