Understanding the Stages of Grief and Facing Tragic News
Coping with denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of grief.
Posted April 8, 2020
This is an unprecedented time in modern history when so many people around the world are experiencing the most dramatic and abrupt upheaval in our lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to 209 countries, over 1,478,366 reported cases and 86,744 deaths.
Some of my clients have lost loved ones, and I have lost some friends myself. People are not being given adequate time to grieve, bereave, mourn and feel sorrow about their loss.
Even people that have not lost a loved one are dealing with grief and bereavement as well. People are enduring extraordinary levels of anxiety, fear, loss of employment (over 10 million filings for employment in the last month) and the trauma of their daily routines being totally disrupted. We’re all trying to grapple with the unknown and are confused about our future.
Many of my clients are experiencing noticeable to moderate stages of grief and bereavement that have been studied and documented by noted Swiss-American psychiatrist, a pioneer in near-death studies, and author of the internationally best-selling book, On Death and Dying (1969), where she first discussed her theory of the five stages of grief, also known as the "Kübler-Ross model.” The five stages she cites are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. These stages are not linear, and some people may not experience any of them. Yet and still, others might only undergo one stage, two stages, etc., rather than all five.
The stages were first observed as a human response to learning about terminal illness. However, when Kübler-Ross wrote about these stages she also explained these are normal reactions we have to tragic news. In fact, she called them defense mechanisms or coping mechanisms that we need to move through in order to manage all kinds of change.
If you evaluate your response to this crisis, you may notice that you have processed the event within this framework. It’s a typical way that the brain manages to assimilate new disturbing information into the narrative of our lives.
For most of us, the effects of these pandemic events feel surreal. It feels like we’re going to wake up from a dream. I have many clients that have said that they feel like at times they’re going through their daily lives and they need to remind themselves “Oh yeah, we’re in the middle of a crisis” and then their mood falters. It’s a feeling of pockets of awareness followed by pockets of complete disbelief.
You may become snappy at those around you which can become particularly difficult because many of us are living in close quarters with our families. Since anger is an intimate emotion that is frequently targeted at those close to us, this situation is ripe for family in-fighting.
It wouldn’t be uncommon to become short with co-workers even online at this point as well. Unsurprisingly, you might also be frustrated and angry with how administrators at work or in government are handling this crisis. It’s always a struggle to feel out of control. When it happens quickly, where there is no end in sight, it can become a more entrenched fear. Anger Is a surface emotion above fear.
During this phase, people may bargain about what could have been or what could be. For example, if it had only been handled like x, we wouldn’t be in this situation. If that hadn’t happened initially, then we wouldn’t be here today.
Or what could be...If people do this now, maybe we can be out of this in x months instead of y. If pharmaceutical companies do this now, then maybe x. If I can get my friends to do x by “outing” them on Facebook, then maybe y. You get the idea.
This phase is a concern for all mental health professionals because it could last the longest depending on how long we remain distanced from each other. It is at this point that people are feeling sad, lonely, hopeless, helpless, and anxious about the situation we’re in. You may exhibit signs of difficulty eating, sleeping or low motivation.
Using strategies to combat depression during this time is critical in order to move onto the last phase. In previous posts, I’ve talked about how to structure your days to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. If those aren’t in place, try them to mitigate the impact of the blue mood. Mental health professionals are also available to help if those techniques don’t work.
In this final stage, people have accepted this as the “new normal” for now. They have put in place effective strategies that will make them feel better and get them through the day. They have regained some sense of control over the “new normal.” That’s not to say that there aren’t mood swings, missing life or anxiously wanting things to be normal again. It just means that there’s enough of an acceptance to plan your week. It feels like you’re living your life and, you’re back in charge. The “fight or flight” experience will be gone. You won’t experience total freedom, but you will experience moments of joy and satisfaction that will uplift you through the process of rebuilding the structure of your daily life.
Keep in mind that understanding how to deal with these five stages can be beneficial to anyone whether they’re going through a bereavement process of losing a loved one or not. You may not experience all the stages. If you’re having significant problems dealing with two or more, there are mental health professionals and grieving counselors who are available to help you.