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Beyond the Stages of Grief

  • Category: Mental Health
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Mary Kathryn Rodrigue Gastinel, Ph.D., LPC, NCC
Beyond the Stages of Grief

Though they are still widely referenced, we now know that there are better ways to frame grief beyond the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The stages model has been around since the late 1960s and was formed based on terminally ill patients and their journey with death, not for family members experiencing the loss of a loved one. The original model, as well as newer variations, aim to give some type of structure to grief -- a new, hard situation that hits you head on. For some, labels and structure help. But for others, they can cause worry or stress about what stage they’re “supposed” to be in and how long it’s taking them, which can exacerbate feelings associated with grief.

One thing is certain – grief is very personal. No amount of research or hearing others’ experiences can dictate exactly how you will walk through grief. With that being said, there are some general truths surrounding grief.

Grief isn’t exclusive to the death of a loved one.

We grieve many things in life, not just the traditional definition of death and dying, but also any major shift and transition in life. These can be both positive changes (i.e. new relationship, new baby, new career path, moving to a new city) as well as negative ones (i.e. ending of a relationship/divorce, diagnosis of an illness, loss of a job).

You may not feel all the emotions you think you should be feeling, and that is ok.

Grief isn’t always about sadness or loneliness. In fact, decades ago researchers found that most people don’t experience depression after a loss. Some feel anger or guilt. Some feel relief, often in situations where there was a rocky relationship. Some people may worry that they’re not feeling the “right” thing. Find a safe space to share whatever you’re feeling, even if that’s not with your closest circle.

You can experience physical pain or issues from grief.

Emotional pain isn’t the only symptom of grief. It can impact the immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses. It can cause sleep and digestive issues. In some cases, it can even cause pain in the chest or elsewhere. (Always take chest pain seriously and seek care right away if you experience it.) One study showed an increased risk of a heart attack after the shock and stress of losing a loved one, in large part due to increased blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol, a stress hormone.

Rituals can help the grieving process.

Funerals and memorial services are two main types of rituals, meant to mourn and connect with others after a loss. Rituals can look very different, and some include unique cultural practices. Don’t feel stuck in what you think is “expected.” For some, doing something further down the line is the most meaningful as a funeral typically happens so soon after death. This could be getting involved with an organization that was near and dear to your loved one, connecting with their close friends to hear stories, or having standing plans to eat at their favorite restaurant every year on their birthday.

People usually experience grief differently.

There are different patterns, emotions, and reactions to significant life events that can trigger a grief response. It is important not to compare, compete, or imitate someone else’s unique experience and instead process your own. We often do this, almost subconsciously, to not feel alone during a different and trying time. It is important to remember that the person you lost, or the adverse experience you are facing, is specific to your feelings associated with the person or dynamics of the event.

Grief does often have a general pattern.

For many, the intense feelings associated with grief usually start to get better after a few weeks, gradually getting better with each passing week. After about six months, most people have come to a place where the grief isn’t affecting their daily activities. This is very dependent on the person and the type of loss. For example, the loss of a child or a sudden or unexpected death like an accident, homicide or suicide often results in longer periods of grief.

Remember that your grief experience is uniquely your own and finding support through clinically trained professionals will help you process and determine appropriate responses and timeframes related to your experience of grief-related symptoms. No matter if it is immediate, or once the dust settles, seeking support through professional trained counselors is the most effective path to healing, acceptance, and closure.

Mary Kathryn Rodrigue Gastinel, Ph.D., LPC, NCC
Licensed Professional Counselor
The Wellness Studio, LLC
7472 Highland Road
Baton Rouge, LA 70808
Ph: (225)448-3359 Fx: (225)448-3403