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Phases of Grief

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These phases are often experienced in the sequence described below, but individuals can cycle through these feelings in a different order, and can return to previous phases as grief is processed. It is also entirely possible to feel more than one emotion simultaneously, perhaps to a greater or lesser degree.

Phase 1
Denial
Upon hearing bad news, the most common reaction is a feeling of numbness or shock. We may experience disbelief: "That is not possible . . . there must be some mistake . . . you must have the wrong person, the wrong medical records . . . that can't be true or happen to me!" The mind-body has incredible defense mechanisms. If we pretend that something isn't true, then somehow the blow is softened. At any moment, our loved one could reappear, or so we imagine. Time seems to briefly suspend itself, at least until the cruel reality of the truth sets in.

Phase 2
Anger
We may get angry at the messenger who delivers the news, the doctor, the person who caused us this pain (even if that person is now deceased), at anyone we can hold responsible for our grief, even at God. This reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a need to know why this happened and whether the loss could have been prevented. "Who is at fault?" we question. Somehow pointing the finger allows us to divert the pain from the core of our being where it rises up and threatens to overwhelm us. Others may turn their anger inwards and blame themselves for what happened.

Phase 3
Bargaining
We may try to negotiate the situation, either with another person involved, or with God: "Please give me one more chance and I promise things will be better . . . I will change . . . If you will reverse this, then I will ___ in return." This is kind of magical thinking where we believe our actions will meet with the desired outcome. Some people attempt to strike a deal with their Higher Power: to stop smoking, to find more time to spend with family, to offer an apology that's long overdue. At some point, though, we face our limitations in holding up our end of the deal. No matter what we say or do, the bitter truth is that things will not go back to the way they were before. And that's when the next phase hits.

Phase 4
Depression
When we realize the loss is real and unchanging, we may sink into a deep sorrow. Though Dr. Kübler-Ross dubbed this phase 'depression,' it is more accurate to describe it as more a combination of loss and loneliness and perhaps hopelessness. We may feel remorse or regret, rehearsing over and over what we could have done differently. Or perhaps we feel guilty that we are still able to enjoy life while our loved one no longer can. This intense experience of sadness leaves us with sparse energy for housework or outside activities. It is common to find ourselves sobbing over the smallest little thing or crying for days on end. Whether or not we have a terminal illness, we may feel our life is over. Some may consider or attempt ending their lives.

Phase 5
Acceptance
Time, in and of itself, will not heal our wounds. We may miss being able to share our life with that person, no matter how long it's been since they passed away. We don't have to forget how much our loved one means to us in order to move on. If we can come to terms with the reality of the situation, recognize it as a fact of our lives, and gradually let go of the struggle against the tide of emotions that we experience, we can move beyond our suffering. Even with our new circumstances, we can find peace within ourselves.

Phase 6
Anger
We may get angry at the messenger who delivers the news, the doctor, the person who caused us this pain (even if that person is now deceased), at anyone we can hold responsible for our grief, even at God. This reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a need to know why this happened and whether the loss could have been prevented. "Who is at fault?" we question. Somehow pointing the finger allows us to divert the pain from the core of our being where it rises up and threatens to overwhelm us. Others may turn their anger inwards and blame themselves for what happened.

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