Grief, especially due to the ongoing pandemic, touches us all. But not everyone experiences grief the same way — some may appear to “bounce back” quickly, while others experience grief as depression and acute physical pain.
“We are not taught as a society how to consciously grieve,” says Blythe Landry, LCSW, M.Ed. and a certified specialist with the Grief Recovery Method. “One’s ability to heal from loss is directly related to their willingness to engage in an active program of grief recovery.”
While we each grieve on our own terms in our own ways, it’s important to understand that grief is an ever-changing process. You may be reeling right now but know that as time passes those intense feelings will change and have less of an impact on your day-to-day life.
Below, we discuss two popular models of grief (the five- and seven-stage models), why grieving the end of a relationship is so difficult, and some tips for how to honor your own unique grieving process.
Everyone who’s experienced loss knows it can’t be summed up by one idea or emotion. It really is a process that changes daily, sometimes minute-to-minute. The five-stage model developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross attempts to find common threads in how each of us experiences this process.
While this model can be a helpful tool, Kübler-Ross makes clear that these stages aren’t experienced linearly and some stages may not even be experienced at all. It isn’t meant to tie a neat bow around your experience, it’s meant to help you put words to how you’re feeling.
Here are each of the five stages and what they may look like:
- Denial. Denial in grief may manifest as numbing, shock, disbelief over the loss. According to Kübler-Ross, denial acts as a kind of grace period while the griever digests the news.
- Anger. Anger may show up as frustration or outsized reactions to seemingly benign occurrences, and can serve as a source of focus when placing the blame for grief.
- Bargaining. Bargaining may show itself as prayers to higher powers, “if only” and “what if” statements, promises and exchanges, and leave the griever attempting to negotiate with loss.
- Depression. One of the more recognizable stages of grief, depression is when we feel the loss most acutely. It may feel like a you’re blanketed in a heaviness and clouded by fatigue.
- Acceptance. Many mistakenly believe this is the stage where the griever “gets over” their loss, but this is simply not the case. Rather, acceptance is the act of moving forward and learning to adjust to this new reality.
The 7-stage model
Another popular grief model builds on the original five stages to include more nuance and definition and to account for the varied experiences of grief.
- Shock and denial
- Pain and guilt
- Anger and bargaining
- The upward turn
- Reconstruction and working through
- Acceptance and hope
Breakups are no joke. Research has found that the end of relationships commonly causes serious psychological distress, including depression, fatigue, and emotional numbness.
In fact, it can feel just as intense as mourning a death. Possibly because our brains interpret romantic rejection as “a profound sense of loss,” according to another study.
So if you’re in the process of separating from someone you love, know that the pain you’re feeling is normal. Our brains are wired to attach to those we care for. Detaching is no small feat.
“If you are coping with the loss of a relationship, my best advice is to go to the people in your life who allow you to have big feelings and who allow you to be sad about losing something or someone special in your life,” Landry says.
“Take some space from those who try to “should” you or encourage you to hurry through your process. Grief takes time. And your feelings deserve to be expressed in safe places.”
Honor the grief of job losses, too
Losing your job creates a unique sense of grief. You may be gripped with uncertainty, wondering how you’ll pay the bills or feed your family. But it’s important to recognize the emotional toll of the loss and be gentle with yourself as you move forward. Reach out to your friends and family for support and avoid blaming yourself for what happened.
It’s impossible to say how long your unique process will take. As much as we’d love to put an end date on our sadness, grief simply doesn’t work that way.
It may take weeks, months, even years. It can’t be mapped or tracked on a nice, clear timeline. There will be good days and then, without explanation, a really crummy one. It’s best to limit your expectations and be gentle with yourself. Remember, you’re healing!
In fact, if you try to rush through the process or repress difficult emotions, you may actually elongate your grieving process. According to Landry, repression is any attempt to avoid hard, scary, or painful feelings related to one’s loss.
On the other hand, processing means taking conscious and consistent actions toward thinking about, sharing about, and healing from one’s loss. “In situations of repression, time exacerbates the wounds. In situations of conscious grief recovery and healing, time absolutely can heal them,” she says.
Here are some tips to help move through the stages of grieving, according to Landry.
Feel your feelings
Giving yourself the grace and space to feel your uncomfortable and painful feelings is not only a necessary step of healing, it may help you lead a healthier life.
A 10-year longitudinal study found an association between people who allowed themselves to feel the bad feelings along with the good, and better mental and physical health.
Make one small, daily choice to make space for sadness
Whether it’s going through old photos, telling beloved stories, or taking some time to cry, clear some time in your day to actively grieve. Think of it as a way to release some of the pressure in your sadness balloon.
Make one small choice that propels you forward
While it’s important to feel feelings and take time to settle into grief, it’s also important to actively work on moving yourself forward. You might consider starting a project, doing something kind for someone else, or making plans with a friend.
Work with a therapist
It’s way too easy to isolate yourself when you’re deep in grief. But this is precisely the moment you most need support. Finding a therapist or engaging with a mental health resource can be a huge step forward in your journey.
Everyone will experience grief at some point in their lifetime and no one will experience it in the exact same manner. While the stages model provides a framework for grief, it is not a timeline or roadmap. Be gentle with yourself as you heal on your own terms.