How Grief Works

The Grieving Process

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
Leonard Mccombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The intensity and duration of grief varies from person to person. Often, it depends upon the circumstances that caused the person to grieve. For example, the death of an elderly, although beloved, relative often elicits a different response than the death of a child. For children who never saw a divorce coming, it can be even more of a shock than to the child who witnessed daily parental arguments. Any way you cut it, grief isn't pretty. Several types of normal grief exist, including:

Anticipatory grief: This is the kind of grief experienced when the death of a loved one is just around the corner, such as in cases of terminal illness or an ailing, elderly family member. While painful, some psychologists believe this type of grief may help to shorten the post-death grief process because so many of the related emotions are worked through ahead of time.

Unanticipated grief: This type of grief is often associated with unexpected loss, such as from an accident, heart attack or other surprise event.

Ambiguous grief: This form is the result of a circumstance where there is little or no closure about the unfortunate event. For example, if a loved one is kidnapped and never found, a pet runs away, a parent abandons a child or a child abandons a parent.

Whichever type of grief a person experiences, the way he or she responds is directly related to several factors. For example, the closeness of the relationship between the deceased and the griever has an impact on the level and length of grief. Also, different people have different coping capabilities, so a more resilient person may bounce back more quickly than a more sensitive counterpart. Life experience also plays a role. Someone who has experienced loss more often than others may be able to draw on that previous experience to help that person manage grief more easily. Lastly, a solid support system is vital to the grief process. Those who experience loss but are surrounded by loved ones are more likely to recover in a healthier manner.

In an attempt to help bereaved people cope more effectively with grief, many psychologists have outlined "stages" of grief describing the typical emotions one can expect to experience. The first and perhaps best-known list of stages was developed by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying." In it, she outlined the five stages that most people can expect to experience when dealing with a loss or facing a terminal illness.

  1. Denial: begins with an outright refusal to accept the circumstances. It often causes the bereaved to pull away from friends and family
  2. Anger: may be directed at the world, the circumstances, the person who died or others
  3. Bargaining: occurs when bereaved individuals attempt to make last-ditch "deals" with God or another higher power to ease the pain of the loss or to reverse it altogether
  4. Depression: is trademarked by feelings of numbness
  5. Acceptance: happens when the bereaved is finally able to accept that the loss has occurred and move on

Other psychologists have put forth variations on Kubler-Ross' stages of grief, although most of the time the framework remains very similar. The bottom line is that these stages are just an educated idea of how grief tends to play out, rather than a hard and fast rulebook. In short, if you skip a stage altogether, no one is going to make you go back and start at the beginning.

If these are the normal stages of grief, then what happens when the emotions get even stronger? On the next page, we'll find out.