Around 1969, Elisabeth Kubler Ross developed a tool that qualifies grief into five stages. The five stages of grief she defined are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (DABDA).The stages of grief help people identify their loss and understand feelings that accompany grief. For a long time, this was the standard for grief counseling and is still often used to begin a conversation on grief.
My first real experience with grief was when my father died in 2004. I was very close to him and he had mentored me through my pastoring years. When he first died, I remember feeling mad at God. I didn’t understand why a man who had devoted his whole life to the ministry had died of lung cancer at the relatively young age of 77.
I did not feel ready for heaven to gain my father. I didn’t think I would do well without him. I remember some times of deep sorrow complete with tears. At other times, the heaviness would lift and I would think it was finally over. Then another wave would roll in and the feelings would come back.
I experienced deep sadness, regret, remorse, fear, and honestly just wishing things were different. I do not have the words for what I actually felt in deep grief.
After quite a while I remember feeling better one day as I was peeling an orange. Now it just so happens that my father loved oranges. As I peeled the skin and the orange sprayed that beautiful fragrance, I started to cry. Another grief wave had been triggered by the memory of my father enjoying his orange. I cried and I cried and I cried. No one had told me that an orange could trigger my grief.
I found some other triggers along the way and I just want to tell you that grief is not a short process. The first few Christmases were tough because this is the season when he died. I found it hard to decorate a Christmas tree without crying.
When I led a grief group, our video taught us that the average person will experience grief over a loss from 2 to 4 years in length. The average varies depending on the person and the circumstances surrounding the loss. That was a staggering statistic to learn.
Grief does not go fast. This fact alone helped me to process my father’s passing and I learned to be more patient with myself when I experienced grief.
Grief is not only the death of a person who is close, but can include any substantial loss that has happened to a person. One can lose a valued pet, a job/career, relationship, or a pregnancy, to name a few. Loss can also be experienced over retirement or a child leaving home. I researched this topic online and found a website that actually listed 40 possible topics one can grieve over.
Grief is more than just being sad and sometimes can be mistaken for depression. Grief is not easy to process and people will often try to avoid it. When people ignore grief issues, they may even get stuck in them.
I believe the ability to grieve is a God-given ability to help process loss. In this fallen world, no one avoids loss and sooner or later everyone is confronted with their own grief.
The Five Stages of Grief
Below please find descriptions of the 5 stages of grief (DABDA). My aim with this article is to instill some hope in you if you are wracked with grief at this time.
After the five stages, I will include some other thoughts and ideas I have picked up in my journey of helping myself and others work through grief.
Initially, denial may help you survive. You refuse to accept the fact of the coming loss. You may go numb. “The doctor is wrong.” “The lab result is in error.” This is a normal reaction to loss.Keep in mind that denial is a classic defense mechanism and at times is useful to not get overwhelmed by the reality of loss. It may help you suppress emotions that are not ready to come up.
Once the emotions do start to surface is when healing can begin. I should also mention that some grief can happen before a person is gone. When a person has cared for an invalid for many years, he/she may be surprised to find that when the loved one finally passes, there is little grief. This could be because the loss was grieved ahead of time during the caretaking period.
I have known families who have judged the caretaker for not caring about the loss, especially if they remarry before a year has passed since the death. This can often cause undue family problems.
A common emotional experience from grief and loss is anger. At this point, people may feel frustrated, irritated, anxious, or all three at once.
Anger may also be recognized by “why” questions. Why did this happen to me? Why would God let this happen? These types of questions need to be asked. Anger needs to be allowed to surface.
One might feel alone and abandoned. One might feel disconnected from reality. Anger may be the emotion that connects you to reality. I believe that God does not get offended when we are angry with Him, especially when our emotions are raw.
God is the one who understands our grief and realizes that from our perspective, this can be a frustrating experience. Grief expresses loss that we had no control over. It is not what we wanted or asked for and there seems to be no apparent explanation or solution.
Some Christians believe it is a sin to get angry. If so, why does the Bible say, “be angry and sin not”? (Ephesians 4:26, KJV) Anger appears to be a regular and necessary emotion when dealing with loss.
When the loss feels great, one might try to bargain out of the loss. People are known to promise God they will be better or do better or treat the person better than before. People have been known to offer God service if He will save the loved one. “If you change this, I will do that.”
Often closely aligned with bargaining is the “What ifs?” What if we had gotten there sooner? What if we had gone to a different doctor? The guilt from a hundred “what ifs” can be overwhelming. It appears to make sense to bargain one’s way out of such loss.
Eventually depression may set in. This should not be confused with mental illness. People often feel sad after a major loss. It may show that some acceptance of the finality of loss has begun.
Depression is a present emotion that also represents the emptiness of the reality of the loss. The loss may feel like it is too much and too overwhelming to go on. Often people don’t want to talk about the loss and feel hopeless. This could be where a person gets so depressed, they consider suicide. If you think someone is this depressed, call for help!
Finally, a person who has experienced great loss should also come to an acceptance — not that the loss is good or okay, but that they will be alright as they go forward.
The waves of grief have at times swept me off my feet and I thought I would not survive. Usually, in time, people can learn to live with the loss. A new normal is developed. This is not easy and there is no certain time frame or formula to follow.
I know when my dad died, I felt like the universe was never going to be the same. In some ways, it is not the same. However, after 14 years I am learning how to accept my father’s passing as part of my life experience and I have been able to accept his absence from my life. Acceptance is not certain but usually takes time and deliberate steps on the part of the person experiencing the loss.
Lessons about the Grief Process
These five stages of grief may not happen in a linear fashion. If someone is grieving, they do not necessarily experience the five stages (DABDA) in the order just presented. Some of the stages may not happen at all.
Since the Kubler-Ross model of grief was presented. it has become apparent that people experience the grief process in any order that fits their personality and circumstances. The five stages of grief are not a “cookie-cutter” method of processing grief.
A person must be allowed to grieve in the order that fits their personality. They may even skip a stage. A person can also not be hurried through the grief process at the desired pace of their concerned loved ones. Please don’t tell someone who is grieving to just get over it or it’s time to move on. Let them grieve.
A person who experiences grief should learn to do the following two things:
First, a person in grief will need to be deliberate in working through the stages of grief they do experience and be careful not to get stuck in any one stage. For example, I have seen people get stuck in the anger stage.
I was running a grief counseling group and a lady came in who had lost her husband 20 years earlier. She described a wonderful life and ministry with her husband but admitted she had never really forgiven God or her husband for dying. Things were not the same and she never accepted the loss in any manner.
She told our group she was coming to our meeting so she could get unstuck from her grief. She admitted that her anger had been a choice for 20 years. She chose to be stuck in her grief. She also believed that her unforgiveness affected her health in a negative way.
Our group had no judgment on that issue, but it is clear that unforgiveness held for so long had caused her to be stuck in grief and she was determined to get unstuck. This was a welcomed step after 20 years.
As this woman started to share about her grief, she felt that she had a breakthrough with forgiveness. This woman felt the grief counseling group was the beginning of getting unstuck from her grief.
Second, a person in grief must identify and acknowledge the grief stage one is in. One should talk to God, talk to someone else, and be honest with what is felt. Know that grief comes in waves, and at first it will feel like a tsunami.
One can feel sure that the “grief wave” will destroy them. This is not true. Some of the best advice I have ever heard was when the “grief wave” comes, don’t try to escape it — know that while it does not feel good and will be messy, it will not kill you. In fact, one needs to press into the wave and flow with it for a while, being confident that eventually the wave will subside and survival is assured. This is better than bracing against the wave and letting it slam you down under.
Grief does not kill you. Actually, I believe that grief is a gift from God that lets one express pain and emotion by not letting it stay inside to fester. The simple truth is that all loss must be grieved. It is the mechanism that God has given us to deal with loss and to heal from those emotions.
In our culture, we are often taught to avoid grief at all costs: “Don’t get caught by a grief wave, don’t cry, don’t acknowledge the loss.” We have taught our children, especially men, not to cry. “Be proud, be stoic, keep a stiff upper lip,” etc.
I have also noticed as our nation has travelled farther away from God’s principles, we have also avoided emotions like grief. Today, it has become common for people to not even have a funeral for a loved one.
A funeral may often be referred to as something he/she would never have wanted. There is no belief in the hereafter and at worst, it is just an unnecessary emotional event while at best it may be a maudlin empty experience. Often there is no closure because there is little or no hope. No hope of a life after, no hope of an ultimate plan. No wonder grief is difficult. As a whole, our culture does not grieve well.
As a Christian, it is important to mention that we grieve, too, but as ones who do so with hope (I Thessalonians 4:13, NIV). This truth is perhaps the most important point about grief. Grief is difficult without hope.
When a person experiences a loss, hope is often the first thing to disappear. Most will experience at least some of the aforementioned stages of grief and must deliberately work through the loss. In one sense, the main issue at hand is to find hope again.
Hope is always found in Christ. Honestly, I do not understand how people work through grief without the promises of God. While Christians do have hope, it is important to note that grief and loss issues are never simple or easy. Even Jesus grieved when the sisters told him Lazarus was dead. The shortest verse in the Bible says, “He wept” (John 11:35, NIV). Jesus understands grief!
If you have recently experienced a loss, don’t go through it alone. Consider seeing a grief counselor and/or joining a grief counseling group. I would be honored to walk with you through your loss. I would encourage you to wade into those “grief waves,” knowing that while they may be painful, they won’t kill you.
I would like to point out some pitfalls to avoid and help make sure you never get stuck in your grief. Grief should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. God gave us the ability to grieve loss but He does not want us stuck in it too long.
Call my office today and let me help you work through your loss. I would also like to encourage you to go on the internet and look up GriefShare. This is a non-denominational Christian organization that provides an excellent grief group experience. There is teaching, discussion, and hope to share. They also have many resources for one who is grieving. I am sure there is a GriefShare group near you.
“Ocean Waves”, Courtesy of Emiliano Arano, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Surfers”, Courtesy of Yaroslav Shuraev, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Acceptance”, Courtesy of Ric Rodrigues, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Standing on a Rock”, Courtesy of Jacub Gomez, Pexels.com, CC0 License