7 Stages of Grief

The 7 stages of grief have come to include dimensions of grief as experienced by those who grieve the death of a loved one. They are expanded from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, which were initially identified for people with terminal illness.

As mentioned on the grief process page, please remember that everyone grieves differently. The journey is not a neat, step-by-step process. I have more recently heard the stages referred to as dimensions of grief. I feel that that may help clear up misconceptions due to the orderly sounding nature of the "7 stages of grief."

1) Shock

You body's protection mechanism kicks in to protect you from being completely overwhelmed by the devastating news you have received.

I remember feeling like I was trapped in a movie set--living a story that wasn't my own.

My friend Mary described shock "It felt like an enormous primal scream stuck in my throat that I couldn't release but wouldn't let me take in the air I needed to breath."

2) Denial

In this phase some people deny that their loved one has actually died. Others deny that they are so deeply affected by the loss--they push their feelings away to not be overwhelmed by them.

Although I didn't think at all about the 7 stages of grief during my grief process, looking back I see how they apply. I probably spent more time in this phase than I actually realize because I was, of course, denying it. And I certainly experienced it more often than just after the shock wore off (actually I don't know if I experienced it then at all). But I remember times when I just wanted to focus on how going things were at the moment so I wouldn't have to deal with the pain that was beneath the surface. Perhaps this is like living on the tip of an iceberg and refusing to believe the rest of it is present.

3) Anger

Anger is a natural feeling when life does not go according to plan. What we do with that anger can be detrimental. During periods of anger, a grieving person may be angry at themselves for their response to grief or because you could not do anything to prevent the death. You may be angry at God for not saving the loved one. You may also be angry at the loved one for leaving. If we stop and think rationally these feelings often don't make sense to us, but they are our feelings nonetheless and it is far better to work through them than stuff them inside.

I experienced much anger during my grief journey--even angry at people or systems that had absolutely nothing to do with my loss. It was this anger that got me started in the study of the Psalms of Lament. You may want to check out what I've written about that if you are in need of healthy ways to express your anger. But please seek professional counsel your anger starts to cause harm to yourself or others around you.

Read more about dealing with anger in this Grief and Anger article.

4) Guilt

A sense of guilt can develop out of the bereaved person's lack of ability to keep their loved one alive. We naturally take care of our family and friends and their death feels like we have failed in some way.

"If only I didn't suggest that John drive the motorcycle that day. If only I hadn't called back to the house twice and caused him to be on the road later than he had planned." Its amazing how I could find ways to blame myself for a drunk driving accident that happened 30 miles from where I was at the time it happened. This kinds of feelings are no something we can just argue away with rational thinking. Rational thinking may straighten out our thinking. But honoring our feelings as part of our story will bring healing to the heart.

5) Sorrow and depression

If the stages happen to be done in the order outlined, you get to the place where you can actually be sad about the time people start to think grief should be ending. Sorrow is often experienced throughout the grief process, but the emotions of the other stages may overpower the sorrow so it is less apparent than they are.

I remember telling my spiritual director, "I think I'm in a place where I just miss John for who he was." Previous to that there had been a lot of anger about my situation that I also felt guilty for not simply missing my husband. Now I was free to do that.

If you feel stuck here you might want to read Prayer for Depression.

6) Acceptance

Here the person has accepted reality and feels ready to let go of the previous turmoil. They start to realize that they will need to find ways to enjoy life again in spite of the pain they have experienced. This does not mean they will never again go back to those feelings. Our grief never totally disappears, but in this stage there is a release of many difficult emotions. Healing happens as we find ways to healthfully express our feelings and release our emotions.

Like the other stages, this dimension of the grief process can happen in little phases here and there. It happened that way for me. But I am also very aware of one week where I most have written 20 poems about my journey. There was a sense that, "It is down on paper. It is documented. My body does not have to carry it anymore." Although I was not aware of it at the time, that time was a significant shift toward greater healing for me.

7) Engaging Life

Healing continues to be worked out in your life. You are able to plan and dream for a positive future. You will find ways to laugh and enjoy life again. Yet you carry a changed outlook on life that can never be reversed.

Although my life is forever changed, I have found many meaningful ways to rejoin the world and live a meaningful life.

Reflection on the 7 Stages of Grief:

You will notice that the second paragraph under each stage tells something of what I experienced as related to that stage. A helpful writing exercise may be to write a few lines about your own experience of those stages.

  • How would you describe each stage if you were telling someone about the 7 stages of grief?
  • Where are you now?
  • Where have you been?
  • How are you being gentle with yourself wherever you are in the process?

Another exercise that may help you reflect on the 7 stages of grief is a scrapbook journaling exercise I have included on the site. It takes a broader look at the stages than these 7, but helps you see how you may be working through them. Read the Stages of Grief Scrapbook Journal article.

Return from 7 Stages of Grief to Stages of Grief main page.

If the 7 Stages of Grief feels too linear for how you experience your grief journey, you are not alone. I expressed my grief journey in Seaons of Solace.

Other Articles related to the grief stages:
My 5 Stages of Grief
Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief

Return from 7 Stages of Grief to Journey-through-Grief homepage
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