Grief is a painful but normal part of the human experience. One model of grief categorizes this process into four unique stages–Shock and Numbness, Yearning and Searching, Disorganization and Despair, and Reorganization and Recovery.1 While this theory can help people better understand certain emotions and reactions commonly associated with grief, no two individual experiences of loss are exactly the same
What Is Grief?
Grief is a natural response to any type of loss. During this process, you may experience difficult and unexpected emotions, such as shock or anger, disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. For example, when a beloved pet passes, the loss can elicit intense sorrow. Likewise, a person may experience similar emotions following the loss of a child or another loved one. However, grief does not have to be the result of a death, as it can also occur due to substantial life changes, including divorce, loss of a job, among others.
Symptoms associated with grief can be both physical and psychological. The emotional and physical symptoms of grief are often the most noticeable, and may include crying, anger, appetite and sleeping changes, emotional detachment, and anxiety.2 Additionally, a person may experience “grief brain,” a condition similar to brain fog. A person may have trouble focusing, as well as increased irritability, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.
Common types of grief include:
- Disenfranchised grief: Disenfranchised grief is a type of grief that isn’t openly recognized, publicly mourned, or socially supported.
- Complicated grief: Complicated grief–also known as complicated bereavement, chronic grief, or complicated grief disorder–occurs when symptoms of grief intensify rather than subside over time.
- Delayed grief: Symptoms of delayed grief often intensify as individuals attempt to ignore or postpone their grief.
- Anticipatory grief: Anticipatory grief is sometimes referred to as “pre-loss grief” or “pre-death grief” because a person experiences symptoms of grief before an expected event.
- Breakup grief: When a relationship ends, breakup grief can feel just as devastating as any other loss.3
- Prolonged grief disorder: While “normal” grief fades with time, prolonged grief symptoms remain strong and may even intensify.
- Traumatic grief: In traumatic grief, a traumatic event is frequently connected with the loss, exacerbating one’s symptoms and emotions.
The Four Stages of Grief Model
British psychologists Bowlby and Parkes were the first to propose the Four Stages of Grief model.4 Their four stages include shock-numbness, yearning-searching, disorganization-despair, and reorganization. Bowlby applied his work focusing on attachment and relationships to this theory. When a loss occurs, he suggested that grief is a normal adaptive response based on one’s environment and psychological make-up. However, there were typical reactions one might expect.4
The four stages of grief include:
1. Shock & Numbness
During the initial stage of this model, a person is often unable to accept that a loss has occurred. This is a reaction that can resemble shock. During this phase, one may struggle to understand and communicate their emotions, and may shut-down in order to protect themselves against these overwhelming feelings.5 However, if emotional numbness after a loss lasts for a long time, it may be a sign of complicated grief.
2. Yearning & Searching
At this point, a person may have become aware of the void left in their life after a loss. They may become preoccupied with the person, situation, or relationship that was lost. They may seek ways to fill this void by focusing on past memories and experiences. Yearning is a defining feature of grief that can leave a person feeling emotionally exhausted.6
3. Disorganization & Despair
In this stage, a person has accepted that their life has changed and will never be the same. Hopelessness and despair accompany this realization, as well as anger and questioning. Bowlby and Parkes suggest that if we do not progress through this phase, we will continue to be consumed by anger and depression.6
During this time, one may become disorganized and struggle to complete any tasks. In addition, it is common to experience increased fatigue and a lack of initiative. A person may fail to find meaning in previously pleasurable activities.7
4. Reorganization & Recovery
During the recovery phase, a person’s faith in their future begins to return. They can start to look ahead and make goals. While the grief has not gone away, the loss begins to recede. It continues to influence a person in some ways, but is no longer at the forefront of their mind.6
Individuals may now adapt to a new ” normal state.” Intense feelings such as sadness, anger, and despair diminish as positive memories of the loss increase. If energy levels decreased previously, fatigue may begin to level off as you return to a more natural state.
Other Grief & Mourning Models
While the four stages of grief model is a valuable resource, there are a few others that offer different perspectives on this process. Despite this, it’s important to remember that there is no straightforward “best practice” for managing grief. An individual should explore their unique process at their own pace and according to their needs.
Other models for grief include:
The Four Tasks of Mourning
According to psychologist J. William Worden, a person must complete “four tasks of mourning” as they process their grief. These tasks include accepting the reality of the loss, processing the pain of grief, adjusting to a world without the loss, and finding an enduring connection with the loss. These are similar to, but not the same as, the four stages of grief. However, Worden contends that these tasks are completed in a certain order, while Bowlby and Parkes believe that their stages are not linear.8
The Five Stages of Grief
Dr. Kübler-Ross proposed a five-stage theory based on the experiences of terminally ill individuals coming to terms with their death.9 The premise behind her theory is that one will pass through certain emotions (denial, anger, bargaining, depression) before coming to a true acceptance and release of their loss.14
How to Navigate the 4 Stages of Grief
After a loss, you will experience a range of emotions that you may struggle to cope with. Each stage will look different for you, depending on several factors. Still, many find that sharing their grief experience with others helps them experience some relief and release. Reach out to friends, join a grief support group, or see a counselor. Or, consider keeping a journal as this offers a safe place to process through your emotions.
Some healthy ways to cope during each stage of grief include:
Coping With the Shock & Numbness Stage
Remind yourself that the initial emotional numbness and shock to a loss will not last forever. While overcoming this takes time, you need to process your pain and grief in healthy ways. Because of this, the most important thing you can do is stay patient with yourself and continue to look forward to what’s to come. Reach out to loved ones during this challenging time, as they can provide helpful insight, support, and guidance.
Coping With the Yearning & Searching Stage
Sadness and yearning are expected after a loss has occurred. Nevertheless, there are ways you can work to overcome these feelings.
Below are some steps you can take to overcome the yearning stage of grief:
- Revisit happy memories: Try looking at photos, watching videos, or exchanging stories with other people about your loss.
- Acknowledge the loss: Take part in activities that acknowledge and mark a significant loss, such as a funeral or memorial service. This may also include activities such as a going-away party for a friend or joining a team to help rebuild a community after a devastating event.
- Focus on daily responsibilities: Actively participating in normal day-to-day activities, staying active, and fulfilling responsibilities can help you stay focused on the present.
Coping With the Disorganization & Despair Stage:
One way to cope with despair is to acknowledge all the positive and negative aspects of the loss. Additionally, it would be best if you did not make life-altering decisions at this time, such as moving or selling important items. Try to put off any big decisions until a year or two has passed and you are better able to think clearly and logically.
Coping With the Reorganization & Recovery Stage
As time passes, you will eventually be able to shift your focus back to your daily routine of work, activities, and ventures. However, it can be beneficial to elicit the help of friends and family to assist you in completing necessary chores. Or, ask them to simply listen to your stories and memories or spend time with you. When you are ready, you can begin your new stage of life following your loss.
When Therapy Can Help With the 4 Stages of Grief
Addressing the plethora of emotions associated with grief can be a complex process. Although almost everyone experiences grief at some point in life, each person grieves in their way, in their own time. Grief does not just “dissipate” on its own. Resolving grief is an active process, and therapy may be necessary for some.
Mental health professionals can employ various grief counseling techniques and interventions to help you navigate this healing process. While therapy isn’t a miracle cure for grief, it can allow you to understand, accept, and manage your complex feelings. You can start your search for the right therapist using an online directory.
Some therapy options that can help when managing grief include:
- Individual therapy: Talk therapy encourages clients to talk through their emotions and discuss their loss. A trained professional can provide a safe, non-judgmental space for individuals to openly express these feelings. This can be performed both in-person and online.
- Grief counseling: Grief counseling focuses on helping people deal with the pain and upheaval that accompanies a loss. One potential goal may be learning how to address any major distress or disruption caused by grief.
- Group therapy: Similar to individual therapy, group therapy can be offered virtually or in person. During sessions, group members offer each other support, insight, and shared experiences.
- Online therapy options: This option provides an extra layer of flexibility when approaching therapy, and allows you to participate from the comfort of your home.
The grieving process will affect each individual differently, but having a framework for what to expect can be beneficial. Understanding natural human reactions to loss can help you accept the reality of your circumstance and process the pain of grief. Therapy or professional help is encouraged if your symptoms have begun to negatively affect your daily living or functioning.