You’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But this model is an extreme oversimplification of all the ways people experience loss. In fact, even Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the creator of the five stages heuristic, acknowledges that grief can’t be packaged into a tidy model.
The reality is, grief can take many shapes, and everyone processes grief in their own way. Here are a few other things you may experience after a tragic loss:
Anxiety When someone close to you dies, your entire world is turned upside down. Suddenly, everything feels unpredictable and fragile, and you may find yourself having obsessive thoughts about the death or ruminating over your own mortality. Anxiety is a very common reaction to loss, and when paired with the more well-known grief symptoms of sadness, detachment, and stress, it can make it difficult to deal with the demands of everyday life.
Regret and Guilt When you lose someone you love, you may have feelings of regret over things you did or didn’t do. You could also feel a sense of guilt, as if you could have prevented the death in some way, or guilt for surviving when your loved one cannot. Wondering over why’s and what if’s is a normal part of trying to understand something that’s beyond comprehension.
Depression While the five stages of grief model includes depression, it doesn’t factor in that sometimes the depression doesn’t go away. About one in five people will develop clinical depression after the death of a loved one, but depression is all too often brushed off as nothing more than sadness. However, when a person’s negative emotions start to turn inward, instead of focusing on missing or yearning for their loved one, it’s more serious than just grief.
Magical Thinking Magical thinking is believing that one event has caused another, without any plausible causative link. While magical thinking tends to be associated with grieving children, it’s not uncommon for adults to face similar thoughts.
You may find yourself imagining if you do things just so, or live the right way, that your loved one will walk through the door as if their death had never happened. Or you may feel that the death is the world’s way of punishing you, or that something you did somehow caused the death. Even if you logically understand these things to be untrue, a tragic loss can warp your sense of reality and make the surreal seem possible, if only for a moment.
Numbness Emotional numbness is probably one of the most common reactions to grief. You may feel empty, emotionless, and unable to relate to the people around you. You may even find yourself incapable of crying. Unfortunately, since numbness isn’t a reaction that’s talked about, people who experience it end up feeling like there’s something wrong with them. When you expect your grief to look like raw, open sadness or bitter anger at the world, feeling nothing much at all can be a profoundly alienating and isolating experience.
Grief can take many forms, none of them more right or wrong than another. Unfortunately, the five stages model has permeated through our understanding of grief so thoroughly that it’s easy to feel like you’re not grieving the “right” way if your grief looks different. When you’re mourning a loss, it’s important to be accepting of your grief however it comes, and to seek the care and support you need to get through. And if your grief has taken a form that is making it hard to carry on with daily life, seek professional help so that you can arm yourself with every tool you need to cope.
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