Health Agenda

Mental Health

Moving through the 7 stages of grief after a loss

When someone you love passes away, grief can strike in varying ways and intensity. Here’s how understanding the 7 stages of grief after death can help you deal with your loss.

When 50-year-old journalist Rachael Oakes-Ash lost her mother to cancer, she wasn’t prepared for the range of emotions.

“I knew her death was coming, but it was still a shock. I remember running outside and circling a giant tree, gasping for air.”

Oakes-Ash recalls feeling stronger with time, only to fall apart unexpectedly at random moments.

“All was well, then suddenly I’d be a mess,” she says. “Three years later, I’m definitely stronger, but there’s always going to be a birthday, an anniversary or something to remind me she’s gone.”

“Grief isn’t linear,” says counsellor Lesley McPherson. “Some days it feels softer, with accompanying acceptance. Others, it hits like a wild storm, as raw as the day of the significant event. There is no timeline for moving through it and it’s common to move back and forth between the phases.”

The 7 stages of grief after death

American-Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first highlighted 5 stages of grief in the 1960s. Since then, her approach has been extended to 7 stages, with difference sources having different variations of what these stages may be. Not everyone experiences grief in the same way but understanding these 7 stages of grief after death can be useful in identifying some of the emotions you may experience.

1. Shock and denial
Feelings of shock and denial are unavoidable in nearly every situation, even if you could foresee it happening. It’s a way for your brain to begin to understand what has happened.

“Reality hits hard,” says McPherson. “No matter the cause, you’re still losing or missing something. There’s unwillingness to accept the loss.”

2. Pain and guilt
Once the shock wears off, feelings of pain and guilt can step in. It’s best to try to accept these feelings, advises McPherson.

“It’s very much ‘if only’ and ‘I ought to have’ [at this stage]. These thoughts are perfectly normal,” she says. “Allow yourself to self-doubt, but know you did your best with the resources you had in that moment.”

3. Anger and bargaining
It’s also normal to feel anger in times of grief.

“If it’s a job loss, you might feel like you want revenge,” says McPherson. “If it’s a relationship breakdown, you might want what is ‘yours’. If a loved one passes away, you might be angry they left you alone.

“Bargaining comes into play when you start to look at the upside. You might think, ‘if I can get another job’, or ‘if I can get another relationship’, things will look less bleak. It’s an indicator that you’re not wallowing in the anger. It’s part of the shifting process.”

4. Depression, loneliness and reflection
The jumble of emotions that usually accompanies the grieving process can typically lead to feelings of depression, isolation and anxiety – but also reflection and purpose.

“It’s the realisation of the situation, combined with ‘I’m still here’, ‘I’m okay’, or ‘I have another job’,” that can help you to cope with these emotions, says McPherson.

5. Upward turn
Humans, by nature, crave contact, connection and support. You may want to engage with your friends and family again.

“This is also a stage where you might slip backwards,” says McPherson. “So don’t be disheartened if you find your emotions become overwhelming again. Remember that it’s normal to move between any of the stages of grief from hour to hour, or even minute to minute.”

6. Reconstruction
This stage is about realising that you can’t change the circumstances, but you can alter your perception and behaviour.

“The ‘new normal’ will look different for every individual and situation,” says McPherson. “Take it day by day and month by month, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else’s journey.”

7. Acceptance and hope
This is when you learn to be grateful for what was – the years you spent with someone – but accept that it is no longer.

“It’s accepting that nothing ever stays the same,” says McPherson. “And that’s okay, because endings are part of life. They also bring new beginnings. It’s important to always remember that.”

You’ll experience grief or loss in your own way – and that may mean experiencing all, some or even none of these emotions.

“How long one remains in any stage depends on their internal resources and their past history with grief,” says McPherson.

Her advice? “Allow yourself to feel it, but if these emotions become all-consuming and you get ‘stuck’, you’re using alcohol or drugs as a crutch, or it continues for months or more, then seek professional support.”

Oakes-Ash found that writing about her grief for various blogs and websites was helpful. She also enlisted the support of her therapist to get her through the most difficult times and tried to adopt a positive attitude towards the future.

Getting help with grief

We're trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members* access to video consultations with psychologist, psychiatrist and other allied health professionals.

If your child needs support in dealing with grief, HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 manage tough life situations.

The program includes online courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There is also confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find more mental health help:

Words by Shonagh Walker
Updated October 2021

MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT

HCF offers access to online programs to lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. 80% of participants report an improvement in their symptoms on completion of their course.

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