Living through loss: Understanding the different stages of grief

When television actor Divya Agarwal recently posted a glamorous photograph from a recent shoot to her social media, some of her followers criticised her decision claiming that the actor, who tragically lost her father to complications from Covid-19 last month, had moved on from the loss too quickly. The process of grieving, explains psychologist Sonal Sonawani, is extremely personal and complex. “Society has prescribed certain standard methods of coping with grief. In many cultures, there is an unsaid expectation that grief must be expressed only through sadness. However, the two are not always the same. Many people also mistake grief for mourning. Grief is deeper, more existential in nature, and involves multiple emotions,” she explains.

Understanding grief

Grief is a simple word for a not-so-simple process, says psychologist Priyanka Bajaria. “It is our mind and body’s response to loss of a connection. Every individual’s process of grieving is different. In this context, one cannot grieve ‘too much’ or ‘too little’,” she adds. The process of grieving typically involves the following stages:

  • Denial: This stage is marked by feelings of disbelief, shock, and numbness. It is a survival response that helps you to pace your emotions.

  • Anger: This anger can be directed towards the person you lost for leaving you, at yourself for not being able to do enough to save your loved one, towards the doctors, or even towards God. Anger can provide a temporary anchor to the feelings of nothingness often experienced after a loss.

  • Bargaining: In this stage, the individual is often overwhelmed with guilt. Thoughts usually start with ‘If only...’ (e.g. ‘If only I devoted more time to..., this would not have happened’) or ‘What if...’ (e.g. ‘What if I had cancelled my vacation and spent more time with...’). You have the urge to go back in time and identify the missing pieces that could have ‘saved’ your loved one.

  • Depression: Depression re-orients you to the present reality, where you become acutely aware of the loss. It is accompanied by feelings of emptiness, helplessness, and a lack of meaning in carrying on daily activities. This stage of deep sadness is a natural response to loss and not clinical depression.

  • Acceptance: You will start to accept the reality of the loss, even though you may not like that reality. This is usually the stage when you experience more good days than bad.

Bajaria adds that everyone may not go through all these stages during their journey of loss or may experience some of these emotions or additional emotions. Sonawani also explains that in addition to skipping certain stages, you could regress after having reached a later stage.

A personal response

Certain factors may affect how and for how long we grieve, says Sonawani. These include:

  • Prolonged illness versus sudden death: If the loved one has been going through a prolonged illness, people may start grieving their loss before their demise. By the time of death, the bereaved individual may have already crossed denial, anger, and bargaining. Sudden deaths, on the other hand, catch you unprepared and you may stay in the denial stage for the longest time. In these cases, people may go about their lives as though nothing has happened, immediately after the death of a loved one.

  • Age of the deceased: It is quite common to grieve younger people more than older ones. The thought that someone has lived their life to the fullest and fulfilled their dreams and aspirations is easier to comprehend.

  • Method of grieving: The manner of grieving can range from denial to repression. Some people may grieve through unconventional means such as throwing a party, engaging in sex excessively, or travelling. This is because the death of a loved one creates an existential crisis. Death suddenly seems closer and more permanent. While certain individuals can embark on a spiritual journey or engage in acts of kindness and compassion to understand the meaning of life, others may appreciate the longevity of life and start doing things they've always wanted to do.

  • Beliefs about afterlife: The grieving period also depends on the individual’s belief system about the permanence of life and death. While some believe in reincarnation, others believe that an individual’s existence ends with death. The latter can go through a longer grieving process.

Myths about loss

Dr Payal Sharma, a psychiatrist at Rekindle Mind Clinic shares some of the most common misconceptions surrounding grief.

1. The pain will go away faster if you ignore it: Trying to ignore your pain will only make it worse in the long run. It is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

2. If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sad about the loss: While crying is a normal response to sadness, it isn’t the only response. Individuals who do not cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others; they may simply have other ways of showing it.

3. Moving on with your life means you have forgotten about your loss: Moving on means you have accepted your loss. You can move on even as the person you have lost continues to be as an important part of you.

4. It’s important to be ‘strong’: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal response to loss. They do not make you weak. You do not don’t need to ‘protect’ your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings will help them and you.

5. Grieving should last for a year: There is no set timeline for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months; but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter.

Seek help if you experience:

  1. Obsession with the departed individual, as expressed through your speech and behaviour.

  2. A deep, unbearable sadness that never seems get better.

  3. Irritability and an easily triggered temper that makes it difficult to communicate with you.

  4. Sleep disturbances such as insomnia or sleeping at odd hours.

  5. Withdrawal from social interactions and activities you used to enjoy.

  6. Denial and defensiveness when asked about the grief.

  7. Distracted performance in terms of your job, daily affairs, and family responsibilities.

  8. A strong attachment to mementos and reminders about the departed person or, conversely, a strong aversion to such reminders.

  9. Suicidal thoughts. --Inputs by Dr Sharma

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