In her seminal work On Death and Dying, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a theory describing the process one goes through when diagnosed with a terminal illness. These Five Stages of Grief have become more popular over the years as a way to understand any kind of loss; however, Kübler -Ross was clear that these specific stages are attributable only to those coming to terms with their own death. Experiencing this transition can elicit a number of reactions, and there is no “right” way to process the end of one’s life.
- Denial: It can take time to adjust to the reality that one’s life is coming to an end. This stage is marked by feelings of disbelief and numbness as a protection against emotional pain.
- Anger: One may feel a sense of injustice or unfairness about their circumstances and this can be expressed as anger, irritability, frustration, or rage.
- Bargaining: In this stage, a person may be feeling desperate and willing to do anything to change their circumstances. This stage can look like bargaining with oneself, others, or a higher power: i.e. “If you heal me, I’ll turn my life around.”
- Depression: As the emotional fog from the prior stages begins to clear, one begins to come to terms with their reality and the sadness underneath disbelief, anger, and anxiety. The dying person may feel the pull to turn inward and isolate from others.
- Acceptance: Acceptance of death does not mean that one no longer feels pain or sadness about the impending loss. A person in this stage is no longer resisting the reality of the situation and attempting to change it. Sadness and regret may still be present, but emotional survival techniques of denial, anger and bargaining have dissipated.
Important Things to Remember:
- Not everyone facing death will experience all of these stages.
- There is no right or wrong timeframe to experience any of the above. Some people may feel denial for several days, weeks, or months, some none at all.
- Grief is a process and these stages do not necessarily go in order. You may experience anger, then depression, then come to some level of acceptance for a period of time, then go back to feeling sad or angry again.
For more resources on grief visit: https://www.colorado.edu/ova/death
Newman L. (2004). Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. BMJ. 329(7466), 627.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.