The Anatomy of Grief: How to Grieve Well
To be human is to grieve. Feeling grief is an inevitable part of life, because loss is inevitable. And more than that, grief is an expression of love, because the more we care, the deeper we grieve.
We need to grieve not only because it honors who (and what) we’ve lost, because also because it’s how we adjust to the losses we experience in life. We don’t just miss people deeply in our hearts when they're no longer with us, but we also miss them on a physical level as well.
Just as we come to emotionally rely on the people we're close to, our bodies also rely on them to regulate our immune system, hormonal system, and nervous system. We evolved as social creatures, to be deeply connected to the people around us. This means that when someone is suddenly missing from our physical space, our bodies have to adjust along with all the other parts of us. And this takes time.
Grieving is a very sacred process, and an essential aspect of life. But it’s possible for this process to get short-circuited, and for us to get stuck in our grief. Deep loss will forever change us, and we will always remember those we’ve lost with sadness and love, but the process of grief is not meant to last forever.
We are meant to move through our grief, and eventually out the other side. So how do we do this?
Let’s look at the 5 stages of grief as our guide.
The 5 stages of grief, as identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While no two people experience loss in the same way, we all will experience any or all of these stages as part of the process of moving through grief.
Understanding these stages is useful because they help us to understand what’s happening, and they also show us where we can get stuck in the grieving process.
The first stage of grief, denial, includes the period of shock we go through early on (especially when experiencing a sudden loss), where we just aren't quite ready to accept the reality of what's happened. This stage can show up like a mental block, where we act as if it hasn't happened, and can't even bring ourselves to admit that they're really gone.
Even though this denial of reality can seem crazy from an outside perspective, there is wisdom in it. This stage prevents the full impact of grief from hitting us, giving us the time we need to adjust enough to be able to handle its weight. This is a brilliant coping strategy.
As reality starts to sink in, the next stage that people often go through is anger. This can show up as anger at the person who died, finding someone to blame for what happened, or even being angry at God for allowing it to happen. The targets vary, but the purpose of this stage is the same.
Anger as an emotion gives us a lot of strength. It feels empowering, so it’s the perfect antidote to the helplessness that we feel when we've lost someone and there's nothing we can do about it. Anger helps us feel more in control…even when we really aren’t.
The bargaining stage is when we go over and over what happened in our minds, trying to rationalize what happened and make sense of it. It's a process of trying to understand why, of asking "what if..." and "if only…”, and thinking of all the other things that could have happened instead.
This is where survivor's guilt comes in, where people blame themselves for what happened. This self-blame is also a way of regaining a sense of control, and dealing with the helplessness of loss.
The 4th stage, depression, is when we become fully immersed in the emotion of grief itself. Grief in its pure form is extremely heavy and immobilizing. It pulls us out of normal space and time and can put our life on hold by taking away our motivation and energy to do everyday things - just like depression.
Grief brings life to a standstill in order to give us time to heal. We might spend a lot of time remembering, but we're not stuck reliving the moment of the loss (and the reasons for the loss) the way we are in the bargaining stage. We're fully dealing with the reality of it, and coming to terms with it so we can move on to final stage, acceptance.
I think of stage 5, acceptance, not so much as a stage of grief, but as the place we get to once we've moved through grief. The loss will always be with us, but we're beginning to live again, to move forward now that we've adjusted to the new, forever-changed reality. We might still feel sad, but the heavy lifting of the grieving process is done.
Whatever our own grief journey looks like, it's vital that we make it through the 4th stage fully, and into the 5th stage.
The only way we can move on with our life is for grief to run its course, and the only way that will happen is if we feel it fully. Grief doesn't just go away when it isn't felt... it stays until we surrender to it, and allow it to fully move through us.
The old adage that "time heals all wounds" is 100% wrong. It is entirely possible to never have fully grieved - and therefore be immersed in the pain of the loss - for our entire lives. And not only is this possible, I believe it happens as often as not. (Modern society is not very good with grief!)
The only way to move past the pain of grief is to fully go through it. Avoiding it will work temporarily (that’s what the denial stage is all about, after all), but it never works in the long run.
Moving through grief means being in stage 4 for as long as it takes, giving the time and space for mourning to happen. Grief dictates the timing, not us. We might find that it recedes for a little while, allowing us to continue with our lives almost normally, and then swoops back in to bring us to our knees again. Grief is not a linear process, and all we can do is flow with it.
If we get stuck in any stage of the process, or if the demands of life pulled us out of it and we didn't have the space and time to really allow it to flow, our grief will remain within us. And grief held inside will hold us back from truly living - dampening our joy and passion for life - potentially for the rest of our lives if we aren't willing to address it.
Grief is a very powerful and sacred emotion, and it's essential to feel it in order to be able to live well. Grief is what cleanses and heals our heart when it gets broken by loss. Without it, our heart won't ever heal, and we won't ever be able to fully move forward in life.
If grief sits inside us, unacknowledged and unfelt, it will start to become toxic - weighing down our heart like a heavy stone sitting on top of it. And with every loss we experience, we add another stone if we don't fully grieve.
Unfortunately, we can get stuck in any of the first 4 stages of grief.
If we're stuck in the 4th stage (depression), we won't be able to feel happy or fully enjoy life, and our energy and passion will be blocked. I believe that people who still cry every day and can't stop constantly thinking about their lost loved one years after they've been gone, are probably stuck in this stage.
Being stuck in any of the first 3 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining) might not feel as painful, but it can be trickier because it’s harder to tell what’s going on. In those stages, may not even be aware that we have more grieving to do.
Being stuck in stage 1 makes us numb, cutting us off from sadness, grief, and all our emotions to some degree. This can feel like moving on (like the acceptance stage), except that it happens too quick. The key sign of this is avoiding thinking about the person who died. This is what happens in families that "cover up" the loss, never speaking about what happened or the person at all - as if they never even existed.
Another way we stay stuck in the denial stage is by keeping ourselves busy, or staying "happy" all the time and never allowing ourselves to slow down or feel sad. Basically, we're denying what happened by distracting ourselves from it...so that we never have to experience the pain of stage 4.
These distractions (and stage 1 in general) aren't inherently bad. They allow us to postpone the heavy lifting of grief until we're ready to bear it, and they give us time to adjust and prepare ourselves.
But as with all the stages, where it becomes a problem is when it becomes a habit, our new "normal". Anxiety is the emotion that gives us energy and drive and helps us stay high-functioning, so having a habit of staying busy often leads to a state of chronic anxiety - where we rely on that emotion too much, to the point where it starts to become a problem. (For more about anxiety, check out my article From Enemy to Ally: How Anxiety Is Meant To Serve You).
Getting stuck in the anger stage of grief can be quite unpleasant, because while grief on its own is relaxing and immobilizing (like depression!), grief mixed with anger feels tense, more like despair and anguish. The unpleasantness of this feeling can also cause people to get stuck by pushing them back into stage 1, causing them to numb out because it just feels too painful to bear.
The only way to truly move past the pain of anguish (rather than avoiding it by moving back to stage 1) is to move as quickly as possible into stage 4. This means letting go of our resistance to what happened, and surrendering to what is. This can feel like accepting defeat, but it's a perfect example of how surrender and defeat can be more helpful than continuing to fight a lost cause.
The other characteristic of being stuck in the anger stage is holding onto resentment, feeling bitter about the past and being stuck in blame - unable to forgive or move on.
Letting go of resentment takes more than simple choice, although that’s the first step; it requires listening to our anger and taking whatever actions are still needed for our anger to resolve itself. This can mean letting someone know how we feel, or setting a boundary that needs to be respected. We can only truly move on when we first honor our anger - then forgiveness and letting go becomes easy.
Being stuck in the bargaining stage can be similar, also stuck in the past but feeling guilt instead of resentment, and blaming ourselves instead of blaming others. Remorse comes from wishing that things would have been different, and that can also keep us frozen in the past and unable to move forward.
The keys to moving on from this stage are surrendering to what is (as described above), while also having compassion for ourselves. Letting go of self-blame may require changing our beliefs about what we should have done (or could have done), so that we can change the story we are telling ourselves.
The first 3 stages are all ways of delaying the true work of grieving that happens in stage 4.
This delay can be important, giving us time to become strong enough for the grieving we need to do, but we don't need to experience all of the first 3 stages to move through our grief. In fact, the quicker we can move through them (while honoring our own timing), the better.
But stage 4 is a different story. It has its own timing, and we must surrender to it - and stay with it as long as it demands - if we are to make it through to the final stage of acceptance.
There's no way to skip this stage of we want to truly move out the other side of grief and be free of its weight. Anyone who claims that you can “release” grief through energy healing, spiritual cleansing , or any other method that doesn't actually involve feeling the grief, is sadly mistaken. That's just not how grief works.
But there are ways to work with grief intelligently, that help speed the process along and create boundaries around it so it doesn't overwhelm us or derail our entire life. The process of grieving doesn't have to take years - and the biggest factor that determines how quickly we can (authentically) move through stage 4 is how deeply we're willing to feel our grief, to dive into it and surrender to it.
Much of this is determined by our courage and willingness to feel the pain of loss, and flow with the process no matter what. And this becomes so much easier if we trust ourselves and the innate wisdom in our grief, and trust that we are strong enough to bear whatever comes.
Other than this, the greatest tool we have to help us grieve well is the power of ritual. You don't have to be a spiritual person to use ritual - it can be as spiritual or as secular as you want it to be.
Ritual is all about intention, and giving intention added power by making it physical and tangible. It’s also about creating a sacred container for the work of grieving, as a way of honoring that work as sacred and keeping it contained. This amplifies its effects, but in a safe way, by separating the grieving process from ordinary life.
This article is already too long to go into detail about how to use ritual in this way, but I will be writing about this topic soon. So if you’d like more guidance in how to do this, you can sign up for The Unlocked Heart’s email newsletter here, to be the first to hear about the article when it comes out.
May you be fully supported in your grief, so you can grieve your losses well.