A more complete treatment of the subject is found here.

Adjusting to a loss or misfortune is called grieving.  This is a natural process of healing, just as our physical body recovers from an infection or mends a broken bone.  Unfortunately however, many of us fight the benefits of grief with an air of artificial toughness and feigned resilience.  Many see grief as a sign of weakness or helplessness, no matter how temporary, which circumvents this important emotional healing process.  The psychological scars that remain affect us thereafter, especially in relationships.

There is no set course for grieving.  There is no fixed timeline for grieving.  There is no prescribed method of grieving.  However, recognized experts who have studied this important area have charted the natural grief process and explained the fundamentals involved.  The most recognized of these is from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, outlined below.  John Bowlby and Colin Parkes were the first to suggest a multi-stage mode of grief (Shock-Numbness; Yearning/Searching; Disorganization; Reorganization), incorporating physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual elements.  J.W. Worden has focused on children’s loss and grieving (e.g., loss of a parent), conceptualizing the tasks to be accomplished for the child’s eventual recovery.  My own conception of the grieving process ends this section.


The most famous of these experts is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who offered the 5-step sequence of overlapping stages shown below.  In my experience, this is merely a rough sketch of grieving rather than a tidy map of the process, since people vary considerably in how they handle a loss or traumatic event.  It is nonetheless quite useful, since it helps us understand that the thoughts and feelings we experience are natural, normal and expected. 

  • Stage One: DENIAL  When the news first breaks (i.e., you are in a serious accident, you are told of your job loss, you learn of a loved one’s death), it is typical to have a least a momentary “this can’t be happening” moment.  Sometimes this stretches into a longer period of time, mostly depending on the circumstances and amount of solid information you have. 
  • Stage Two: ANGER  As reality is absorbed, many people find wanting to blame someone or something for the tragedy or trauma.  It might be the driver of the car that hit you, the employer or boss who fired you, the inept doctor or hospital, or God or life itself.  Not all people experience this, but it’s wise to keep this irritability from spilling over to family or friends when it is felt.
  • Stage Three: BARGAINING  This phase -- not experienced by everyone or in every situation -- is a mental effort to reshape the trauma into something a little more acceptable.  One might ‘bargain’ with God that you’ll be able to walk again someday or won’t have to lose your arm to amputation.  A newly unemployed person might adopt a “but this is only temporary; they’ll be rehiring soon” mindset.
  • Stage Four: DEPRESSION When it becomes obvious that the loss or misfortune is real, there is typically a time of emotionally disconnecting and retreating inside ones’ self.  The individual looks and feels sad, may brood, cry, or seek isolation time.  This is a critical stage in grieving, and can be dangerous as well (suicidal thoughts? prolonged depression? excessive drinking?).  This makes it difficult for friends and family, who need to be caring and supportive while avoiding the “hey, cheer up buddy, don’t be down” rescue.
  • Stage Five: ACCEPTANCE  This is the recovery segment of grieving.  It begins sometime during the depression phase, and slowly evolves into an increasingly stable sense of “I can do this...I can get on with my life”.  The leg may be gone, but life goes on now in a different, but acceptable way.  The job may be history, but there are other opportunities our there and it’s time to polish the resume and get some interviews.

A Visual Model of Grief

While I’m by no means a grief expert or researcher of the Kubler-Ross caliber, my experience with clients has led me to believe that a visual concept of grieving is perhaps more useful than a language-based explanation alone.  When one’s world is rocked by a catastrophe, it is a confusing time of great disequilibrium, and describing stages of grief may not penetrate sufficiently.  I offer this depiction, using the term “misfortune” to stand for loss, tragedy, upheaval, or whatever triggers the grieving process.

My World 1
Right Arrow

Your Life, before the misfortune (no, it’s not all smooth and organized, it’s just a normal everyday life)

Then it happens...


Crisis Cloud

Your Life, after the misfortune (some pieces you took for granted are now in disarray and confusion)

Grieving Process
My World Upset

Your Life, during the grieving (notice your life doesn’t reassemble into the same pre-misfortune shape you were used to: some changes are permanent)

My World Recovering 2

Your New Life, thanks to grieving (some new dimensions, new fears, new hopes, new insights, new coping skills...your New Life)

Life is change.

We may look the same on the outside, but time and fortune continually reshape us inside.   We become more accepting of what we cannot control, and more aware of our capabilities to handle what we can.  We learn.  We grow.

Richard Boersma signature
My World 2