The Psych Writer: Seven Stages of Grief

By popular demand (with only one detractor and over 50 votes total), and a burning desire to put my graduate studies to good use, I’ve decided to combine two things I love and am good at by starting something that may help other writers. I’m putting together a series called The Psych Writer.

This series will consist of different psychological problems and mental illnesses. I will explore them with some level of depth for the following purposes:

  • To give readers and writers a clearer understanding of the psychopathology behind particular mental illnesses and life problems.
  • To give writers who are writing from a therapist’s perspective a better understanding of how a trained therapist would work with such psychopathology.

Granted, you will want to take poetic license at some point to make your work fit your world. The purpose is not so that you write a counselor, therapist, or psychologist perfectly, but that you have a better understanding of how they’ve been trained. That way, you might avoid writing some cringe-worthy material for the in-the-know audience, and make it far more believable and less distracting when read.

This installment deals with the seven stages (or phases) of grief. It’s a brief overview, as I intend to go in-depth on each phase in the following seven installments of The Psych Writer.

Grief is not a mental illness unless it becomes complicated (and even then it’s not truly a mental disorder yet according to the DSM-V, but we’ll discuss that in a later installment), but it is considered a life problem that can interfere with functioning. This is normal and it happens to virtually everyone.

Because we’ll be exploring these seven stages in-depth, I will refrain from delving into the writer’s and therapist’s perspectives. For this installment, we’ll go over a quick outlook at the stages.

Bear in mind that these phases are put in order for the convenience of the therapist, and that real human beings do not experience these stages in a nice, neat manner. Instead, they may experience them in order, out of order, or concurrently. All of that is considered normal and expected.

Additionally, these seven phases do not belong solely in the realm of death of a loved one. They can mark any kind of loss or end of most anything. Divorce, loss of a limb, end of a relationship, etc.

Phase One: Shock/Disbelief
“I can’t believe s/he’s gone.” This is probably the most uttered expression of disbelief and is the most well-known. The person in bereavement often describes feeling numb or nothing. No tears come even though they want them to or believe they should. They are so in shock sometimes that they faint upon hearing the news of a loss. Some feel like they’re on automatic pilot. This stage may last a few days, or a few weeks.

Phase Two: Denial
This used to be a part of shock and disbelief, but therapists tend to agree denial is a phase all of its own. Denial mimics shock at times in its lack of feelings, but it goes deeper than the initial shock of the news. It’s a full setting aside of one’s emotions so that they can carry on, which sounds great, right? Except inside, there’s an ugly storm brewing. Getting stuck in this phase can lead to substance abuse and other types of self-harm. This phase can go so far as the person pretending their loved one isn’t dead. They want to pretend it never happened or that there was some reversible mistake and any moment now, their loved one or whatever was lost will walk through the door or spontaneously regenerate. More on that later.

Phase Three: Bargaining
Some people plead to have their loved one back, even when they know it’s not possible. It’s been 20 years since my father died, and there are moments when I still hit that bargaining phase (I’d give away all my possessions to hear his voice again, or some variation of that phrase). This is something a therapist will hear in many terminally ill patients, but it happens to almost everyone. They want their losses returned. They may pray or bargain with God if they believe in the concept. They may just engage in wishful thinking.

Phase Four: Guilt
This phase comes in a variety of forms. A person feels guilty because they didn’t spend enough time with a loved one. They feel guilty because they had to make an end-of-life decision on the person’s behalf, and they question it–what if it was a mistake? They beat themselves up over having to make the decision, even though it was likely the best choice given their ugly situation. They are wracked with guilt about so many things they may not be able to put their finger on it.

Phase Five: Anger
“How dare he leave me?” “I hate him for dying!” This phase is self-explanatory, almost (but not quite). A person in bereavement is often furious at the loss, at the person, or the entity. They get angry with themselves, the person who ’caused’ the loss, the loss itself, and lash out at everyone in their way. I’ve noticed that with job loss, this phase tends to come earlier for people than it does in the case of death of a loved one. But it’s still there, and it’s still potent.

Phase Six: Depression
Here come the tears. In this phase (again, these phases are fluid and not concrete in any manner), the person is often crying and sad about the situation. They sleep too much or have difficulty sleeping. They don’t eat, or they overeat. It is what most people ‘see’ as being grief. Often, laypeople don’t realize that depression isn’t the only phase of grief and think that this is the only expression of the bereavement process. It isn’t, of course, but it’s usually the one that’s considered the most acceptable, or at least expected (depending upon cultural relevance).

Phase Seven: Acceptance
Oh, how some people think this is a happy time. It isn’t. Oh sure, in the case of job loss when you accept it and start pounding the pavement looking for something new, it brings peace that enables you to move on, but with death and dying? NO. This is not a happy time in the slightest. Acceptance can bring peace with the fact that you’re going to die, a loved one is going to die, or they have died, but by no means is this a cause for celebration.

I had a friend who was dying over a short period of time due to a rapidly developing terminal illness. We were sitting together on one of her final days and I asked, “are  you ready to die?” She turned her big blue-green eyes to me and gave me a small smile. “Sure. I mean, it’s not like there’s anything good on TV.” That was one of the best expressions of acceptance I’d ever heard. But it wasn’t happy for either of us. Humorous, yes, but not happy. She accepted her fate and died about a week later. This, my loving readers, is acceptance.

While I can hardly believe I got through that entire post without a single swear word, I can’t promise that for future posts. I hope that this series will prove to be fruitful for you as the reader or the writer.

If you came here to read and are in need of assistance getting through grief, please click this link to find hotlines in the US and Canada, and click here for a list of international hotlines. You can also search for local hospices, as they have a number of grief counseling resources.


Anne Hogue-Boucher isn’t always a horrible person who writes horror stories, but it’s fun when she does. You can follow her for more fun and entertaining content on Twitter and Facebook. Also, don’t put pennies on train tracks. It’s a waste of pennies.

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