Loss, Grief, and Bereavement (cont.)

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

What are the signs, symptoms, and stages of grief?

Perhaps the most well-known model for understanding grief was developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, in her 1969 book titled On Death and Dying. The five stages of the grief cycle that she outlined are

  • denial,
  • anger,
  • bargaining,
  • depression,
  • acceptance.

These stages also apply to the stages of dying, the grief associated with one's own death. She described the stage of denial as the bereaved having difficulty believing what has happened, the anger phase as the survivor questioning the fairness of the loss, the bargaining stage as wishing to make a deal with fate to gain more time with the one who was lost, the depression stage as the period when the bereaved person gets in touch with how very sad they are about losing their loved one, and acceptance as feeling some resolution to their grief and more ability to go on with their own life.

Kübler-Ross apparently felt these phases can be applied to any significant personal loss (for example, of a job, relationship, one's own health, anticipating one's own death), as well as the death of a loved one. It also seems that she believed these stages don't all have to occur, can take place in different order, and can reoccur many times as part of an individual's specific grief process. Other grief experts describe seven stages of grieving, specifically

  • shock or disbelief,
  • denial,
  • bargaining,
  • guilt,
  • anger,
  • depression,
  • acceptance/hope.

The shock or disbelief stage is understood as the numbness often associated with initially receiving the news of the death of a loved one. The guilt stage of grief refers to feelings of regret about difficult aspects of the relationship with the deceased.

In addition to the emotional pain already discussed, symptoms of grief can be physical, social, cultural, or religious in nature. Physical symptoms can range from mild sleep or appetite problems to heart attack. Social symptoms of bereavement include isolation from other loved ones and difficulty functioning at home, school, and/or at work.

For children and adolescents, reactions to the death of a parent or other loved one tend to be consistent with their reaction to any severe stress. Such reactions usually reflect the particular developmental stage of the child or adolescent. For example, since infants up to about 2 years of age cannot yet talk, their reaction to the loss of a loved one tends to involve crying and being more irritable. They further show physical symptoms of sleep or appetite problems, changes in activity level, and being more watchful of (vigilant toward) their surroundings.

Since preschoolers from 3 to 5 years of age begin to be able to remember the one who died but have not yet developed the ability to understand the permanence of death, they may believe they somehow magically caused the death and can make the person come back. In addition to showing signs of grief that are similar to infants, they may have more difficulty separating from caregivers.

Early school-aged children, from 6 to 8 years of age, more likely understand that death is permanent compared to younger children, often feel guilt about the death of the loved one, become preoccupied with memories about the departed, and try to master the loss they have suffered by talking about it frequently. While symptoms of grief in school-aged children from 9 to 11 years of age are quite similar to those of early school-aged children, this older group is more vulnerable to a decrease in self-esteem because they feel different from their peers if they have experienced the loss of a loved one. They are also more prone to defend against their feelings of loss by becoming engrossed in school, social, and/or extracurricular activities.

In keeping with their budding need for independence, young adolescents 12 to 14 years of age may experience mixed feelings about the deceased individual and exhibit a wide range of emotions. They may avoid talking about the loss. Older teens usually experience grief similarly to adults, enduring sadness, anxiety, and anger. They tend to deny their feelings of loss to parents but discuss them in detail with peers. For children, adolescents, and adults, as with any major stress, grief may cause a person to regress emotionally, in that they go back to former, often less mature ways of thinking, behaving, and coping.

Symptoms of complicated grief include intense emotion and longings for the deceased, severely intrusive thoughts about the lost loved one, extreme feelings of isolation and emptiness, avoiding doing things that bring back memories of the departed, new or worsened sleeping problems, and having no interest in activities that the sufferer used to enjoy. Teens tend to react to the loss of a loved one that died through suicide similarly to the ways in which adults experience complicated grief.

Regardless of age, individuals who lose a loved one from suicide are more at risk for becoming preoccupied with the reason for the suicide while wanting to deny or hide the cause of death, wondering if they could have prevented it, feeling blamed for the problems that preceded the suicide, feeling rejected by their loved one, and stigmatized by others.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/23/2012

Patient Comments

Viewers share their comments

Loss, Grief, and Bereavement - Experience Question: What helped you through your loss, grief, and bereavement?