Stages of Loss

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain Kübler-Ross’ stages of loss
  • List and describe the stages of grief based on various models

The complex construct of death is associated with a variety of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, that vary between individuals and groups. To some, death is the final end, when the body ceases to function, with nothing occurring next. To others, death is the start of a new journey, and is its own beginning. These varying viewpoints are shaped by numerous factors related to culture, religion, social norms, personal experiences, and more. It is no surprise then that multiple theories have been created to understand the occurrence of death on cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels; each offering different explanations for what individuals go through during death.

Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Loss

Man laying on a bad in hospice care, holding someone's hand, and close to death.

Figure 1. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross developed her theory of grief based on work with those facing their own death, but the theory has been broadly applied to anyone dealing with grief or loss. According to Kübler-Ross, the five stages of loss  are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Kübler-Ross (1965) described five stages of loss experienced by someone who faces the news of their impending death (based on her work and interviews with terminally ill patients). These “stages” are not really stages that a person goes through in order or only once; nor are they stages that occur with the same intensity. Indeed, the process of death is influenced by a person’s life experiences, the timing of their death in relation to life events, the predictability of their death based on health or illness, their belief system, and their assessment of the quality of their own life. Nevertheless, these stages provide a framework to help us to understand and recognize some of what a dying person experiences psychologically. And by understanding, we are more equipped to support that person as they die.[1]

Denial is often the first reaction to overwhelming, unimaginable news. Denial, or disbelief or shock, protects us by allowing such news to enter slowly and to give us time to come to grips with what is taking place. The person who receives positive test results for life-threatening conditions may question the results, seek second opinions, or may simply feel a sense of disbelief psychologically even though they know that the results are true.

Anger also provides us with protection in that being angry energizes us to fight against something and gives structure to a situation that may be thrusting us into the unknown. It is much easier to be angry than to be sad or in pain or depressed. It helps us to temporarily believe that we have a sense of control over our future and to feel that we have at least expressed our rage about how unfair life can be. Anger can be focused on a person, a health care provider, at God, or at the world in general. And it can be expressed over issues that have nothing to do with our death; consequently, being in this stage of loss is not always obvious.

Bargaining involves trying to think of what could be done to turn the situation around. Living better, devoting self to a cause, being a better friend, parent, or spouse, are all agreements one might willingly commit to if doing so would lengthen life. Asking to just live long enough to witness a family event or finish a task are examples of bargaining.

Depression is sadness and sadness is appropriate for such an event. Feeling the full weight of loss, crying, and losing interest in the outside world is an important part of the process of dying. This depression makes others feel very uncomfortable and family members may try to console their loved one. Sometimes hospice care may include the use of antidepressants to reduce depression during this stage.

Acceptance involves learning how to carry on and to incorporate this aspect of the life span into daily existence. Reaching acceptance does not in any way imply that people who are dying are happy about it or content with it. It means that they are facing it and continuing to make arrangements and to say what they wish to say to others. Some terminally ill people find that they live life more fully than ever before after they come to this stage.

In some ways, these five stages serve as cognitive defense mechanisms, allowing the individual to make sense of the situation while coming to terms with what is happening. They are, in other words, the mind’s way of gradually recognizing the implications of one’s impending death and giving him or her the chance to process it. These stages provide a type of framework in which dying is experienced, although it is not exactly the same for every individual in every case.

Since Kübler-Ross presented these stages of loss, several other models have been developed. These subsequent models, in many ways, build on that of Kübler-Ross, offering expanded views of how individuals process loss and grief. While Kübler-Ross’ model was restricted to dying individuals, subsequent theories tended to focus on loss as a more general construct. This ultimately suggests that facing one’s own death is just one example of the grief and loss that human beings can experience, and that other loss or grief-related situations tend to be processed in a similar way.

Watch it

Watch the first six minutes of this video to learn more about how the Kübler-Ross model evolved since its inception. The latter half of the video focuses on several other models that focus on how people can deal with the loss of loved one, or with grief in general. While the Kübler-Ross model remains important and useful today, it is does not fit everyone’s experience with grief, and research continues today to understand how people cope with grief.

You can view the transcript for “The Truth About the Five Stages of Grief” here (opens in new window).

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Other Models on Grief

One such model was presented by Worden (1991), which explained the process of grief through a set of four different tasks that the individual must complete in order to resolve the grief. These tasks included: (a) accepting that the loss has occurred, (b) working through and experiencing the pain associated with grief, (c) adjusting the changes that the loss created in the environment, and (d) moving past the loss on an emotional level.[2]

Another model is that of Parkes (1998), which broke down grief into four stages, including: (a) shock, (b) yearning, (c) despair, and (d) recovery. Although comprised of somewhat different stages than those of Kübler-Ross’ model, Parkes’ stages still reflected an ongoing process that the individual goes through, each of which was characterized by different thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Throughout this process, the individual gradually moves closer to accepting the situation, and being able to continue with his or her daily life to the greatest extent possible.[3]

A different approach was proposed by Strobe and Shut (1999), which suggested that individuals cope with grief through an ongoing set of processes related to both loss and restoration. The loss-oriented processes included: (a) grief work, (b) intrusion on grief, (c) denying or avoiding changes toward restoration, and (d) the breaking of bonds or ties. The restoration-oriented processes included: (a) attending to life changes, (b) distracting oneself from grief, (c) doing new things, and (d) establishing new roles, identities, and relationships. Since each individual experiences grief and loss differently, in light of personal, cultural, and environmental factors, these processes often occur simultaneously, and not in a set order.[4]

Link to Learning

Visit “Grief Reactions Over the Life Span” from the American Counseling Association to consider how various age groups deal with the death of a loved one.

We no longer think that there is a “right way” to experience grief and loss. People move through a variety of stages with different frequency and in different ways. The theories that have been developed to help explain and understand this complex process have shifted over time to encompass a wider variety of situations, as well as to present implications for helping and supporting the individual(s) who are going through it. The following strategies have been identified as effective in the support of healthy grieving:[5].

  • Talk about the death. This will help the surviving individuals understand what happened and remember the deceased in a positive way. When coping with death, it can be easy to get wrapped up in denial, which can lead to isolation and lack of a solid support system.
  • Accept the multitude of feelings. The death of a loved one can, and almost always does, trigger numerous emotions. It is normal for sadness, frustration, and in some cases exhaustion to be experienced.
  • Take care of yourself and your family. Remembering to keep one’s own health and the health of their family a priority can help with moving through each day effectively. Making an conscious effort to eat well, exercise regularly, and obtain adequate rest is important.
  • Reach out and help others dealing with the loss. It has long been recognized that helping others can enhance one’s own mood and general mental state. Helping others as they cope with the loss can have this effect, as can sharing stories of the deceased.
  • Remember and celebrate the lives of your loved ones. This can be a great way to honor the relationship that was once had with the deceased. Possibilities can include donating to a charity that the deceased supported, framing photos of fun experiences with the deceased, planting a tree or garden in memory of the deceased, or anything else that feels right for the particular situation.

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  1. Kübler-Ross, E. (1975). Death: The final stage of growth. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  2. Buglass, E. (2010). Grief and bereavement theories. Nursing Standard, 24(41), 44-47.
  3. Buglass, E. (2010). Grief and bereavement theories. Nursing Standard, 24(41), 44-47.
  4. Buglass, E. (2010). Grief and bereavement theories. Nursing Standard, 24(41), 44-47.
  5. American Psychological Association. (2019). Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/grief.