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What is the Cycle of Grief?

The cycle of grief is a theory that describes how humans handle death and dying. Articulated by Swiss psychologist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the cycle of grief suggests five distinct stages that a person goes through when dealing with a traumatic loss or the prospect of a terminal illness. The theory is somewhat controversial, with some studies suggesting that not all people go through the same stages or in the same order.

According to Dr. Kubler-Ross's work, most of which is outlined in the seminal book, On Death and Dying, the first stage of dealing with a death or terminal illness is denial. People may have difficulty fitting the idea of imminent death or the passing of a loved one into their concept of reality; some may go so far as to believe the situation is actually not happening or can be fixed.

Following denial, grieving people may move into anger. Rage and bitterness at the unfairness of the situation both become evident. Unable to deny the reality of the situation any longer, focus is shifted to the injustice at hand. It becomes impossible to talk about the situation without feeling angry or enraged.

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The third step in the cycle of grief is called bargaining. Desperate to avoid the consequences of death, a person may try to make wild deals with a higher power to continue living or keep a loved one alive. Though it may seem to border on delusional, this is actually the beginning of the acceptance process. Generally, the bargainer is not trying to banish death indefinitely; instead, he or she generally asks for a few more years or a little more time.

Depression is the fourth stage or step, and may cause a grieving person to detach from the world or keep away from loved ones. This is a dangerous area, as feelings of incredible loss can drive normally quite happy people toward substance abuse, dangerous behavior, or even suicide. Depression marks the understanding of the certainty of death; knowing that there is no escape leads to feelings of being trapped, doomed, and hopeless.

The final stage of the cycle of grief is acceptance, where the dying person or grieving survivor makes the decision to cope and manage the situation. Once this stage is reached, a dying person may set about ensuring that affairs are in order as he or she prepares to die. Survivors may finally be able to manage their grief and start thinking about the future, rather than being consumed with the tragic present.

It is important to note that not everyone goes through the cycle of grief at the same speed, nor does everyone experience every stage. Terminally ill people may still be in the anger or even the denial stage when they pass away, while survivors may spend many years coping with the depression and hopelessness of a loss. Some people may experience aspects of several stages at once, while many go through an entirely different grieving process altogether. The cycle of grief is a theory that may apply to some, but lack of the symptoms of staging does not mean that someone is not grieving or did not love a recently deceased person.

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