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What is Grief? - Steps & Explanation

Instructor: Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Grief is defined as mental anguish due to losing something or someone and occurs in stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Learn about the causes of grief, its five stages, and some possible treatments for dealing with it. Updated: 02/03/2022

Grief and the Symptoms of Grieving

The experience of grief is known to everyone. Whether it is the loss of a favorite toy or pet as a child, or the diagnosis of a major illness or death of a spouse as an adult, grief is a group of emotions that we all understand. Grief is mental suffering due to a loss. The experience of grief often includes sorrow, regret and heartache, but grief is a different experience every time we feel it. The feelings involved in grief vary depending on what losses were suffered, how important they were to the individual, as well as the grievers' environments and what supports are available to them. Sadness, crying and anger are all normal reactions to grief, but so is laughter and reminiscing.

The Stage Theory of Grief

In 1969, a psychiatrist by the name of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross published her book On Death and Dying. At the time of publication, her book was an innovative work. Kübler-Ross developed the five stages of grief, more formally known as the Kübler-Ross model. Originally the model was developed from, and for, terminally ill patients that she saw in her medical practice.

The five stages of grief are now widely recognized as a way of understanding how we deal with any loss. Kübler-Ross's stages of grief are not a set of rules. Not everyone goes through each stage of grief and they may be experienced in any order. People may return to certain stages many times during the grieving process.


The stage of denial is often the first stage of grief. It is a refusal to accept the fact of the loss and is often coupled with shock. Someone in this stage of grief may say things like 'This can't be happening,' or 'I don't believe it.'


Anger during grieving is very common. Anger can be directed towards friends, family, doctors, God, or the world in general. Someone who is grieving can also be angry at themselves, or find someone or something to blame for the loss. During the anger stage people often ask 'Why did this happen?' or 'How could this have occurred?'


Loss is hard to face, and when grieving it is not uncommon to try to bargain with a higher power to try to regain what was lost. It is common for people in this stage to say things like 'If only…' and trying to offer solutions to reverse the loss. 'Please let Angela be okay! I promise I'll never drink again!'


Depression is a normal stage of grief and experiencing depression after a major loss is appropriate. This stage happens when the griever begins to understand that the loss is real. This return to reality brings deep sadness and often withdrawal from life.


The stage of acceptance is often confused with 'being okay' with what has happened. This is not necessarily the case; people who have lost a loved one may never be okay with their absence. However, they will come to a stage of acceptance of what has happened and continue with their lives in a new way.

Causes of Grief

Just like the experience of grief itself, the causes of grief can vary widely. Grief can be caused by any significant loss in life. The loss of anyone or anything that is very important in someone's life can cause grief. Here are but a few of the more common reasons for grief:

  • Miscarriage or death of a child
  • Death of a spouse, parent or sibling
  • Loss of personal health
  • Serious illness of a loved one
  • Divorce or relationship breakup
  • Losing a job or loss of financial stability
  • Retirement
  • Death of a pet
  • Loss of a life goal or dream
  • Loss of a friend or friendship
  • Loss of safety after a trauma
  • Selling the family home
  • Children leaving home
  • Legal troubles or incarceration

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