7 Stages of Grief and the Separation Process

Aug 12, 2021
an image of a couple sitting in their living room processing the 7 stages of grief

You may be familiar with the 7 stages of grief, having learned about them and experienced them yourself. As humans, it is probable that most of us will experience the grieving process at multiple stages throughout out life.

Grief is an overwhelming experience. It is messy, destabilizing, and can be paralyzing. It can grip us when we least expect it or haunt us when we do. From sudden death to a brutal sickness to any other difficult emotional changes, significant loss comes with a slew of challenging emotions.

It’s incredibly painful and sometimes we can feel frightened by the enormity of our grief responses. We may withdraw, isolate ourselves, become angry, cry, be numb, or be distressed. We may feel that we have a lack of coping strategies. It can be terrifying, and grief of a loss can also mean facing the scary prospect of a new life at the other end of the grieving process.

The 7 stages of grief can occur for grief whether big or small. Regardless, this grief has an impact on our mental health. Some people will experience the 7 stages of grief in rapid fire and find it relatively easy to find their equilibrium afterwards. Others may have a longer and more challenging healing process. This is dependent on the mental health of the individual, and the specifics of their grief circumstance.

Some people experience grief in deeply traumatic ways. The diagnostic and statistical manual even has an official diagnosis called 'prolonged grief disorder' that describes intense and persistent complicated grief.

History of the 7 Stages of Grief

an image of a man reading a book in his room

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published a seminal book called "On Death and Dying," drawing on her work with terminally ill patients. She outlined 5 Stages of Grief, which were – 

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

These five stages from her grief model have been revised and have been updated to seven grief stages. They are typically not linear, yet they are shown as discrete stages to highlight the grieving process.

The 7 Stages of the Grief Process

Stage 1 – Shock & Denial

an image of a woman walking upstairs

As the news of the separation feels so painful and overwhelming, we often react to the news with numbed shock, numbed disbelief, and even denial. These responses are coping mechanisms as the news is too sad, frightening, anxiety-provoking and confusing. Examples include – “Jasmine just needs a few days; she will change her mind soon and come home.”

The denial stage comes as our mind struggles to grapple with the onslaught of new information, as the sudden shock leaves many feeling overwhelmed.

Stage 2 – Pain & Guilt

When the shock and denial start to subside, the immense pain floods in. We do not appreciate this and often want to run away from our distress and despair. We may turn to an unhelpful coping mechanism or two when emotions feel overwhelming. These include alcohol, drugs, overeating, controlling food, over-exercising, excessive spending, indiscriminate sex, or gambling. Guilt and remorse may fill our minds. For example, “How did I not see how sad he was?”

Stage 3 – Anger & Bargaining

As our pain is huge, we may mask it with anger and resentment as we struggle to seek reason in the experience. We may lash out at others, throw things, send threatening messages to our ex-partner, or get a nasty lawyer.

In the bargaining stage we need to be careful with our anger and become responsible for our actions. It is always okay to feel anger but can be incredibly dangerous when it is addressed at others and used as a way of avoiding our own feelings of grief.

Bargaining is a form of denial as the sadness and distress is too immense. We don’t like our reality and use “what if…” and “if only” statements to get our life back together. For example, “If only I lose some weight, she will find me attractive again.” At this stage of grief, you may feel guilty, and bargain with your own internal feelings of guilt as well as directing your anger and bargaining towards the external world.

Stage 4 – Depression

This stage occurs when we understand that our separation is final, and there is nothing we can do to alter this. This is a quieter stage. We may feel defeated and exhausted. This stage of grief may make the grief feel everlasting and may be accompanied by depressive symptoms.

It is normal to experience feelings such as these at this time. We forget that this time will pass and may have some or many suicidal thoughts. Examples include, “What’s the point?” or “I can’t do this on my own”.

This is our time up our supports to deal with the difficult feelings and emotions. Consider seeking help from a therapist, support groups, professional resources and potentially a psychiatrist.

Stage 5 – The Upward Turn

The upward turn brings some relief from the sadness, fear, and anxiety. We may be able to focus again and want to reconnect with friends. Examples include, “It’s been a turbulent ride, but I feel I’m getting off the rollercoaster!” or “I can be more present again.”

The upward turn stage of grief is a hopeful one and can come as an immense relief for many who feel like their grief is an unrelenting black hole. The physical symptoms lessen alongside this mental lifting for many.

Stage 6 – Reconstruction & Working Through

In this stage, we feel we have more self-direction. We are more alive in ourselves, and more capable practically, financially, and mentally. You may begin to feel more equipped to feal with your emotions as they arise. Examples of things someone might the say during the reconstruction stage include, “I will make sure I really know someone before I commit again” or “I did not know how much my childhood experiences impacted my marriage.”

It is at this stage that many will feel like they are beginning to regain control in their life and develop stronger coping strategies.

Stage 7 – Acceptance & Hope

In this final stage of the seven stages of grief, we accept the reality of the grief and have made meaning of it. In the acceptance phase we may still feel some sadness and anxiety (these feelings and emotions don't entirely go away), but it is not consuming. Examples include, “Karl needed more intimacy than I was able to provide.” Our future feels more hopeful, and we are ready to plan events and experiences again.

The Emotional Toll of Grief

an image of a man in a dark room

These stages are emotionally taxing. To heal from the separation, we need to look after our wellbeing.

We need to prioritize our self-care and make sure we have a healthy support team. This can include:

  • Wise friends and family members (not people who love drama)

  • Online groups

  • A therapist

  • In-person support groups

  • Religious leader

It is also a great time to learn about ourselves and the separation process from:

  • Books

  • Online courses

  • Podcasts

  • Online platforms

Prioritizing your wellbeing is essential during a grief experience, even if it feels challenging. Grief takes an emotional toll on the mind and body, and this can greatly reduce your personal capacities. Be extra kind to yourself during times of grief.

The 7 Stages of Grief in Action

Let's look at a case study to see how the stages of grief can play out in real life, with the examples of Natasha and Elliott.


an image of a couple in an open field

Meet Natasha, a vibrant and compassionate woman.

Natasha's life took an unexpected turn when her long-term relationship ended abruptly, leaving her questioning how such a significant connection could unravel (shock and denial).

In the days that followed, Natasha grappled with the reality of being single again. She replayed moments in her mind, wondering if there was something she could have done differently to salvage the relationship. Sleepless nights became a routine, creating a heavy emotional burden (pain and guilt).

As time passed, Natasha felt a surge of anger towards her ex-partner and the circumstances that led to the breakup. She found herself bargaining, contemplating if there was a way to mend what was broken (anger and bargaining).

The weight of the situation pressed down on her, and her sadness felt unshakeable (depression). She felt unmotivated to get out of bed and scrolled many a day away on her phone. It wasn't just about the end of the relationship; it was about the uncertainty of the future and the fear of navigating life without the companionship she had grown accustomed to.

Gradually, Natasha began to recognize that life had changed, and instead of resisting, she started to adapt. Seeking support from friends and family, Natasha revaluated her priorities and rediscovered her individual identity (the upward turn). Small victories like reconnecting with old friends became steppingstones toward healing.

Over the coming weeks, Natasha engaged in activities that nurtured self-growth. She explored new interests, attended therapy sessions, and found solace in the company of loved ones (reconstruction and working through).

Natasha started to view the breakup as an opportunity for personal growth, a chance to align her life with her own aspirations. She was now contemplating new possibilities for her future beyond the relationship (acceptance and hope).


Meet Elliott, a vibrant and creative man. People describe Elliott as someone who navigates life with an infectious energy and deep kindness.

Elliott suffered an immense shock when he lost his job. For Elliott, his job that was not just a means to an end but a significant part of his identity. "How could this happen to me?" he questioned, trying to make sense of the sudden change (shock and denial).

As days turned into weeks, the reality of unemployment began to sink in. His thoughts whirred through his mind, leaving him restless (pain and guilt).

With time, Elliott found himself resenting the circumstances, pointing fingers at the company, the economy, and even at himself (anger and bargaining). Elliott wondered why it was him and not his other co-workers who had suffered this fate.

As time went on and he remained jobless, a pervasive sadness settled in (depression). It was difficult to face the world without the familiar comfort of a work routine to fill the days.

Over time, Elliott started to recognize that life had changed, and rather than resisting, he began to adapt. Seeking support from friends and family, Elliott started to rethink his life and career direction (the upward turn). Small victories, like updating his resume became steppingstones toward a new chapter. His feelings became more manageable.

Over the coming weeks this feeling only grew. He found hobbies to fill his time, like drawing and jogging. The process of reconstructing his life brought a sense of purpose (reconstruction and working through). He stood at the threshold of a new beginning and was even considering using the time between jobs to do some travel (acceptance and hope).

Sometimes the 7 Stages of Grief are NOT Linear

A couple standing away from each other

It is important to remember that the grief process is not linear. You don't necessarily pass through each stage of grief and seamlessly move on to the next one.

Everyone experiences grief differently — normal grief does not have a specific style, duration or nature. Some people spend extended periods in one stage of grief, whilst others will cycle through the various stages repeatedly, experiencing all the different feelings in many different orders. Some people will experience all the stages, whilst others will not spend any time in some of them. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to experience grief and emotional pain.

Relationship Grief

an image of a woman looking at some photographs in her room

For many of us, the grief surrounding the end of our committed relationship is like the grief following the death of a loved one. It takes time and space to process and recover from a separation.

Unlike an actual death, no one will really grieve with us. They may feel sad about our separation, yet ours is a lonely grief. There is no funeral or gravesite, no body or ashes, no religious service or wake. It’s just over — the death of our relationship.

When people experience relationship grief, they often invalidate their own feelings of grief, comparing their struggles to those of someone with a terminal illness or another 'genuine hardship,' and then using this comparison to downplay their own struggles. It is so important to remember that grief can occur due to a range of experiences, regardless of whether there are others with bigger struggles. It is a natural process to experience in response to change and loss. Give yourself the space for this grief to exist.

You don't need to be alone in your grieving process.

A portrait of a smiling woman

Remember, prolonged grief is normal, particularly after a deeply traumatic incident or loss. Grief makes you feel alone, and sometimes this can be incredibly difficult to handle. Grief symptoms can be debilitating, as you are experiencing all the emotions (or even total numbness) whilst the rest of the world and life rolls onwards. A grieving person may feel disconnected, overwhelmed and left behind.

If you are experiencing grief that is impacting your life, it is encouraged to reach out to a mental health professional for some professional help.

Whilst there is no instant happiness pill to take to speed up the grieving process, a professional can help you to look at things differently, validate your experiences and help you with moving forward once you are ready to take that step. Their helpful resources can support you through the 7 stages of grief and any associated feelings. There are also support groups and online resources that can be used as another tool in your grief arsenal.

This is also a time to reach out to a family member or trusted friend to share your experiences and ask for extra support where needed.

The seven stages of grief are hard - they are confronting, and they can be life altering. It is okay to struggle with these feelings and emotions during your healing process.

It is so important to hold onto a glimmer of the bigger picture, even in the darkest moments. There are people around you and there is a life beyond the grief, even if at times this can feel like an impossibility.

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