The 5 Chairs of Grief

“Should you shield the valleys from the windstorms, you would never see the beauty of their canyons.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

No matter where you live, how old you are, what color your skin is, or your career choice, you will experience loss and grief at some point in your life. It is universal. Maybe it will be from the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, or a life-altering change. In hopes that I can help someone out there, I wish to share what one of my friends is experiencing in relation to the stages of grief.

A dear friend of hers recently passed away. She was young; she had a husband who adored her, an active one year-old daughter, a lively dog, a new apartment, a flourishing photography business, and an entire life ahead of her. Though she had experienced some fairly serious health issues during her short time on earth, no one thought the common cold would be what would ultimately take her while she slept. Her death shook the community, her family, friends, and many loved ones. She is deeply, deeply missed. In dealing with her loss, my friend has had to confront the five stages of grief in a very real, very personal way. 

The five stages of grief was introduced by a Swiss-American psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She did research with terminally ill patients, and published a well-known book called On Death and Dying. Through her work, she identified five common stages of grief her patients all experienced–denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance: 

  1. Denial and isolation: This can’t be happening… Denial is a common defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss, and numbs your emotions. You hide from the facts. Denial is the brain’s way of making sure you do not get too high a dose of grief before you are ready. 
  2. Anger: Where is God in this…? Reality and its pain emerge. You likely do not feel ready. The intense emotions are deflected from your vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family, or even yourself.
  3. Bargaining: If only we had gotten medical attention sooner… This is the need to regain control through a series of “If only” statements. Guilt often accompanies bargaining. You start to believe there was something you could have done differently to have helped save your loved one. You spend time reviewing how different scenarios would have played out, but it does not change your reality.
  4. Depression: She won’t even get the chance to see her kids grow up…Once bargaining no longer feels like an option, you face reality and are hit squarely with an intense sadness. You withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering if there is any point in going on. When loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your entire life will be different is understandably depressing.
  5. Acceptance: This is my new reality and I need to learn to live with it… Reaching this stage of grieving is a gift not afforded to everyone. Although most people never stop missing their departed loved ones, the painful emotions they feel shortly after the death nearly always soften with time. This phase is marked by withdrawal and calm. It does not mean you are okay with the loss or that everything is “alright”; this stage is about accepting your new reality without your loved one. You learn to live with it. You accept that life has been forever changed and that you must readjust. You reorganize roles, re-assign them to others or take them on yourself. Finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones. 


The only issue with these stages–what my friend has had to re-learn and what I witness in clients–is that we perceive them to be linear steps. First, you deny it. Then you feel anger. After that you bargain, and so on and so forth until we magically “accept” the loss and all is well in the world. But what happens when you find that you seemed to have digressed back to the first so-called “step” and am in denial again? In her grieving process, she found that she was not progressing neatly from one step to the other. This has helped her see and remember, in a very personal way, that these steps are more like symptoms–they come and go, worsen and lessen with time. And that is okay! 

I like to think of these stages of grief as five chairs. Shortly after loss, you may sit for a solid hour in the denial chair. Then you may get up and move in any direction and sit for any amount of time. Maybe you move from the “denial” chair to sit in “acceptance,” but then you might go back to the denial one for a minute–or anger, or any of the other chairs.  You might feel like you have worked through the anger of losing someone or something valuable, and feel surprised to be feeling anger again. You might think, Wait, I thought I worked through anger. Why is it back all this time later? It is okay. You simply moved chairs. That is normal and you are healing just the way your soul needs to. In your bereavement, you will spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage with different levels of intensity. Contrary to popular belief, the five stages of loss do not necessarily occur in any specific order. You will likely play musical chairs and move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death. 

If you are experiencing grief, be gentle with yourself. Remember, grief is not a simple process with clean steps that you will complete before moving towards acceptance; rather it is often messy and tangled, with setbacks and delays. People who are grieving do not go through the stages in the same order and may not even experience all of them. So take your time; sit in whatever chair you need to as you work through your loss and know that it is just what you need. As always, please do not hesitate to contact me and schedule a session should you need additional assistance while coping with loss. 

Note: Kubler-Ross herself said that grief does not proceed in a linear and predictable fashion. She regretted that her stages had been misunderstood as steps. The five stages of grief were originally developed to explain what patients go through as they come to terms with their own terminal illnesses; only later were they applied to individuals grieving the loss of someone or something else.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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