The Three Stages of Grief

An Overview

By Nancy Weitzman (QCC, 2003)

Based on work by Dr. Roberta Temes, Living With an Empty Chair.


There are three stages of grief that are experienced by the ones left behind.  As explained by Dr. Roberta Temes and Geoffrey Gorer, these stages include many emotions that occur in stages.   Each stage needs to be felt and lived through in order to successfully proceed to the next stage.  Numbness, Disorganization and Reorganization are these stages. 


In the midst of the grief journey, we sometimes feel there is no ending to the pain of loss. There is no formalized way to sever the relationship you have maintained with the deceased.  What are you to do with the emotional investment of a lifetime?  The body may be buried, but the emotions of those who love the deceased continue to survive.  The journey through grief can be different for everyone, we all follow our own path.  However, there are some similar places we all need to tread to get through the grief and resume a normal and healthy life.


Grief is not a disease.  There is no magic pill to achieve a quick cure.  Grief is the term used to describe the psychological and physiological reactions happening now in your mind and in your body.  It is a long agonizing process, but it does have an end.”  There are three stages of grief that are experienced by the ones left behind.  As explained by Dr. Roberta Temes and Geoffrey Gorer, these stages include many emotions that occur in stages.   Each stage needs to be felt and lived through in order to successfully proceed to the next stage and each stage must be gone through in its entirety before you can feel “back to normal”.   Numbness, Disorganization and Reorganization are these stages and they bring about emotional, physical and behavioral changes in all of us.


Numbness is the first stage of bereavement and it begins at the moment death occurs and continues for several months.  In this stage you are in shock and not ready to deal with all of your powerful feelings.  You exist much like a robot going through the motions of life and attending to necessary business surrounding the death, funeral, burial, financial settlements.  You are sort of on automatic-pilot.  You are living just not reacting.  This stage is your mind’s way of protecting you from the full reality and finality of the death you must face.

During this early stage, aside from genuine sorrow, a feeling of fleeting anger toward the deceased may surface.  Immediately guilt takes over and neutralizes that anger; however, don’t be surprised if this anger surfaces again during the next phase of the grief process.


Disorganization is the middle phase of grief and it begins as soon as the numbness starts to wear off.  You enter this phase looking for your friends and ready to share some of your intimate feelings about yourself and the death.  There is acute loneliness and emptiness felt for that you have lost.  Universal symptoms experienced during this time include a tightness in the throat, shortness of breath, the need to sigh often and constant fatigue.  You may feel difficulty to concentrate and anxiety and panic are your constant companions.  The pain of loneliness is always present.  


Gradually, as reality intrudes into your life and your thoughts, you start the adjusting process and begin to handle some new responsibilities that may have been the obligation of the one you lost.  These new responsibilities are a reminder of what you have lost.  You may feel comforted to keep a personal effect or object belonging to your loved one with you.  Maybe you wear his watch or sleep in his tee shirt to keep a feeling of closeness or to feel that your loved one is still with you. 


The behaviors described in this middle stage of Disorganization are all quite normal and are a part of the grieving process.  During this time, the protection of numbness you developed in the first stage of grieving has diminished.  You may start to feel resentful and sorry for yourself.   Sorrow is a fundamental part of grief work and it is necessary for you to feel sorry for yourself and your predicament.  Other emotions will start to surface as well.  Anger, shame, guilt and fear.  Feelings of anger may occur frequently and for great length.  Your anger should be experienced – even rage is appropriate.  Don’t hide from your anger, if you don’t allow yourself to feel it now, you will surely feel it later and it will be even more difficult to tackle at a later time.  You may experience some guilt, particularly if the death came at the end of a long illness.  You may feel relieved of the burden of caregiver and now may feel guilt or shame about those feelings.  Remember, the death did not occur because of you, your thoughts or feelings.  It occurred in spite of it…. anger and guilt cannot kill.  It is vital to your recovery that you resolve these strong emotions.


As you proceed through Stage Two of Disorganization, attempt to acknowledge all the positive and the negative things you can about your loved one.  There may even be moments in time when you forget the person is gone, you may think you hear them working around the house and call for them or think they will answer the doorbell or telephone when it is ringing.  It is okay and this is also a part of the normal flow of emotions, thoughts and feelings experienced in grief work. 


It is most important to let the middle stage of grief run its course.  Do your grief work and try to interact with friends and family as much as you are able.  Even though you feel terrible, it is healthy for you to feel that way now.  It is important to know that at this time you should not make any life-altering decisions – don’t move, don’t buy or sell anything of great value.  Try to put off any big decisions until a year or two has passed and you have gotten through much of your grief work.  Books have been written by grief survivors – widows and widowers – describing their experience in dealing with life during this difficult period. 


Recovery from grief will happen most quickly and successfully if you allow yourself to feel everything you feel and not repress your fears, your panic or any of your emotions.  Self-acceptance of your craziness and insecurities is just temporary and if you can acknowledge its temporary presence in your life, it too shall pass.  Dr. Temes warns, “The effects of unresolved grief can be serious and will prevent healing from taking place.  Unresolved grief will turn into delayed grief.  The absence of mourning symptoms is a warning signal.  Denial is an unconscious psychological defense and everyone uses some denial during his or her lifetime.  Denial acts like an aspirin, the ache is still there, but you do not experience it.  When you use denial, danger is not overwhelming and reality is not painful. You cannot escape from your thoughts or your feelings, however, and they will stay with you until you work them through and release them.  The effects of delayed grief can manifest into inappropriate grief reactions years later and it is likely that the person will not know what is happening to them.  It is at that time that the delayed mourning process can begin.”


Some individuals think they must always be strong and in control.  Should you fall into this category of personality type, understand that in the grief situation it is actually a sign of strength to express your emotions.  It is essential that emotions be released.  Should your emotions not be released through words and fears, they will find expression in other ways. Sometimes serious illness can occur when the emotions and fears are not expressed.


Dr. Temes advises, “As you proceed through the stages of your grief work, you will become increasingly liberated from the agony of your recent experience with death.  Ultimately, the dual goals of the mourning process will be realized.  These goals are (1) to complete the emotional relationship with the deceased and (2) refocus your life’s energies toward the future.”  In psychoanalytic terms this process is called de-cathexis.  Cathexis is the emotional or mental energy used in concentrating on an object or a person, or the emotional value we develop and place on someone.  In order to refocus your life’s energies toward the future, you need displace some of that emotion onto other people and things in your life.  Keep in mind this process cannot be rushed, it takes time.


As your old self returns, you will learn that you can trust yourself once more.  In facing what has happened you can find a way to bless your future by remembering the blessings you had because of what was shared with the one you lost.  All of the good things past can become better things in your future when you learn to cherish them and grow from them and pass them on to all those who affect our lives.


In Henry Ford’s writings on his perspective on life and death he writes, “Life is a series of experiences, each one of them makes us bigger, even though it is hard to realize this.  For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and griefs which we endure help us in our marching onward.”


Reorganization is the last of the three stages of grief.  Somewhere during the first and second anniversary of the death, this stage will emerge.  Gradually you will weep less and more of your daily focus will be on a healthy routine of work and activities, rather than constant talk of the deceased.  You will start to go through a morning or afternoon during which time your mind does not automatically go to thoughts of the deceased.  You start to feel comfortable with the security you can provide for yourself and you know that you do have a future to look forward to.


During all three stages your friends and family were greatly needed to guide you through the pain and suffering.  In stage one, assistance with chores and daily routines.  In stage two, your friends and family listened non-stop to your repeated stories about the life and death of the deceased and in stage three, your friends and family can encourage you to take steps into developing an interesting life and a future.


With a good support system in place, your friends and family will acknowledge any gestures you make that signal your willingness to re-enter a full life.  Your mourning period is coming to a close now, and calmness is with you often. There may be setbacks, but that is to be expected – two steps forward then one step back.  The setbacks will happen less frequently as time passes until they hardly happen at all.  Just don’t be alarmed by them and know they are to be expected.  Your grief work is finishing and a new stage of your life is ready to start.


When dealing with the grief of children, the same rules for adults don’t apply.  Children can read their parents usually quite well.  They know when their parents are upset, angry, confused or lying to them.  Deception can harm a child and should never be considered acceptable when dealing with your children for any issue.  When the parents have difficulty facing a death, it will be difficult for the children as well.  When the parents can accept a death and their feelings about the death, the children will begin to come around and be more comfortable with it as well. 


A very successful technique for children to express their emotions about death is to write about their feelings and to draw out their thoughts on paper.  When children are told the truth, they usually respond well and can offer sincere thoughts and feelings. 


When a child has experienced the death of one of their parents they may feel rejected or they may feel that somehow they caused the death.  In order for a child to grow emotionally after the death of a parent, they must want to continue living.  The child may want to join the parent they lost in death and must be reassured that the surviving parent loves them and will take care of them always.  They must feel stability and security from the surviving parent that they are able to go on and care for them.  At times, a child may appear selfish to be concerned with their own needs – this is very natural and a normal response for a child.  When a child loses a parent to death they will react differently than an adult. The child needs to know that his life will be safe and he will have what he needs.  Once a child feels that security for his daily needs, the grief will come along with the tears and mourning.


The surviving parent is hit with a double whammy in this situation.  They are experiencing their own grief while attempting to provide assistance to their child/children in coping with theirs.  The surviving parent should “team up” with the child and do as much as they can together.  To the greatest extent possible, the child’s daily routine (school, babysitter, friends, toys) should remain in place without change.  There is security felt by what remains constant and what can be counted upon.  The surviving parent should go out of their way to constantly reassure the child of their care and security.  They should read together, do homework together, pray together, go to movies together, eat together and join together to do as much as possible with continuity and stability.  The surviving parent must be read to talk about the death with the child even if it is difficult to do so.  Children imagine so much and what they imagine is frequently far from reality.  The conversation they have with their surviving parent will keep them feeling safe and on track.  They should always be told the truth and they must know that their deceased loved one is not coming back to them for any reason.  The death is final.  Should the child attend the funeral, it is helpful for them to know that the deceased is buried in the earth – the finality is clearer for them when they witness a burial.


Additionally, it is important for the parent to carefully and thoughtfully choose their words to the child.  Children tend to take things literally.  Should your message be vague and not clear to the child, they will take away a different meaning than you intended for them.  It is important for the surviving parent to have a clear and logical answer to any question the child poses.  There should be conversations where the child discusses the dead parent and how they are just like them.  Discuss their differences and similarities and allow the child to identify himself with the lost parent in an appropriate manner.  The way the deceased died should also be discussed so the child does not worry that he would catch the disease and die from it also.  The child should understand that people get sick and they recover.  Sickness does not necessarily mean death.


Particularly during the funeral process, tell the child what is happening.  Hold their hand and reassure them of your love and support.  In advance of the funeral, the child should be told about the ritual that will occur, about the casket, the possibility of adults weeping or even crying out.  Prepare them as well as you can and this preparation will translate into security and knowledge for the child. 


Encourage the child to write a letter to the deceased.  Keep pictures around of happy times and of visits to places that were enjoyed.  It is important to have reminders around for the child and for the entire family.  When a cemetery visit is planned, take the child with you and read the gravestone to them.  Help them understand the meaning of remembering their loved one.


Talking is helpful is just about every situation life presents.  Talking keeps those involved from feeling isolated and it keeps them close in thought and word.  The right words spoken from the right person at the right time can make all the difference in the world to you or to your child.  Don’t hesitate to discuss any feelings that arise from this painful time in your life.

Hold the promise that your loved one is not lost from you forever, not gone completely.  Learn to live with peace in your heart knowing that your loved one is watching over you always.  You may not be able to touch them or see them, but you can feel their spirit in your heart.  This good feeling about your loved one can provide a new way of looking at life and provide encouragement for your future.


For those who have lost a loved one, it seems that death is only an ending.  For survivors, it must also be a beginning.





  1. Living With An Empty Chair, Roberta Temes, Second Edition, 1980
  3. Recovery Institute
  4. www.AARP.Grief
  5.  Grief is a Circular Staircase


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