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Trauma and the Five Stages of Grief

Crystal Fuller

In the days, months, and years following the experience of a trauma, it can profoundly change the way we go through life. Stages of grieving are common for those who endure these life challenges.

Examples of trauma can range anywhere from the loss of a job, a decline in our health, or a change in financial security to more serious events such as sexual assault, witnessing a crime, a divorce, or the death of a loved one. Life can be unpredictable with the many ups and downs it brings. As we experience trauma it is normal to go through a series of emotions.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross created the five stages of grief to help define the phases we tend to experience after a loss. Those phases are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Originally the stages came about through what is experienced after a patient received a terminal diagnosis but have since been related to any kind of loss including trauma.

Everyone will grieve differently and may or may not go through all the stages of grief. However, the more we understand each phase of the grieving process the better we can comprehend where someone is at emotionally and have empathy for what they are going through.

Denial is the first phase. It is a defense mechanism used to protect oneself from the truth of what is occurring. In this stage, one may continue on in life as if nothing has happened or place blame on others for your misfortune.

For example, if you receive a terminal diagnosis, you may attribute that news to a faulty test or an unqualified doctor. Another example is blaming the loss of a job on a vindictive boss. It is normal to go through this phase and can even be a helpful part of processing the situation.

When trauma is finally accepted as imminent, feelings of anger may start to set in. You may become angry at medical providers, family members, or even a higher power for not supporting you enough to prevent this loss.

It is also common to hurt our loved ones by acting with a short temper or a loss of patience. In most cases, we do not mean to hurt those we care for, but maybe this is because it is easier to show anger about something instead of fear. This phase can last different amounts of time depending on the person and the loss.

Bargaining is when a person has not accepted reality and tries to take control of their situation through negotiation. It could be rational bargaining such as being more willing to follow a rigorous health plan, or it could be irrational bargaining such as asking a higher power to change their situation if they dedicate their life to them.

As time goes by and the reality of our situation has settled, we may start to feel depressed. The change trauma creates can be feelings of immense sadness and fatigue. In this phase, the fog has cleared, and the loss feels more present and unavoidable. You may feel something valuable has been taken away and the new perspective that has come about through your trauma is not welcomed. You may feel helpless and unable to protect yourself.

The last stage is acceptance. In this phase, there is no longer a push to change the reality of your situation. You are ready to accept how you have been changed due to your trauma and move on. A person may find themselves trying to enjoy life and reflect on fond memories. They may also find they have more compassion toward themselves.

No one will be exempt from experiencing some type of loss and therefore go through a period of grieving. As our friends and family confront these phases of life, we need to make sure we are respectful, patient, and loving. As the circle of life goes around, we will need others to show those attributes to us when it is our inevitable turn to experience grief.


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