What I Didn't Understand About The Stages Of Grief -- Until I Was In Them

by Caila Smith
Originally Published: 

Trigger warning: child loss

My daughter died from SIDS when I was 22 years old. My life was just beginning, the best was supposedly yet to come, and I was hit with a head-on collision of life-shattering grief. Other than my grandma’s passing ten years prior, I’d never felt grief. So I definitely never thought about the stages that are known to go along with it.

The stages I refer to are known as the five stages of grief, and they go like this:

1. Denial

2. Anger

3. Bargaining

4. Depression

5. Acceptance

But, for me, there was no order, only chaos.

So I started to call bullshit on this numerical way to grieve. After all, how could grief be anything like the steps of an AA meeting? When I started to write this article, I had half a mind to title it, “I’m Calling Bullshit On The Five Stages Of Grief.” But in all reality, I, and so many others, have never truly understood these five stages pertaining to the whirlwind of emotions felt in grief.


Jessica Zimmerman, LMHC, founder of Willow Tree Counseling and a specialist in trauma, attachment, and loss, told Scary Mommy, “I think the most common misconception about the five stages [of grief] is that they are always experienced in that order.”

Although it’s common for people to experience their grief in that order, based on an overall timeline of when someone first hears the news of loss, they are not always experienced in this order. Not every person is alike, therefore, not everyone’s path through mourning will be alike.

Two years deep in the throes of grief, and I’m learning that the five stages of grief are not linear as so many of us like to believe. When my daughter first died, I felt shock. I felt anger, depression, denial and bargaining (anything but acceptance) all at the same time.

Not to mention, I wished a lot of wishes which I knew would never come to pass:

I wish it were me. I wish I would’ve known. I wish I could’ve stopped this. I literally wish anybody else in this world would have died in place of one of my children.

Immediately following the death of my daughter, other grieving parents used to check in on me from time to time to see how I was doing. They’d ask if I felt like I’d hit “this stage” or “that stage” in my grief, and I remember feeling like I was just playing along. Like I was doing my best to guess where my grief was falling on that scale. But I never felt my grief in a numerological order.

To me, it felt like I was in limbo.

Zimmerman says that the “limbo” feeling might actually be a masked stage of grief — denial.

“I think if someone is feeling in limbo they are probably working very hard to avoid and deny their grief. The first stage is denial — which could be part of what’s happening,” says Zimmerman. “But avoidance is an even bigger concern and much more common. Avoidance is avoiding feelings, avoiding the topic, the discussion, the pain, the hurt and the memories. Disconnecting from the experience and feelings. Unresolved grief, or delayed grieving can cause addictions, severe anxiety, depression, and attribute to many complicated health issues (GI issues, migraines, auto immune disorders, etc.). The more traumatic the loss, the more common it is for people to avoid grieving, and disconnecting to the feelings and experience.”

Although I never thought of myself as avoiding my grief, I very well could have been. After all, I was a mess. The death of a child brought on more emotions than I’d ever felt, and this was undiscovered territory.

Now that I’ve grown and learned to become more in tune with my grief, I know that I will never truly stop grieving. I’ve grown to accept the loss of my daughter, but that does not mean my love has stopped and I can bring a crashing halt to my grief. Just because I may have completed, lived through, or graduated the five stages of grief, does not mean I won’t keep revisiting them for the rest of my life.

“Acceptance is really about the brain and body accepting that you’ve lost something, accepting that life as you know it is never going be the same. It’s not accepting the loss, death or pain as ‘okay,’ or not feeling pain any longer. Triggers throughout life will cause someone to have a grief spurt,” Zimmerman tells Scary Mommy.

“However, when someone has done the work, allowed themselves to feel the deep and paralyzing pain, and had compassion for themselves through this process and allowed time and space to just be sad — typically future ‘grief spurts’ are less intense, less frequent, and less paralyzing as time goes on.”

I can relate to this. I’d like to say that as time has pressed forward, my “grief spurts” have become far and few between. But still, when someone shares my daughter’s name, or I’m hit with that first warm, fresh summer breeze, I’m taken back. My “grief spurts” surface, and I am somewhere in the middle of the five stages of grief.

Sometimes, I’m mad as hell. I’m so mad that it feels like I can tangibly touch the red that I almost visibly see. Other days, I accept her death for what it is. And on the worst of days, I bargain deals within myself that could never come to pass.

And today, if I’m being truthful, I guess I’m a little bit depressed about it all.

I believe that I will always revisit the five stages of grief. I believe that they are a platform of emotions from which the many stages of grief will always bounce off of. Looking back, I believe that my initial feeling of shock was in fact denial. I believe that the many “I wishes” were my form of bargaining with a different future from what really unfolded.

“I believe that everyone experiences the five stages of grief, but not always in that particular order. The process is not linear — it does not go from stage ‘one’ to stage ‘two’ etc. You can start in stage three, then jump to one and then to five. Also, just because you experience one stage doesn’t mean you will never experience it again,” Zimmerman tells Scary Mommy.

“Grief is messy, it’s different for each person,” Zimmerman says. “There is no right or wrong way to grieve.”

If you or a loved one has suffered the loss of a child, check out our Scary Mommy Child Loss Page for resources, connections, financial aid services and more.

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