December 8, 2023

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Understanding the stages of grief and working through the pain

David Bethuram

(National Grief Awareness week took place on Dec. 2-8, providing a dedicated period for individuals, organizations and communities to come together to acknowledge and address the various aspects of grief.)

Most people have experienced some type of loss or perhaps multiple losses that have led them onto the path of grief.

Grieving can feel like being on a roller coaster—experiencing a multitude of emotions—and the process is often very different from what most people anticipate.

Depending upon how traumatic the loss is, grieving never really ends. Although the intensity of pain and emotions decreases over time, and for some individuals fully resolves, it is a lifetime journey that changes us in some ways from the loss.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, described the five stages of grief that we experience in response to a loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Although these stages are not linear and not all people experience all five of them, they reflect our very natural psychological response to different types of loss (i.e., death of a loved one, divorce, trauma, disability).

As one works through these stages, he or she can experience a variety of symptoms including but not limited to sadness, anxiety, frustration, confusion, guilt, fatigue, anger, sleep and eating problems, a flat or numb feeling, brain fog, isolation, physical symptoms, hopelessness and questioning their purpose in life.

Throughout the years, many clients have sought counseling through Catholic Charities to work with a therapist to help them through this often difficult and confusing process of grief. Many grief experts have often found that people can work through these stages toward acceptance of their loss, but they are sometimes left feeling lost and asking questions like, “OK, so where do I go from here?” and “How do I find meaning in my life?” after a loss.

In David Kessler’s book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, he encourages anyone who is grieving to consider: Where am I trying to find meaning? In the death, the loss, the event? The life of the person I loved? Or am I trying to find meaning in my own life after the loss?

The reality is that we can find meaning in any or all of the above. Research indicates that individuals who are grieving and can find some meaning in their loss are less likely to get stuck in one or more stages of grief for longer periods of time.

Finding meaning from the loss leads you to deeper questions and deeper answers. But there are ways to find meaning in positive ways. For example:

—Celebrating a deceased loved one’s life through creating new family traditions or rituals that bring a time of remembrance.

—The loss of a loved one bringing other family members or friends closer together.

—The loss teaching someone the importance of living mindfully and not taking life or loved ones for granted.

—Reflecting on the different connections or relationships formed after the loss.

—Developing a passion to give back to others in society or working for an important cause, in memory of your loved one.

—A heightened sense of awareness to change priorities, practice gratitude or change the way you live your life, after the loss.

It is important to remember that avoiding the grief process only delays the healing process and the opportunity to find meaning. If you or a loved one is experiencing grief (from any number of life events), please don’t hesitate to reach out for help through professional counseling, connecting with a grief support group or talking with a priest or pastor, or perhaps with a loved one or friend who has walked on the path of grief and understands your pain.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at †

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