Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. It consists of the thoughts and feelings we experience as a result of loss.

The process of grief can be complex because so many emotions accompany the multitude of thoughts that can change from one moment to the next. These thoughts and feelings that well up from within the heart and mind can be overwhelming, leaving the griever in a state of numbness.

The five aspects of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—sometimes labeled stages, are helpful in understanding the process of grieving.

But unlike stages, which imply a linear process with a start and finish, with a right way and wrong way to grieve, the reality of grieving is more like a wave that inundates us and can make us feel like we’re drowning in sorrow, pain, and sadness. It leaves us feeling tossed about by a feeling of being totally out of control. One day we’re drowning in sorrow or pulled by riptides of guilt, and then, out of the blue, we’re back in denial and then angry that we just can’t move on.

Let’s delve into each of these aspects of the process of grief:

Denial is a state of shock that results in thinking or making an assertion that something said, believed, or alleged is untrue. Denial comes from experiencing that what has happened is just too much to process, just too hard to live with. Denial shoves down the pain-filled emotions that come flooding up, thoughts of “this can’t be happening to me.”

The powerful emotion of anger can serve to cover up the pain of loss for periods of time. It keeps a person in motion, doing what needs to be done while suppressing the wave of shock and denial. Thoughts go toward who or what is to blame for what happened.

Bargaining is a strategy the mind uses to try to gain some kind of control over what has happened. “I promise to do this if only you bring him back.” Then reality hits and we sink into a state of depression, believing nothing will ever be good again, or wondering, “How do I get control over myself?”

Depression involves withdrawing and isolating, experiencing a lack of hope, and having low motivation and difficulty going on as usual.

Acceptance is being willing to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation, to be in the embrace of what is, without resistance. It comes with understanding you can’t change what happened.

The experience of grief becomes a seemingly interminable, ever-changing time of being thrown around in the waves of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, with peaceful moments of acceptance, which delivers some relief. How can we actively get to acceptance?

A powerful antidote for grief is to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.