5 Stages of Grief and Extinction Bursts

The grief process is an attempt to deny the reality of death.

The 5 stages of grief aren’t really linear stages. They are most like a series of emotions that someone in grief cycles in an out of. So – we sometimes deny death. We get angry about death. We are depressed about death and we try to bargain with death to again, deny death.

None of this works. The order in which experience these emotions and the fact we revisit some of them is irrelevant to getting through it. There is no one right way to grieve. You might actually experience several of these “stages” at once. That’s fine too.

It’s telling that the “final” stage of grief is acceptance. The stages of grief end when we finally accept the death as final.  All the stages are attempts to deny death occurred or that it is final.  In this sense, acceptance and helping yourself work towards acceptance and reminding yourself as you get angry that – it won’t matter; you just have to accept it – helps you get through the process quicker. And that’s a good thing because grief sucks. It’s horrible to experience.

So why do we deny death? Even those of us who are reality based deny death. Why?  Well, habit.  If someone we love and are used to seeing and interacting with dies, we have a problem. And that problem is that we are in the habit of interacting with them. And habits die hard.

In fact, there is a science to how habits or behaviors are extinguished and it isn’t pleasant.  I write about this process in my book The Bully Vaccine, and its applicable here.

Basically, if you are in the habit of doing something, say talking to someone on the phone or getting a hug from someone and you can’t do it anymore, your whole body and mind will rebel for a period of time until you accept the reality that you can’t do it anymore. This rebellion can be thought of as an extinction burst (yes, that’s a real thing – go ahead and look it up).  Extinction bursts are instinctual and it’s basically an unconscious attempt to get your fix back, whatever that fix is (in this case, interaction with the person who is now dead). .

Denying, getting mad, getting depressed, and bargaining, are all methods that traditionally work to get us what we want. But in the case of death, they don’t work because – death is final. It is easy to see, given how desperate our minds are to interact with someone again out of habit why belief in an afterlife would be so attractive. It’s a form of bargaining and denial.  A way of telling your brain, I just can’t interact with them now, but I will be able to later. The problem with this approach is that it’s a form of denial, not of acceptance.

In order to end the grief process, you have to accept death as final.  Understanding why you are experiencing the grief process and why your instincts are to deny death can help you accept death sooner because it puts you in a position to counter your brain when it tells you to deny death. You can argue back and say – nope – it’s final, deal with it. Do this enough and your brain will eventually cede to the reality and your extinction burst will be over and you will start feeling better.

There is no way through this extinction process, but to experience it. So don’t get upset, and don’t put too much stock in your brain’s attempt to deny death. It’s just what it’s going to do. Feel sorry for your brain and for yourself and keep working towards acceptance. The sooner you get there, there sooner your torment will be over.

If you want to learn more – read my book The Humanist Approach to Grief and Grieving and if you need help talking to a child about death – take my free course – Talking to Children about Death

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