Last year I presented a talk on When Loss Happens at the annual Wisconsin Adoption Conference. The talk was an overview of grief – what it is, how it affects us, and its many expressions. In the talk I touched upon the 5 stages of the soul as a way to understand the journey toward healing after loss known as “grief-processing”. Much to my surprise, it was this concept that generated the most questions, comments and conversation. As one conference attendee said, “I always thought that grief was about missing someone – I get now it’s really about learning to live with the loss of someone. The 5 stages idea gives you an answer to what grief asks you to do – what grief wants you to do to move forward.”

For that reason I usually share the 5 stages of the soul with my grief support clients; the 5 stages provide a much needed framework from which to initiate and engage in forward movement after loss.

The 5 Stages of the Soul*

The 5 stages of the soul are:

Stage 1: The Call
Stage 2: The Search
Stage 3: The Struggle
Stage 4: The Breakthrough
Stage 5: The Return

Although named in a particular order, these stages are not linear; prompted by an inner sense that movement or change is needed, the 5 stages can be entered at any point and done in an order that best suits your particular needs. After profound loss, most people seem to enter at stage 3, the struggle, so let’s begin there.

The Struggle

Engaging in the stage of struggle brings forth these questions seeking answers:

  • What am I resisting?
  • Is the struggle from within or without?

Accepting the reality of loss is the first task asked of us by grief. But this acceptance rarely comes without struggle – a sort of short or lengthy push-pull between “This painful thing can’t really be happening!” and “This painful thing has really happened!”

In our culture we tend to think of struggle as bad because it is uncomfortable. But struggle after loss is informative, even necessary. Struggle brings awareness to the depth of your pain and the enormity of what you feel was lost. Struggle tells you that something needs to be looked at. Struggle lets you know that you have not yet found a way to be with or find ease with the discomfort of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations arising out of loss. Struggle can alert you to the fact that you are trying to find a path forward that for now remains elusive or unsatisfying.

And, struggle shines a light on loss-related fears, such as: Will I always be alone now? Will I ever be happy again? Do I have the strength to get through this?

The Call

The call can help initiate movement out of struggle by highlighting sources of dis-ease or pain within you looking for care, comfort or healing. Questions seeking answers in the call stage include:

  • What am I being called to look at/mourn? Explore? Let go of/release?
  • What has heart and meaning for me?

These few, simple questions provide a distilled starting point for how to approach the often overwhelming multitude of questions that surface during the grieving process. What am I being called to look at/mourn? might begin with a list that looks something like this:

  • Loss of a source of play, fun, laughter, love
  • Loss of a planned-for future or dream
  • Loss of feeling safe and secure

What am I being called to explore? might include:

  • Soothe uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and physical sensations
  • Living alone without being lonely
  • Honoring rituals

Releasing or letting go of lingering or unresolved regrets and resentments is also something you may identify as a path toward grief-healing in the call stage.

To understand what has “heart” for you (in other words what makes your heart sing, feel at peace, feel connected to something larger than yourself etc.) is to understand what is meaningful for you as an individual. Questions brought forth in the call are guideposts directing you toward the search, stage 2 of the 5 stages of the soul.

The Search

Questions brought forth by the search include:

  • What am I searching for?
  • What satisfies me?
  • What do I want to contribute?

The search supports the call. Support can come in a variety of forms such as the learning of new skills or rituals, delving deeper into current religious or spiritual practices (or letting go of old practices and exploring new ones), joining groups, professional counseling, and more. For example, if you have identified a loss of companionship on daily exercise walks as a source of grief after the death of a spouse, you might seek out a friend to take walks with several times a week to ease your new-found sense of aloneness. The death of a child due to overdose or suicide may lead you to join a support group for people who have experienced similar losses. And the wish to alleviate uncomfortable grief-related thoughts and emotions may spur you toward exploring mindfulness and calming breathing techniques.

The Breakthrough

The pain of loss can be sometimes overwhelming, leading to feelings of being stuck in mourning. Movement – inner movement – is one aspect of grief- healing; inner movement requires committing to and undertaking specific actions that nurture passage through grief related losses identified in the call and given form in the search.

The breakthrough, stage 4 of the 5 stages of the soul, asks you to commit to accepting the reality of your loss through action. Questions to be answered to promote breakthrough include:

  • What changes do I want to make that will lead to a major breakthrough in the next three months? One year? Five years?
  • What actions will I take to make this happen?

Actions that have heart and meaning enrich the soil that allows any breakthrough to come to fruition. For example, if your identified healing intention after the loss of a workout partner is to support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically for the next three months, then the breakthrough stage might include going to the gym three times a week and walking outside three times a week. If the call and search has led you to gardening after the death of your mother, an avid gardener, then committing to cultivating a memory garden for one growing season can help support a breakthrough.

The Return

The return, stage 5 of the 5 stages of the soul, asks that you look back in order to move forward. Questions to explore in the return can include:

  • What known loss or challenge experiences have I gone through before? What happened? What worked for me and what didn’t? What skills, tools and practices did I use or cultivate? Can any of those skills be applied to my new call and search that will aid in a breakthrough?
  • What are my gifts and passions and how can I apply them to help me heal now?
  • What are my qualities of soul – my positive attributes (such as patience, faith etc.)? How can I purposefully engage those qualities to help me now?

In the initial phase of mourning, as you try to face the enormity of what was lost and the pain of that loss, it is not uncommon to question if it is even possible to ever move forward with life. The return can remind you that this is not the first challenge you have ever faced. And the return can also remind you of your strength, skills and resiliency.

The 5 stages of the soul are not traveled in a straight line. Nor is there a straight line through when it comes to grief. As the ups and downs of grief are traversed in the difficult months and even years after loss it is not uncommon to visit and revisit one or more of the 5 stages of the soul, entering at any point that takes you ever deeper into renewed inner ease and the heart of healing.

*The 5 stages of the soul can be found in Angeles Arrien’s book, The Second Half of Life; the book explores how to work skillfully with age-related losses.

Small icon of pen and paper

Journaling Prompt: Use the Remembering A Life Journal to write about your answers to the questions in this post.