Psychologists recognise five distinct stages that individuals must deal with then faced with a terminal illness or impending death. In 1969, researcher Elsabth Kubler-Ross outlined these five stages in a book titled "On Death and Dying." These stages have become widely recognised as essential steps for people dealing with their own death, or the death of others.
The first stage is denial. During this stage, people enter a state of shock. Denial prevents people from accepting the reality of impending death, and strong emotions often block out the facts of mortality. Like other types of shock, the denial stage of death acts as a coping mechanism that allows people to function. However, ignoring reality through denial is only a temporary way to deal with death.
After the initial shock and denial of a facing death, people enter a stage of anger. This anger occurs as a very intense emotion once people begin to realise the reality of a situation. In some cases, this anger is directed at strangers, family members, or doctors. People at this stage irrationally blame others for causing the emotional situation. If this anger is directed inwardly, people dealing with death can blame themselves and create intense feelings of guilt.
The third stage, bargaining, is a way for people to try to reduce emotional pain and attempt to change or reverse the situation. One common example of bargaining is an attempt a "deal" with God or another higher power to reverse a terminal illness and regain health. Of course, this bargain does not have any basis in reality. The act of trying to change a terminal diagnosis, however, helps people to deal with the pain and move one step closer to accepting the situation.
When bargaining fails, depression sets in. During this stage, people begin to realise that they are powerless against death. When this realisation of helplessness occurs, strong emotions of despair and emptiness set in. People depressed by a terminal illness withdraw from others around them, and often wonder if there is a point in continuing their day-to-day lives. With time, individuals dealing with mortality realise that life is important even though it is limited, and move beyond depression.
Acceptance is the final stage of dealing with death. At this stage, people began to feel calm and are able to face the reality and finality of death. Once acceptance occurs, people are able to adjust to the new reality and enjoy life again. Full acceptance of life after a terminal diagnosis does not happen quickly, however. After months or years, fear fades away and the new reality becomes normal for people who must face the reality of death.