Grief is a strong emotion, one that is common after a brain injury. So much has changed, and there is a sense of loss that is completely normal to feel. Grief can lead to profound sadness, discounting remaining abilities, and thinking about ‘what could have been’.

While it’s normal to experience grief, it’s important not to let it consume you, or spend too much time focusing on the negatives of the situation. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and the changes you have experienced but find ways to celebrate your victories. Look for ways to remind yourself of the positives: for example, you can take some time at the end of each day to record the good things that happened.

It’s not a quick process. There will be good days and bad days, and grief may linger for several months. But with time, patience, and commitment to taking care of yourself, it will improve.

The five stages of grief

A brain injury is life-altering, and it is normal to experience grief surrounding the changes in your abilities and your identity. Not everyone will experience all the common stages of grief, and they may not experience them in order.

When someone is in denial, it means they are not acknowledging what happened. This could be a sudden change or a sudden loss, both of which happen with brain injury. These sudden changes cause intense feelings that many people find too difficult to cope with right away, so they deny that anything is wrong.

Denial isn’t something you can ‘fix’. It’s a normal part of the grief process and it may be awhile before you move to another stage. People in denial may engage in risky behaviours as a way to ‘prove’ that nothing has changed. This is particularly common if decision-making has been impacted by the brain injury. It’s hard to identify these behaviours in yourself, so it may be recommended that you spend time with a caregiver or family member in the early stages of your recovery.

Anger during grief is often misdirected at other people or circumstances because the person is angry at their situation and can’t cope with it. Anger can appear as rage, but it can also present as resentment, aloofness or a bitter attitude.

You may direct anger towards loved ones, the doctors who gave you your diagnosis, or the rehabilitation team because you aren’t seeing the progress you wanted. For the most part you know it’s not their fault and that you have no reason to be angry with them, but you aren’t able to control the emotional outbursts. Eventually this feeling will fade and the emotions the anger was masking will come to the surface.

Bargaining is also called making a deal, and it’s something people experiencing grief will do all the time. They may try to bargain with the deity of their religious belief, with doctors, or with others. They may also start making wistful statements that suggest they could have gone back and changed the outcome.

You may use bargaining to try and take back control. For example; “what if I had done this instead?” or “if only I had done something differently.” This is another stage of grief that puts off the negative emotions associated with the situation and is often a mechanism to give you more time to process the changes.

Depression is the name given to the stage when someone experiences all the emotions associated with the cause of their grief. This could cause someone to enter a depression and isolate themselves.

There is no set time limit on how long you will be in this stage (if you experience it). It’s not an easy stage of grief to cope with either. You will feel overwhelmed, emotional, lost and alone. But it’s important to work to move beyond this stage by talking with friends, family, and mental health professionals.

Many people confuse the acceptance stage with positive feelings – but what it really means is that the person has come to terms with their new situation. It doesn’t mean those negative feelings and thoughts are gone or that the person is happy.

When you reach the acceptance stage, you will be doing your best to focus on moving forward, taking ownership of your recovery, and finding the good in each day. Acceptance doesn’t have to be reached alone: your family, friends and healthcare team can all help you.

You may not go through all these stages for the same length of time, or at all. You may even find yourself going backwards or experiencing some stages at the same time. Processing grief is unique for everyone, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

Mental health resources