Bipolar Disorder and the Stages of Grief: A Helpful Guide

With personal experiences.
Illustration of a sad man sitting in a cemetery near a tree
Grieving is a process. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Grief is a funny thing. While everyone experiences it, not everyone experiences it the same way. Your encounters with grief will probably be just as unique as you are.

There are often five common stages of grief.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Many have the misbelief that the stages always go in the same order and take about the same amount of time. To which my mind screams, “Not true!”

Not only can you endure many of the stages at the same time, they can return after weeks, months, or even years.

This post is about the most commonly accepted stages of grief and how they are affected by bipolar disorder. Throughout this post, I’ll be sharing my own experiences with grief, both in the past and what I’m doing right now after just losing my father.

Let’s get started.

Illustration of a woman mopping a kitchen floor
Denial can keep you busy. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Denial

The first stage of grief is denial. This is when your brain can’t accept the reality of the loss, so instead it pretends it never happened. Denial is why my mom kept talking to an empty bed for the first few days after my dad passed.

Denial is your brain’s way of protecting itself. It gives you time to process the loss when you are ready for it.

With bipolar disorder, denial brings another set of problems to the table. For me, that most often includes some form of mania.

In the days after a loss, I’m more active than ever. I recently told a friend that I couldn’t sit still if I wanted to.

Not only do I have the energy to do the 5 million things that have to be done, but I also have a flood of ideas about all the things I want to do in the future.

Usually I don’t go into full on, psychosis-inducing mania, but it’s enough of hypomania to disrupt my sleep and push me to do more physically than I should.

As I write this, it’s only been a week since my dad passed, but we’ve already spring cleaned most of my parents’ house. I’ve replanted a dozen plants in the yard and trimmed many of the trees. I also returned to work, though I was less than productive as I sat at my desk. My mind is running fast, so concentrating on what’s important is nearly impossible.

I’m using my excess energy when I can and forcing myself to rest after a reasonable amount of work. This part is easy because I’m too busy to process everything else.

Before I know it, I’ll be passing on to another stage of grief: anger.

Illustration of a screaming woman squatting in a living room
Anger can feel like it’s taking over your life. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Anger

For most of us with bipolar disorder, anger is one of our toughest challenges. It’s like there’s a hidden switch in the back corner of our mind. When someone flips it, we fly into a rage. It feels uncontrollable and leads to a constant need to apologize.

Grief often brings anger for everybody, but with bipolar disorder, the anger is even worse. Not only do you feel rage, but your bipolar brain will move you to say the worst things.

Suddenly you’ll know all the most painful buttons to press to hurt the people around you. The anger has such force you feel unable to keep your mouth shut.

Anger can also lead to dangerous actions, such as destroying things, starting fights, or saying ugly things to the wrong people. (Bloody nose, anyone? Yeah, me too.)

When my soulmate Lizzy died, I called my boss and told him I couldn’t work that night. He told me there was no one who could take my shift, so I had to be there.

Enraged, I went to work and did my job, and turned in my notice the next morning. So ended a 15-year friendship. I never returned to the job and the anger still lingers even after a decade.

Anger may stick with you as you slip into another stage of grief: bargaining.

Bargaining

Truth be told, I never understood what bargaining meant when people talked about the stages of grief. I always imagined it had something to do with asking God to take your life instead of the one of the person who just died.

Then my mom explained to me what bargaining really is. She calls it the “coulda, woulda, shouldas.”

For example, you might think, “If only I had gone to see the person sooner.” Or, “I should have made them go to the doctor when they first noticed the symptoms.”

Bargaining is about all the things you think you could have done, but you didn’t do when you had the chance.

My Lizzy died in a car accident. We talked on the phone just moments before, and even though it’s been many years, there’s still a piece of my mind that still wonders what would have happened if we would have talked for just another 30 seconds.

By then, the dump truck would have gone past the intersection where she died. Imagining what I could have done changes nothing.

Bargaining, at least for me, seems to be a grief stage that keeps returning time and again. I’m sure it has a connection to the fact bipolar disorder causes your brain to ruminate about everything. And so why not ruminate about the things that you should have done?

The next stage of grief with bipolar disorder is probably the most dangerous: depression.

Illustration of a sad man sitting on a sofa holding his head in his hands
I lived on the couch for months. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Depression

Bipolar depression is brutal on any day, but when you reach depression with your grief, it’s deadly. The depression stage is when you stop living, refuse to get out of bed, and no longer care how you look or smell.

The depression stage can hold you captive for months. When I lost Lizzy, I kept running for the first 90 days. I went to see her family every day and kept busy with projects at home.

Then one afternoon, back when I was still getting discs in the mail from Netflix, I put a DVD in the player and sat down on the couch. And I didn’t move again for weeks.

My episode with bipolar depression lasted 6 months. I stopped talking to my friends and family. I didn’t care about anything, myself included, so I spent my days watching mindless television while binge eating junk food. For months, I was the dictionary definition of a couch potato.

It was a long road out of bipolar depression, but eventually one day, I found the strength to get off the sofa and start living again.

Talking to my doctor about my depression helped. He recommended making some medication adjustments, and an increased dosage helped me find the light again. I should have called my doctor sooner, but for a long time, I simply didn’t care.

The depression stage is probably the one to be most concerned about. It’s essential to have a strong support system in place.

Don’t do what I did, and speak to your primary care physician or psychiatrist quickly after you experience a loss.

Reach out, especially when you feel yourself slipping into the darkness. Sometimes you need a little more medical help to get you through the toughest days.

Once the sun starts to return to your sky, there’s still one more grief stage to complete: acceptance.

Pinterest Pin:
Embarking on the journey of bipolar disorder and grieving?

It's a complex, often unpredictable path with a myriad of emotions and challenges.

Discovering the connection between bipolar disorder and the stages of grief may help navigate this turbulent terrain. 

Gain a deeper understanding of your emotions, make sense of your experiences, and learn how to manage and process your grief. 

Ready to embark on this enlightening journey? Read Now!

#SpeakingBipolar #grief #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
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Acceptance

Acceptance is another stage I didn’t understand. In fact, I’m not sure I get it even now.

To me, acceptance isn’t about accepting the loss happened, but more about having the hope that you will start living again.

Acceptance is when you can start thinking about a new relationship, what direction you want your life to take, or allow yourself to laugh without feeling guilty.

It’s important to remember that even though acceptance is the last stage of grief, it doesn’t mean that you’re done grieving.

The grieving process may last the rest of your life, depending on who you lost and how you felt about them. Or acceptance may come quickly, and you may find the way to move forward when many are still stuck in their sadness.

Many experts now say that there are more than five stages of grief. Some say seven, and others say even more.

I’d say with bipolar disorder in the mix, there’s probably at least 50 different stages of grief. And each one will be unique to you. Besides the five mentioned here, you will also likely experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Physical pain
  • Shock
  • Dissociation, and more
Illustration of a smiling man and woman walking in a flower garden on a sunny day
You will see the sun again. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

You will find the light

Regardless of what stages you experience and when, it’s vital that you stay connected to those who love you. Hold to your support network and don’t be afraid to reach out when you need help.

It’s okay to cry, scream, or rip that pillow to shreds. Sometimes that’s the only way to move forward. Journaling also helps, even when all you can do is scribble black ink all over the page.

Having a stable support network around you will give you the security you need to work through your emotions so you can return to life again.

Grief never truly ends. There will be a piece of you that always mourns what you’ve lost, whether that’s a person, relationship, or a job.

But you will find a way to live with grief. You’ll reach a day when you feel more sunshine than rain. You will want to live again.

Until next time, keep fighting.

Pinterest Pin:
Embarking on the journey of bipolar disorder and grieving?

It's a complex, often unpredictable path with a myriad of emotions and challenges.

Discovering the connection between bipolar disorder and the stages of grief may help navigate this turbulent terrain. 

Gain a deeper understanding of your emotions, make sense of your experiences, and learn how to manage and process your grief. 

Ready to embark on this enlightening journey? Read Now!

#SpeakingBipolar #grief #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
Please pin on Pinterest. | Graphic created with Canva AI.

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