What Are The Five Candles For Grief?

The five candles for grief refers to a conceptual model for understanding the stages of grief originally proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Though commonly referred to as the “five stages of grief”, the model identifies five common experiences or reactions that many people go through when faced with death or tragedy. The candle imagery provides a visual metaphor to represent working through the grief process.

The five candles each signify a stage of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Lighting each candle sequentially represents progression through the stages over time. The model suggests most people go through all or some of these stages on the journey toward healing after loss. However, rather than neat linear stages, they may occur simultaneously, sporadically, or in varying orders.

The five candle model emerged in the 1960s from Kübler-Ross’s work with terminally ill patients. It has since become a widely known framework for understanding reactions to grief and loss in broader contexts. While some critique the model, many find the five candles offer a helpful guide. The visual nature of the candles can make the abstract process of grieving more concrete.

The Five Stages of Grief

The five stages of grief are a commonly referenced model describing the emotional process of reconciling loss. First introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, the stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

While originally developed based on observations of how terminally ill patients coped with their prognosis, the Kübler-Ross model has since been widely adopted as a framework for how people adjust to various types of traumatic life events, such as the death of a loved one, a breakup, loss of a job, or chronic illness. The stages don’t necessarily occur in a fixed chronological order and often involve nonlinear emotional ups and downs as part of the healing process.

The five stages are:

  • Denial – Refusing to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Pretending as if life continues unchanged.
  • Anger – Experiencing resentment or envy over a perceived loss or injustice. Lashing out at others as an emotional response.
  • Bargaining – Attempting to restore control by negotiating expected outcomes. Seeking alternatives to soften the impact.
  • Depression – Feeling hopeless, depressed and overwhelmed by grief or sadness. Withdrawing from life.
  • Acceptance – Coming to terms with and acknowledging the reality. Making peace with the new circumstances.

Understanding this model can help people normalize and process difficult emotions during times of grief or transition. Though intensely painful, grieving is ultimately part of the healing process.

Candle 1 – Denial

The first candle of grief represents denial. When we first learn of a tragic loss or death of a loved one, our initial reaction is often to deny it. We may feel shocked or numb, unable to fully comprehend or accept the reality of the situation. Denial acts as a buffer, allowing us time to gradually absorb the pain of our loss. In the denial stage, a person may carry on as if nothing is wrong, continuing with their daily routines. They may avoid talking about the loss or make light of it. Inside, the person is often overwhelmed with pain but denying those feelings as a self-protection mechanism. The denial helps create distance between the grieving person and the intensity of their emotions. Denial provides a pause to pull ourselves together enough to be able to tolerate the grief. This stage may last for weeks or longer depending on the person. While denial can be a temporary way of managing trauma, it is important not to stay stuck in this phase for too long. Denying the truth keeps us from working through the pain in order to heal.

Candle 2 – Anger

When people first acknowledge the certainty of their loss, feelings of anger may arise as part of the grieving process. Anger can manifest in different ways, often beginning with frustration and irritability. People grieving might lash out at others, even those trying to help them. Anger may be directed at the person who died for ‘abandoning’ the bereaved. They may also blame other people or circumstances they perceive as contributing to the death.

Anger serves a purpose in grief – it allows people to release tension and shift their focus temporarily away from the sadness at the heart of their loss. However, anger can become problematic if it spirals out of control, leads to outbursts or damage to relationships. The anger stage of grief should gradually recede over time if the bereaved work through the full grieving process in a healthy way.

Supporting someone dealing with anger involves understanding where this emotion comes from. Don’t take their anger personally. Let them vent their frustrations while staying calm yourself. Acknowledge it’s natural to feel anger, but suggest more constructive outlets like journaling or exercise. With patience and compassion, you can help someone work through their anger on the journey through grief.

Candle 3 – Bargaining

The third stage of grief is bargaining. In this stage, people start to bargain as a way to postpone grief. They may try to make deals to avoid the pain of loss or to reverse the tragedy that has taken place. Common bargaining statements include “If only…” or “What if…” as people think of ways things could have been different.

For example, someone who has lost a loved one may say “If only I had made them go to the doctor sooner” or “What if I had been there that day?” There is a lot of regret and self-blame during this stage as the grieving person thinks of all the things they could have done differently to change the outcome.

The bargaining stage represents the desire to regain control and escape the reality of the loss. People start looking for ways to avoid the intense emotions that come with grieving. Making deals or living in denial can seem easier than facing the pain. However, bargaining only delays the inevitable grieving that must happen.

It’s important for people in this stage to be patient with themselves. The bargaining and regret are part of the natural grieving process. With time and support, they will be able to move through this stage and accept that the loss cannot be changed.

Candle 4 – Depression

The fourth stage of the grief process is depression. This stage brings overwhelming sadness, frequent crying spells, and a sense of isolation. The depression stems from finally confronting the reality of the loss after the shock of denial and pain of anger. The person grieving fully acknowledges how their life has changed and feels deeply sad about what is now missing. This stage often involves retreating from usual activities and normal life as the grieving person copes with the intense emotions. They may feel hopeless, worthless, regretful, or suicidal. The depression represents the inward reflection and mourning they must process before reaching acceptance. While this necessary stage can seem endless, the darkness and isolation of depression eventually gives way to emerging acceptance. Grieving people should allow themselves to fully experience this stage knowing that it leads to the possibility of enjoying life once again.

Candle 5 – Acceptance

The fifth and final candle represents acceptance. Reaching this stage means the person has found a way to come to terms with their loss. Though they may still feel sadness, anger, or guilt about their loved one’s death, these emotions no longer completely dominate their life.

Acceptance is about acknowledging what has happened and learning to live with it. Rather than fighting the reality or wishing for something that is impossible, those in the acceptance stage look for meaning, purpose, and hope as they move forward. They realize life is for the living, and start to reengage with the present in a meaningful way.

Acceptance allows a person to think about their departed loved one with peace, love, and memories of joy rather than with bitterness. Though the loss will always be painful, those in the acceptance stage regain the capacity to experience happiness, laughter, and enjoyment again. They can look to the future with optimism and continue living a fulfilling life, even as they honor the one they lost.

Reaching acceptance takes time, but most people do eventually work through their grief and find a way forward. With help from loved ones, professional support, or their own inner resilience, the bereaved learn to integrate the loss into their lives in a healthy way. The journey through grief is nonlinear, but acceptance is the light guiding the way.

Lighting the Candles

Lighting each candle is a symbolic ritual representing the bereaved individual’s progression through the stages of grief. The lighting ceremony provides a powerful visual aid and point of reflection to honor the healing process.

The first candle lit is denial, representing the initial shock and inability to accept the loss. This candle shines a dim light as the bereaved struggles to process the reality of the situation.

Next comes the anger candle, burning hot and bright, signifying the outpouring of pain, confusion, and frustration directed at others, higher powers, life itself. This intense flame represents the tempest of emotions that often follows denial.

The third candle marks the bargaining phase. Flickering with bursts of hope and despair, its unstable flame symbolizes the efforts to negotiate for more time, meaning, or the return of what was lost. There is still difficulty accepting the reality here.

The fourth candle representing depression glows weak and wavering. As anger and bargaining fail, the bereaved sinks into profound sadness and loneliness. This diminished light honors the darkness and emptiness of the loss.

Finally, the candle of acceptance lights with a warm, steady radiance. Though still grieving, the bereaved can embrace the new reality of life without what was lost. This peaceful light glows with remembrance and gratitude for what was shared.

As each candle is lit, the bereaved can reflect on how profoundly grief changes and progresses. The growing light symbolizes finding meaning, hope and peace through this painful yet transformative process.

Helping Others Through Grief

When a loved one is going through the stages of grief, it can be difficult to know how to best support them. Here are some tips for helping others through the grieving process:

Supporting loved ones through the stages

During the denial stage, don’t force them to accept the loss right away. Be patient and understanding while still gently reminding them of the reality. In the anger stage, allow them to express their emotions in a safe, non-destructive manner. Don’t take their anger personally. During bargaining, recognize that imagining alternatives is part of the coping process. In the depression stage, provide emotional support through active listening and compassion. Help motivate them to engage in self-care. Finally, in the acceptance stage, respect where they’re at in the grieving process and allow them space to move forward.

Grieving is a natural response to loss, so it’s important not to judge or criticize their process. Offer to sit with them in their pain without trying to “fix” their grief. Check in regularly and continue supporting them long after the initial loss, as grief can come in waves. With time and support, most people can progress through the stages toward acceptance and healing.


In conclusion, lighting candles for grief provides a meaningful ritual to honor the natural grieving process. Each candle represents one of the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though the stages may vary for each person, allowing ourselves or loved ones to fully experience grief can lead to emotional healing.

There is no time limit or right way to grieve. Each person’s journey is unique. Creating space for the range of emotions and reactions that may arise, without judgement, validates the profound sense of loss. Lighting the candles, from the first flicker of denial through the steadiness of acceptance, guides us with grace and wisdom.

While grief never fully disappears, the loving light of remembrance keeps memories alive. When you see someone mourning, meet them where they are with empathy. With patience and compassion, we can support one another through life’s hardest losses. Though grief comes in waves, the candles’ glow remains to remind us: this too shall pass.

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