The process of mourning runs through different stages. Typically they begin even before the death. Most deaths come slowly through illness, allowing time for emotional preparation. At this point some of those close to the dying person may be unable to acknowledge that death is near. These people can feel confused or inexplicable angry. In extreme cases, such people avoid the dying person, which can lead to intense remorse after the death. If the approach of death is acknowledged, it can present an opportunity to go over the events of life and reconcile any grievances. The emotional turmoil just after the death revolves around wanting to do something to protect or please the deceased. When this stage goes awry, the reaction to the death may involve panic, with the bereaved person overwhelmed to the point of incoherence or becoming dissociated in which they protect themselves through loss of recent memories. Next, mourners commonly enter a phase in which they turn away from their feelings by avoiding reminders of the death. Yet, the dead person may seem alive in dreams. This normal denial comes at an emotional cost: the mourners may feel numb to all emotions. But this is a necessary prelude in which they regain a sense of equilibrium that will allow them to confront the loss. At this stage some people go to extreme effort to put the death out of mind; sometimes they abuse drugs or alcohol or throw themselves into a frenzy of work, athletics or sexual activity. It is not until the next phase, when the mourners go through a mental review of their life with the deceased, that they actually begin to the loss. Extreme reactions at this point include recurring nightmares or even night terrors when they awake screaming. The person may also be flooded by overwhelming rage, despair, shame, guilt or fear. Once this stage is complete, an intense yearning for the company of the dead person ordinarily develops signifying a last ditch effort to deny the death. This yearning gradually yields to an acceptance of the death. For those who do not reach this point there may be a marked inability to work, to be caring or creative, or to even experience pleasant feelings. They may be plagued by anxiety, depression or rage, followed by shame or guilt.
The amount of time allocated to bereavement is increasingly determined by the personnel policies of enterprises. In the USA most enterprises set rigid standards (usually 3 days, often including any weekend) governing how much time an employee can officially grieve before returning to work, irrespective of the nature or extent of that grief. This is to be contrasted with the recommended formal mourning period for a widow in the USA in 1927 (3 years), in 1950 (6 months), and in 1972 ("within a week or so").
Grieving has been turned into a set process with rules, stages, and deadlines. We confuse sadness with depression, replace comfort with Prozac, and expect an end to grief. We thereby create a sense of failure, burdening the mourners with the guilt of not having completed their mourning within the time allotted.
People are prone to being too judgemental of someone who does not seem to be distressed enough immediately after a loss or who stays upset for too long. Many people, while sad, do not exhibit intense distress. There is not compelling evidence that these people are denying the loss or did not truly love the person. They do not go out of their way to avoid thoughts of the loved one, nor are they unloving in recalling the relationship. The absence of extreme distress can be a sign of resilience. Many of these people have a set of beliefs that give them a broader, often spiritual, perspective that lets them see the loss in a way they can accept. Five different studies of widows and widowers in the USA have found that between a quarter and two-thirds of those who are grieving are not greatly distressed. On the other hand, a study showed that people who lost a child or spouse in an auto accident were likely to be depressed and anxious years later.