The five stages of grief have become common knowledge. Some have even called these stages conventional wisdom. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance were first described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. For today’s understanding of how grief works, it’s important to point out a few flaws of the five stages model.
Myth 1) The five stages describe what it’s like to grieve for a loved one. Actually, they were originally named the five stages of responding to catastrophic news from studying responses of terminal patients. The subjects Kubler Ross studied were told they were dying, and the five stages were common responses among those studied. She was not studying those who were grieving over a lost loved one. That could be quite different.
Myth 2) With these five stages, the idea came about that a person must go through all of these stages to grieve successfully. It is thought that one has to follow these in a certain order. Rather, these are emotions that can come up in grief, but not in every case. Grief stages are not linear either, following a certain order. They are known to overlap and be unique for each person. So, you can be free of having these stages and a certain order superimposed on your grief.
Myth 3) Anyone not experiencing the five stages is in denial and needs professional help. While help can be a benefit, it is harmful to insist that all grieving follows a set pattern or labeling people in this way. Everyone is unique in how grief is experienced and expressed. There is no right or wrong way, no ideal sequence or timing. And it’s actually a small percentage of the population that find groups helpful or seek them out, even though “conventional wisdom” may suggest this is needed.
What’s helpful about the five stage model? Keep in mind that grief wasn’t acknowledged clearly until the 1980s. At least this model named it, and shows that loss will include challenging emotions. It shows that it’s not unusual to struggle, to want to deny or bargain, to get pissed off, to get depressed, when dealing with a loss. Whether you are dying, or a loved one has passed, this model explains there can be difficult time ahead.
Another thing the five stages model speaks to is a need for some kind of guide for handling grief. That makes sense – loss is hard, and it can be overwhelming and disorienting. Maps and guidance can help. This is why so many love to hear how others have dealt with challenges, and hear their stories.
Experiencing a loss doesn’t have to mean that you will be stuck forever in a no man’s land of pain. Grief emotions come in waves. Amidst this pain, joy and happier emotions also occur. Maybe it is helpful to think of grieving as a back and forth between the feelings of loss, and the usual joys and funny stuff of life. At first the waves of grief can feel overwhelming, and dominate the landscape. Gradually that shifts.
It can be complicated in the United States where grief and loss and dying is so unwelcome and avoided. There used to be more natural ways to have grieving commence at the time of death. Families would spend time with a dead one’s body, dressing it, readying it for burial. There would be a deep facing of the reality of the loss, right away. Today the body and many details of death are most often handled by professionals, who are strangers to your kin. Family is distanced and shielded from the body, and the death process is less physically experienced, leaving less room for emotional expression and thus more of a disconnected or disembodied experience. This might be funerals have a sense of being surreal.
Today, a more current model and map for grief is Worden’s* four tasks of mourning. These tasks are:
- To accept the reality of the loss
- To process the pain of grief
- To adjust to a world without the deceased
- To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
- (Added by Alan Wolfelt 1997) To search for the meaning of the loss
Again, these tasks don’t follow one after the other. They can happen simultaneously. There can be happy times alternating with dead serious or sad times. You have the choice to face the tasks, or not. It’s thought that if avoided, things can happen to trigger the avoided emotion. This can be hard as a trigger might mean the emotion rises unexpectedly or broadsides you in public. So working with the loss in a more proactive way can help you in many ways: giving a regular release or expression to the emotion so it doesn’t sneak up and incapacitate, for example.
Eventually, grief can lead to more resilience, and more tenderness toward life and your new place in it, after a loss. But it happens in its own time, and in a unique way, for each person.
(I’ll go into more detail on the tasks of mourning in an upcoming article.)
Kubler-Ross Model, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model
Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth, On Death and Dying, 1969, and Death: the Final Stage of Growth, 1975 (ed.)
Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2691160/
Beware the 5 Stages of “Grief”, editorial, TLC group, internet source http://home.windstream.net/overbeck/grfbrf13.html
William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy
Alan Wolfelt, The Journey through Grief