Before the Five Stages were the FOUR Stages of Grief

As you may or may not be aware, we’ve been covering some grief theory stuff around here for the past couple months.  As a griever I realize it can be infuriating trying to imagine a bunch of stuffy academics sitting around generalizing and theorizing about the anguish of grief.  They come up with stages and phases and tasks and labels that you may find totally foreign to your own experience.  Someone tells you that you are in the “anger” stage and it makes you want to punch them in the face for thinking they know something about your grief.  We get it.  Theories have a place, and yet grief is as unique as the griever.  The theories aren’t going to work for everyone at ever time (I mean, these academics don’t even agree with each other!  We wouldn’t expect you to agree with all of them).  So why bother talking about them?

Some of us are rational grievers and it is helpful to know what those academics think about grief.  Sometimes just one little part of their theory resonates with us, or one phase they describe is something we are personally struggling with.  So this series is our little corner of the internet where, between crazy posts on photography, journaling, baking, and other coping, you can learn a little bit about grief theory and decide whether any of it is helpful to you.  It may not be, and that is okay.

Disclaimer: this series is NOT chronological!  We started out with some of the grief theory household-names, like Kubler-Ross and Worden, and now we are going back to fill in some gaps.  Because although Kubler-Ross gets all the glory for opening the death, dying, and grief dialogue, there were people before her talking about grief, even if it was on a much smaller scale.  And they deserve a mention too.

John Bowlby (1907-1990) was a British psychologist and psychiatrist who was a pioneer of attachment theory in children.  Bowlby had a strong interest in troubled youth and in determining what family circumstances contributed to healthy versus unhealthy development of children.  Working closely with student Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby speculated and tested theories that attachment was a survival mechanism in human evolution, and that children mourned separations from their primary caregivers.  His theory of how children form concrete attachments based on actual relationships, rather than fantasies, was a break from the thinking of psychoanalysis of the time.

This was a crucial shift away from Freudian ideas, as well as a break from the idea that attachments developed only through rewards.  Bowlby looked at evolutionary biology and other developing scientific study to explore his theory of attachment.  He set out to establish a data-driven theory and in 1969 began release of his famous trilogy, Attachment and Loss.   After observing the attachment and separation of children and parents, Bowlby asserted a new way of understanding these bonds and the implications of breaking these attachments based on a social system that develop simply by a parent and child being together.

Alright, I know I am losing some of you here in abstract, academia land.  I can practically hear people screaming “get to the point!” and “what does this have to do with grief?!?”.  We are going to keep it really simple here: Bowlby ultimately took all his observations and theories about attachment and separation and applied them to grief and bereavement.  He said there is a relational system in these attachment relationships.  These attachments form a system in which the individuals are constantly impacting each other, trying to maintain their relationship in different ways.  When a loss occurs Bowlby suggested that grief was a normal adaptive response.  He felt the response was based on the environment and psychological make-up of the griever, and that there were normal reactions one might expect.  The ‘affectional bond’ had been broken, which result in grief.  He later, with his colleague Colin Murray Parkes, broke down this natural adaptive grief response into four phases or stages of grief (really Bowlby started with three and Parkes added a fourth, but whose counting):

bowlby four stages of grief

Shock and numbness.

This is the phase where there is a sense the loss is not real and seems impossible to accept.  There is physical distress during this phase, which can result in somatic symptoms.  If we do not progress through this phase we will struggle to accept and understand our emotions and communicate them.  We will emotionally shut-down and not progress through the phases of grief.

Yearning and searching.

In this phase we are acutely aware of the void left in our life from the loss.  The future we imagined is no longer a possibility.  We search for the comfort we used to have from the person we have lost and we try to fill the void of their absence.  We may appear preoccupied with the person.  We continue identifying with the person who has died, looking for constant reminders of them and ways to be close to them.  If we cannot progress through this phase Bowlby and Parkes feel we will spend our life trying to fill the void of the loss and remain preoccupied with the person we have lost.

Despair and disorganization.

In this stage we have accepted that everything has changed and will not go back to the way it was or the way we imaged.  There is a hopelessness and despair that comes with this, as well as anger and questioning.   Life feels as though it will never improve or make sense again without the presence of the person who died.  We may withdraw from others.  Bowlby and Parkes suggest that if we do not progress through this phase we will continue to be consumed by anger, depression, and that our attitude toward life will remain negative and hopeless.

Re-organization and recovery.

In this phase your faith in life starts to be restored.  You establish new goals and patterns of day-to-day life.  Slowly you start to rebuild and you come to realize that your life can still be positive, even after the loss.  Your trust is slowly restored.  In this phase your grief does not go away nor is it fully resolved, but for Bowlby the loss recedes and shifts to a hidden section of the brain, where it continues to influence us but is not at the forefront of the mind.

Kubler-Ross was strongly influenced by Bowlby and Parkes in they 5 stages she developed in her work with dying patients, and many other grief theorists to follow have roots in the four stages outlined above.

I spend a lot of time thinking about these theories, phases, stages, tasks, whatever and I don’t think any of them are perfect.  I tend to pick and choose what works for me, descriptive and prescriptively, and leave the rest.  On thing I love about this mode? Stage two – the pain of yearning and searching.  If there is anything I relate to it is yearning – the overwhelming want to see someone you have lost again and the experience of trying to make sense of this tremendous void.  Worden says we will have to work through the pain; Rando says we will have to react to the separation.  But neither of these capture my experience as well as Parkes and Bowlby’s.  I remember well seeking ways to be close to someone, seeking objects and reminders, and not being able to imagine a time I would not feel that need.   Is the rest of this theory my favorite?  Eh, not really.  It was a great foundation, but there are a lot of other theories that built on this in ways I appreciate more.  But that is okay!  Because there is at least one thing in this that really resonates with me, and I certainly appreciate Bowlby and Parkes for their unique attachment perspective that paved the way for so many theories that followed.

One thing I know about grief theories is that they are never all right for all people.  For some this theory may ring completely true, for others you may be thinking “thank goodness Kubler-Ross and others came in to adapt and change this model”.  But as a griever these theories all normalize in some small ways our grief experience.

Missed our other posts in this series?  No worries — you can find them all right here.

Wondering where this info came from and how you can do more research on your own?

Bowlby, J. (1961). Processes of mourning. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 42, 317-339.
Love the Bowlby four stages of grief?  Hate the Bowlby four stages of grief?  Let us know!  Have a grief theory your annoyed we haven’t covered yet?  Don’t worry, there are more to come, so subscribe and leave us a comment to let us know what theory you want us to cover.

April 18, 2017

10 responses on "Before the Five Stages were the FOUR Stages of Grief"

  1. Thanks! Everything you’ve written makes sense to me as I’m experiencing it all.

  2. Even In your darkest moment remember to look for happy. You may have no idea what happy is but that’s what you need to aim for. Each day that gets a little brighter remember that happy is just around the corner. You will know what happy is when you get there and you will also know it doesn’t have a price tag. Thank you so much John Bowlby for taking the time to understand the world through the eyes of a child. You are one of their greatest gifts.

  3. Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

    What a great example. And you know what they say, never make any major decisions while you’re grieving! Tattoos included!

  4. This post reminds me of a patient of mine who within the first year of her marriage discovered her husband dead in the next room. He had committed suicide. When she came to me she was very angry. Eventually one day she said she wants a tattoo done and she wants to write her husbands name. I talked her into thinking more about it. Few weeks later she said she wants to get Born To Die tattooed. I suggested she think some more. Finally she had FAITH tattooed on her arm. I guess it kind of shows the different stages of grief she went through. Thanks for sharing this not so popular theory. I can relate to it better.

  5. When you compare bowlby’s four stage of grief with Worden’s four tasks of mourning their actually seems to be very little disparity between the two. Sure they description of each stage is worded slightly differently but there are no serious conflicts between the two.

  6. Profile photo of Litsa Williams

    Tracy, I am so sorry that it has been such a difficult road, but please know it is absolutely normal to be feeling stuck in multiple stages. In any grief theory (and in the reality if grief!) phases tend to overlap and you may move back and forth between phases. There is this horrible old myth that after a year grief somehow magically goes away or gets dramatically easier. The reality is that grief never totally goes away and for many the second year can be even harder than the first as the reality of the loss continues to sink in. What you describe are common feelings, but I know that is little consolation when everything feels totally hopeless and isolating. Have you gone to any support groups or seen an individual counselor? That can be a good place to start in being able to talk about and process some of those feelings of anger and total disbelief. If that isn’t something you are ready for, looking for some other outlets to express and process some of these emotions you are feeling can help you get a little “unstuck”. Journaling or another form of creative expression may help. We have some journal prompts of you click on with writing tab over on the sidebar.

  7. Thank you. I can identify and relate to this. I see my journey depicted very clearly.

  8. What if you are stuck in all 3 of them!? I am 11 months into this horrific journey and I am still in denial and numbness, and sometimes the other 2 “stages” rear their heads, but more often than not, I still can’t believe this all has happened to someone who was so healthy, active, and too young to leave. Every day I wake up, in deep sorrow, and I am in robot mode. Help, I feel like the living “dead”

    • stages and phases of grieving are nothing but bullshit. empirical studies have not found support for the existence of stages or phases, and if they do anything, then it’s definitely nothing good. you people assume that you ‘have to’ go through these stages, as if it would be the normal grieving process. There is no such thing as THE normal grieving process. Everyone grieves their own way, and everyones process is different.

      • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

        Emmi, I am not sure you read our thoughts or all our other posts on theory, which say there is no one theory that is “right” but there is value in knowing the history of theory, as it helps us understand why there are certain assumptions, pressures and misunderstandings about grief. Also, as you may have seen in comments, many people really connect with certain theories. That doesn’t make them universal, but does make them worth sharing for those who connect. Our site is dedicated to the idea that everyone grieves differently and there is no “right” or “normal” way to grieve, so I hope you will find something that resonates better with you in one of the other 400+ articles on the site.

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