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.

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 other theorists came along with their own theories”.  But as a griever these theories all normalize in some small way our vast and unique grief experiences.

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.

December 2, 2018

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

  1. I went to see a counsellor because I cannot break down. I am in my own worrying, professional state. I did cry when I was around 3. I admit here that I could read Dickens, at 3, fully understanding a paper and also knitted at 13 months. At 3 I was found to have an IQ of 215 on the Binet scale. My last English lesson was when I was 8, I passed to go to a grammar but my parents could not afford the fare to where I was sent, so secondary modern., I mention this as I am very academic and at 76 [my husband passed away on our 49th wedding anniversary in July 2016] This counsellor could not get through to me, but I just put it in boxes in my brain. I am biting holes in myself and know it. I am allergic to many foods, chemicals and painkillers for the RA OA etc I have. I talk about myself, like now but it is like a third party. Professional people learn to hide emotions. I know I do it but for so long 60 years and over. I hate myself for it. By the way I am qualified in law, accountancy, teaching, medicine [ND] and PhD Immunology at age of 60. Have MSc in psychology and counselling, and now studying to become a Methodist Local preacher. Yes I do ‘academcise’ everything. But having put this down how do I help myself. Had many nervous breakdowns and don’t want more. Counsellor could not help me. They tried many different sorts of counselling. My IQ today is 184.

  2. I REALLY need to see a psychiatrist! I’m educated and smart enough to realize I have abandonment issues, among others. My mother, whom I loved very much, left my father for another man when I was 7 and my younger brother was 4. My childhood ended right there, I was responsible for my brother and helping my grieving father. Many years of my childhood were spent with a set of grandparents that could barely tolerate my presence. My father went about his life trying to cope with his own grief and depression. After 4 failed marriages, he went to his grave still loving my mother. I lived for a short period of my teenage years with my mother, I found her to be in a terribly abusive marriage, drinking heavy and addicted to prescription drugs. She eventually took one pill too many and succumbed to an overdose. I married the first time at the pitiful age of 16 to get away from my mother. But didn’t leave the marriage until I had two little girls. Many years before this marriage took place I developed a paralyzing phobia that caused me to make life altering decisions. My fear of being alone after darkness. My second marriage took place because I was too afraid to go out into the world and find someone I loved. I married to have someone help with my two children and be there with me after dark – only reason for the marriage. I stayed in this marriage, not loving my husband, because I was afraid to face the world alone. I had one adulterous affair during this marriage that lasted for years, I’m not sure if I loved this man or just wanted his attention. This marriage ended when my middle daughter, I had one more in the second marriage, came to me and in her own sad way let me know something sexual had taken place between her and her stepfather. With no formal education, I got a GED and got myself into college and am now a retired registered nurse. Only after college and the death of my father did I end the second marriage. But I made sure my child was never left alone with her stepfather. To this day, I do not know what took place between them. I just could not bring myself to question either of them. But to his credit, my second husband was a good man and my daughter had a personality problem. The entire situation could have been her. It took years before I left my home for anything other than work. When I finally did, I met a man 10 years my junior and was deeply in love (for the first time) with him. We dated for two years then, with a big beautiful wedding, he became my third husband. He had nothing but the clothes on his back, on the other hand, I had inherited money from my father, the mortgage on my home was paid and I had a very good paying job. Together he and I built a corporation that makes millions. Our last project together was building a 6.5 million dollar home. Sounds like a
    “Fairytale come true”, wrong! Within months after moving into this magnificent home, our marriage took a turn for the worse. My husband was and is very controlling and manipulative. He managed to isolate me from two of my daughters and the few friends I had. He withheld all funds from me and I lived with a meager pension from a company I had worked for. After what appeared to be a failed attempt to kill me, for fear of my life, I left my lovely home and have been renting an old home. I now suffer from severe depression from the loss of two of my daughters, loss of my husband, loss of the security this marriage once offered, loss of my home, loss of any money I had and essentially loss of my once nice life. I fear I have developed another phobia, I don’t want to go outside my home. I’m still very angry, attorneys have take advantage of me, my ex-husband continues to play the role of “victim” and makes me out to be a villain. I loved him so very much and absolutely did not see this coming. When I think of things he’s done to me and the lies, the anger is always there. I’m definitely stuck in the process of grieving. I’m having a very difficult time. Is there help for me? I would like to add; I’ve never smoked, never drank, do not even know what an illegal drug looks like and I’ve never gained weight. I’m still a very attractive woman at 5’7”, 130lbs, dark highlighted long hair, big deep set green eyes, high cheek bones and beautiful skin. I look many years younger than my actual age. I’ve met a wonderful man that I’ve come to deeply love. He has a good education, great personality, very good looking (6’5” 230lb of solid muscle) coached at a university for over 20 years, he was a great athlete, continues to hold a national record that he accomplished at the age of 19 and is in the process of inheriting millions. I knew nothing of his inheritance when I met and fell in love with him. This was revealed to me once he was sure where our relationship was going. Sometimes I fear my issues of abandonment and this process of grieving over my losses is going to harm my relationship with him. The loss of so much seems to be a dark cloud hanging over me and I continue to revert back to the horrible pain of losing my mother, it’s a feeling I can’t explain. During the time my third marriage was failing, I lost my only brother. He passed from complications associated with rheumatoid arthritis. When I die, I’m going straight to heaven. For whatever wrongs I’ve done, either through not knowing or going into it with my eyes wide open, I’ve served my time in hell.

  3. Hi could u explain how bowlby has assessed the phases pank or wave of grief plesse

  4. food can cure all

  5. Found out my estranged mother had colon cancer and was entering hospice in Oct, she recently passed on 11/30. We did not have a good relationship over the years she gave me away when I was 3 after her abusive spouse would repeatedly beat me locking me in closets and extinguishing cigarettes on my arms and legs. So she chose to give me to my grandfather and basically walked away having other children with him and raising them. I visited or she visted very few times over the course of my life. She never held a job tht I knw of and didnt take care of herself and abused drugs. But of all that including not ever knowing my bio father I still always tired to show her I loved her. When my grandfather passed when I was 17 i lived with friends and finished school She didn’t make it to my grad, wedding but I did fly her out when my oldest was born and attempted to make amends as my “Papa” her dad wanted. But I was used and taken advantage of for monetary gain for her and my half siblings. So I cut that tie and went on with my life tried to help her a few years later and again was made to feel like i was the one that had let her down by not providing her every want. So she went to live with others and we lost contact until recently my ex wife informed me abt her health and she didnt want to speak with me but asked to see my oldest child now 15 which she had only seen twice and I declined not wanting to upset my kids and inform them “hey u have a grandmother and btw she doesn’t like or love me and is dying”. Am I wrong? I am very upset knowing tht the hope of her growing older and finally wanting to be apart of my life is gone the information on my bio father is gone. I have lost so many people (losing most of my friends starting at age 6, 13, 14,17) and each day its a struggle to find the reason to get up. I’m at work today my 1st day back and its so hard. Thank you for giving me a way to vent.

  6. Thanks. I really resonate with this one. Not sure if I’m in stage 2 or 3, but then, they overlap. That’s were I am, in the overlap, oh joy.

    Someone said the Kubler-Ross theory needs to replace bargaining with anxiety. Really, what’s the point of barganing when your loved one is already gone. Those stages are for terminal illness, and they don’t apply neatly to bereavement.

    Anyway, it’s good to know there are more theories. Will read the rest of the series.

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

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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.

      • 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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