Once upon a time (1969) a psychiatrist name Elisabeth Kubler Ross wrote the book ‘On Death and Dying’ which introduced the world to the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
The five stages of grief are at the basis of the 'Kubler-Ross Model', a theory based on Kubler-Ross’s experience and interviews with terminally ill patients. Originally this model was applied to those facing the reality of their own death, but before long, practitioners found the constructs of this neat and tidy model fit nicely with the analysis and treatment of grieving individuals.
Despite the fact that the stages are often refuted in academia, the 'Kubler-Ross Model' seems to be the grief model for the masses. It’s intuitive, easy to grasp, and easy to prescribe. And prescribed it is - by that old guy at the church coffee hour, Aunt Barb, and Jimmy who lives down the street.
In fact you may be here by way of a Google search prompted by your Aunt Barb who told you you’re stuck in the ‘Anger Stage’ (which only made you angrier). Thanks Aunt Barb!
I should probably tell you, if you’re waiting for me to explain the five stages, I’m not going to. You may now be asking your computer screen, "then what the heck is this post about?" Well, I figure you already know a bit about the model. And many of you have already guessed how it should be applied. But unfortunately, many people get it wrong and end up feeling confused and abnormal when their grief doesn't follow the pattern.
So, before you decide that grief has literally made you crazy, there are a few things I think you should know.
1. It is just a theory
There are many (many, many) grief theories; we just happen to hear about the five stages of grief so often that those unfamiliar with grief models (i.e. pretty much everyone) tend to believe it’s the gold standard.
The five stages of grief are not absolute truth. Like all theory, it’s based on a hypothesis (an educated guess). There is a bit of research to support the theory, but there is also a bit of research to contradict the theory. In reality, other grief models may fit your experience exponentially better than the 'Kubler-Ross Model'.
At the end of the day, you may take the stages or leave them. Just please (please, please) don’t expect your grief to fall into a neat and easy pattern, formula, or timeline, and don't think you’re abnormal or crazy if your grief doesn’t transition through the stages in an orderly fashion. It just doesn’t work that way.
2. It is not linear
Grief is not a one way tunnel, it’s more like a labyrinth. It’s very easy to hear the stages rattled off and think they will all happen in a particular order, when in reality some of them don't even need to happen at all.
The stages are just a framework to help you understand and identify how you feel. It completely normal to realize weeks after a death that you began at a different start point, passed over a step, or even moved backwards.
3. Stages may repeat
As we established, the five stages of grief are not linear. A part of this means stages may repeat and you won’t necessarily be waving goodbye to ‘anger’ or 'depression' in your rearview mirror.
Again, these are tools to help identify and understand how you're feeling so don't fret if you feel like you're taking two steps back. People commonly feel like they're making progress in grief one day, and regressing the next.
4. It is not all encompassing
Grief is really complex. We detailed the wide range of emotions grievers deal with in our recent post 'Grief Makes You Crazy'. You will feel 1 million things after a death, the five stages of grief talks about…well…five.
Of course stages like ‘depression’ and ‘anger’ are vague and could encompass a whole range of feelings and emotions, but even still the stages don’t cover everything.
Don’t feel confused when you find yourself in regretsville and can’t find it on your five stages of grief map. Hint: make a U-turn at ‘acceptance'; and double back towards ‘anger’, it’s somewhere in there.
Analogies like ‘grief journey’ and ‘grief path’ give us the feeling there’s some finite end point to grief. The five stages leave you with a similar feeling. You think, "Once I transition through these stages I will reach the end of my grief."
Though the theory may reach its end point, your experience with grief won't. You don’t get to close the book on grief and forget the story. The story will stay with you and sometimes you'll relive the sadness, anger, hurt, and longing contained within its pages. The good news is, your story should also eventually feel a little more colorful, hopeful, and maybe even optimistic as time goes on.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: